Posted by Colleen McCarty on March 22nd, 2012 in Marketing/Branding
Graphic design is a field that very few of us understand, and yet, we need it if we want to look professional and well-branded. From logos to book covers to websites, great design is essential to gaining the trust and loyalty of your fans.
Like any profession, graphic design has its rock stars and its scheisters, and to the untrained eye it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference. There are a lot of fakers out there, and there are a lot of ways to fake things. But – there are some sure fire things you can do to make sure you don’t end up with a bad designer – and thus a bad design.
It is often said that you know good design “when you see it.” The next time you hear someone say this, just go ahead and punch them. If that were true then there we would all only like good design and there would be no bad design, right? Right. Much of design is based on personal taste and preferences. So, focus most on your potential designer’s compositions in their portfolio, and see if they meet your personal taste.
Some Questions to Consider:
- Is everything readable?
- Does some of it appeal to your taste?
- Does the scale seem appropriate (i.e. the size of some elements in relation to others)?
- Do the designs look familiar, or original?
So much of good design is subjective,, so use your common sense when looking for designers. Look at the functionality of the designs – especially in websites. Some design elements on a website can look really cool, but they effect the way the website works or makes it load slowly. These are all things to consider, but first consider…
The most important thing to consider when you are looking for a designer is which medium you need to be designed. Most designers specialize in one type of design, although they will tell you that they can do anything. Some are great at book covers, and horrible at logos. Some are terrific at designing concert posters, but can’t design a business card. Some love designing for print while other specifically design for the web.
Yes, it’s true that if you are a truly great designer, you can make anything work in any space, but you want someone who has done what you need in the past successfully. Look through the person’s portfolio – if you don’t see a book cover, then they either didn’t want to show it or they have never done one. When hiring a designer, specify the kind of design you are looking for, and say that you want to see examples.
Try to keep your head and not be wowed by types of design that are good, yet far from what you need. If you ask for certain things prior to the meeting (examples of certain kinds of work, certain styles or mediums) and the designer does not bring them, take this to mean they are either disorganized, or they don’t have the kind of work you are looking for.
This is serious business. Not only could you get in trouble for copyright infringement, you are paying someone for original artwork and they often don’t give you anything original at all. If something about your design looks familiar, whether it be the photo used or the design itself, you need to be sure to ask your designer if the imagery is original. Be especially wary of sites like 99designs.com, where designers frequently steal images and try to pass them off as their own creations.
One way you can find out before you hire is to look through their online portfolios, and then search Google for pictures containing some of the describing words of the image. For example, if your design candidate has a design in their portfolio that includes a drawing of a cartoon mouse, go to Google image search and put in “cartoon mouse” – search the first five pages at least for mice that are similar to the one in your designer’s portfolio. If you find one – and it comes from somewhere like Disney.com, or Nickelodeon.com, then you have a problem. Look through at least the first five pages on your search.
However there is a difference between using an image for inspiration, and copying it directly. If you want a certain feel and look, you need to provide your designer with pictures, sites and examples of what you want. Your design should come back “inspired by” your materials.
Illustration vs. Tracing vs. Stealing
Depending on what you want in your design, you need to be explicit in how you explain the job. There are several different methods to graphic design – some designers like to draw out their designs on paper before transferring it to their preferred design program. Others like to free hand their designs into their design programs (they use the mouse or a track pad to draw the lines into the program, think of a much more advanced Microsoft Paint). Others like to trace existing images to get a framework, and then expand upon it.
There are as many different kinds of methods of design as there are designers. But, if you want a hand-drawn look to your design, or a more authentic feel – this lends itself better to a designer that does a combination of hand drawing and graphic design. You don’t want to get halfway through your project and learn that your designer doesn’t know how to hand draw something – this is something you need to clarify up front. As above, if you specifically want things that are hand drawn, you need to ask to see examples of that type of work when you are hiring.
On the contrary, if you want something with very smooth and modern lines (this is how most logos look, for example) you need to express that as well. This lends itself to much more computer-based work, and you need a designer who is comfortable building artwork from scratch within a design program like Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop.
Some designers don’t make any of their artwork from scratch – they use a combination of stock images and images they’ve found on the internet. These images may or may not be copy written, and you will be the one to pay the price if you find out later that your design is based on a copy written image. If you want a design to have a certain image in it, then you will need to buy the image from the rights holder and get their permission to use it before moving forward. However, using an image that already exists is against the point of using a graphic designer, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it.
Common Mistakes People Make When Dealing With Designers
When most people are ready to hire a graphic designer, they just assume that the designer will be able to read their minds and tell them exactly what they want, then magically translate it into paper. The truth is, no designer can do this. The best designers are good at extracting what their client wants when even they don’t know. However, you don’t have to go into the process uninformed.
I realize that design and visual creativity are not skills that many of us possess – however you have to give your designer something to go on. Walking into a meeting with your designer and just saying “Well, this is why I hired you, you can figure it out, I’m not good at this stuff…” This will not get you a good design. This will get you whatever the designer is into and feeling like that day. There is a chance that you will like it, but there’s also a much higher chance that you will feel disconnected and “not in love” with whatever they come up with. You won’t be able to articulate why you don’t like it, and this will lead the designer to get frustrated.
Design is a naturally collaborative process – many people have put walls up around visual and creative tasks because in some art class somewhere they were told that they were bad at art. Don’t let these feelings of inadequacy lead you to hand over all your creative control. You have the right to make changes, and suggest things, just make sure that the things you suggest can be backed up by visual examples.
Before you even look for a designer, you should be searching for inspiration from other people, what have they done, what do you like, what elements would you like to borrow for your own design. Don’t worry that anything you pick is bad or wrong, just pick things. Once your designer goes through the hiring process I’ve outlined above, they should be skilled enough to see a common thread in the inspirations you’ve chosen.
Do I need a Designer or a Branding Expert?
The important thing to remember is that designers are not cure alls for your entire brand identity. If you are looking for a brand change, you need more than just a designer. You need a branding expert. A branding expert can help you identify who you are looking to reach, how you want to reach them, and help you identify the imagery that will speak to that market.
A branding expert will often have connections with designers and direct them in the way that you want. This is a vital step in the equation, and if you feel lost and aren’t sure what you want from your designer, then you need to reconsider where you are in the process.
Here are some questions to ask:
- Am I happy with my current brand?
- Have I put satisfactory effort into defining my brand and my target market?
- Do I like my current look?
- Have I had bad experiences with designers in the past? Was this due to bad brand identity, or just due to bad communication and bad design?
- Am I getting the right customers through the door?
If, after asking yourself these questions, you feel like the problem is really your brand, not that you just need something designed, then you need to seek out professional help from a branding expert. Some designers are also branding experts, so ask to see which brands they’ve developed and look for brand consistency across many different mediums.