This is another in a series of articles written from the perspective of someone who was a major graphic design client for more than 25 years at major companies before starting their own graphic design company.
My time at these major companies was spent in marketing where there were multimillion-dollar budgets for advertising, point-of-sale, packaging, and various graphic design needs.
The vast majority of my graphic design suppliers assume the client is smart and experienced enough to provide coherent design requests. In addition, when my team and I provided feedback to the graphic design supplier, the supplier assumed we were experienced experts.
For the most part, what I’ve just described is an illusion and myth. Even the most experienced client managers have zero direct or indirect graphic design training. They spend 99% of their time on subjects having little or nothing to do with graphic design. They have little idea about what separates successful and unsuccessful graphic design solutions. While they are very well intended, they tend to shoot from the hip and express more personal opinions than accurately representing and understanding potential consumer reactions. While this is a bit harsh, is only balanced out when their client managers involved in the process with years of experience both in evaluating graphic design and learning from graphic design quantitative research.
As a graphic designer, you spend nearly 100% of your time on graphic design for a wide array of clients and types of business. Most of you have done this for years, if not decades. Your level of graphic design expertise is dramatically greater than your client.
Almost always the client has a graphic design project where the need is to directly or indirectly be better than the competition. Even when this is not directly or indirectly stated in the graphic design project request, you can be sure it is one of the most significant motivations and, as a result, will be an important lens they look through when they evaluate your proposed solutions.
With that as background, here are the potential actions you can take to leverage your greater expertise and become the client’s best expert supplier.
- Conduct an in-depth evaluation of your client’s competition for a particular project. Develop your assessment of each competitor’s graphic design strengths and weaknesses.
- From your evaluation, identifying graphic design exploratory directions you believe are capable of distinguishing the client’s brand from the competition for the particular design project.
- When presenting your solutions, present them in a competitive context, which is the real world for the customer/consumer. Highlight how your proposed solutions are superior to specific competitors on specific dimensions, like quality or refreshment.
Evaluating the Competition.
The first recommended step is to evaluate the client’s competition for a particular project. You want both a micro and macro evaluation.
The micro evaluation looks at very specific design elements on something like a package. Take a look at the font and determine if it is suggestive of fun, quality, importance, etc. Closely examine the colors to determine what they are suggestive of. Consider the specific design elements, like shapes and iconic images, to determine what message they deliver to the consumer/customer. Continue this very close examination for additional elements like the package shape and functionality.
Create a detailed profile for each of the appropriate competitors. Then step back and draw your conclusions about the totality of the competitor’s design. What are they trying to say about the product to get the consumer to buy it? Having determined that, how well, in your expert opinion, do they deliver against that objective?
Conduct this micro evaluation for all of the client’s competitors plus the client’s product. For all the brands, consider making a list of their individual strengths and weaknesses. Who seems to be doing the best job on what dimensions? Where do you think the client has advantages and disadvantages and on what dimensions?
Now that you’ve completed your micro evaluation, it is time for your macro evaluation. This evaluation looks at the client and the client’s competitors in the real world. For example, if these are products that are sold at retail outlet like a grocery store, you need to go into grocery stores for the evaluation. If it is a B2B product, you need to get competitive marketing materials and brochures for the evaluation.
Especially for retail products, this represents the real world battleground for business. While the micro evaluation revealed important details, the macro evaluation reveals an environment that can even be deadly to design or extremely supportive.
The conclusions you reached in your micro evaluation may change radically in the macro evaluation. For example, a competitor’s design elements that were very strong in the micro evaluation may be entirely lost in the macro environment. Seeing products side-by-side or in a vertical array can fundamentally alter your evaluations. The macro evaluation underscores the importance of having all the elements working together attempting to make the same communication points to the customer/consumer. Design elements that deliver conflicting messages in the micro evaluation end up looking like chaos in the macro evaluation. Increasingly the designer recognizes the importance of simplicity – very few design elements making a very strong and clear statement.
When you complete your macro and micro evaluations, schedule an opportunity to share your objective insights with the client. In coming to your final evaluations, you’ll want to add their insights. At that point, you begin the project with a much deeper understanding and agreement than you’ve ever had with the client. Now it’s time to take it to the next step.
Graphic Design Exploratory.
Beyond your macro and micro evaluations, by now you have some specific exploratory directions to help the client achieve their objectives. You certainly will want to respect the directions they have asked you to explore. You will want to add a few of the most promising directions you identify if they are not already on the client list.
From your earlier evaluations, you learned how difficult it is to have quality communication of multiple and sometimes conflicting objectives. For example, trying to communicate exceptional refreshment and quality at the same time can be very difficult to do. Communicating refreshment often requires lightness and fun (for example, a splash). Communicating quality often requires darker colors and a serious look. You learn from the macro environment that at best you get the chance to communicate one of these and that communicating both in one small label or package will produce chaotic, conflicting images and communication.
I mention this because usually a client will want it all in one design request. The “all” can look like “we want a high quality, refreshing and classic look.” Unless you are working with a very large format graphic design, this is a recipe for disaster. Disaster is defined as none of those objectives gets communicated well and the result is confusion that turns the customer/consumer off.
As the expert who has conducted the earlier evaluations, consider doing single dimensional exploratories and doing them extremely well. You can provide the expert learning you gained during the earlier evaluations to support and justify this work. The credibility that you established up front will help you with this approach, if indeed you do need the help.
The Presentation Expert
Even if the client is reluctant when the designs are presented, you can suggest evaluating all of the promising designs in the macro environment. In this environment, you will expect your approach to be the winner in most situations.
In making these presentations, support your designs from the macro perspective and referencing the micro support elements. A design creates a holistic picture. The consumer/customer sees the whole and the expert graphic designer looks at their design solutions through that lens.
To be clear, you do not want to take over the actual decision-making from the client. If you do, this will become a battle of egos and you ultimately lose.
You want to communicate from the perspective of an objective expert. This is what you see and why you see what you do.
Based on my experience, it is a very rare and highly valued graphic designer that has an in-depth understanding of client and competitive designs as a result of their micro and macro evaluations. It is very rare for a graphic designer to base their exploratories on of their expert evaluations and take the initiative to go beyond the limited view the client might have had. It is then the superstar graphic designer whose solution went in an unexpected direction (at least from the client perspective) that proves to be the hands-down market place winner.
You are now the client’s best expert partner. As such, your value to the client has increased dramatically with a very, very modest cost on your part to achieve that increase.
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