By Thomas Clifford published July 13, 2011

The ABCs of Working with a Graphic Designer (for the First Time)

If you’ve never worked with a graphic designer before, you might wonder where to start.

Let’s say you’re repurposing your existing articles into an e-book. And let’s also say you’re thinking of having a custom graphic design. Some obvious questions pop up:

  • Will a graphic designer guide you through the unfamiliar world of design?
  • At what point in the content development process should you talk to the designer?
  • How can you tell if you and your designer are a good match before you work together?

To answer these questions and more, I sat down with graphic designer Eduardo Barrios of Barrios Advertising.

Our conversation explored several areas that will increase your awareness about how to work with a graphic designer for the first time. Join me in this enlightening conversation.

Create a framework for us, Eduardo: What is the first thing writers and content marketers need to know about graphic designers?

Well, first of all, we’re both creative partners. There’s not really a separation—we just do different things. In other words, when you’re communicating with content, you have a huge palette from which to draw, but it’s the copywriter’s main objective to be as efficient as possible with the language to get the idea across. Well, it’s the same thing with a graphic designer.

A graphic designer would want to know from their copy partner:

  • What is the main objective that you’re trying to get across?
  • What is the main point of the article or the content piece, and how do you—the copywriter—envision the kinds of graphics you’d like to see?

So it’s a working relationship. It’s about starting out with concepts, and then it’s a matter of getting to a point where the communication is delivered efficiently and effectively.

When does the emotional “feel” or “flavor” of the content come into play?

First, look at the message. What kind of flavor does it have? Does it have a humorous touch to it? Is it more introspective and serious? There are those kinds of sub-levels of concept and execution that you can discuss with a designer. You could even get down into the nitty-gritty of color and typography because each color has its own mood. And the typography—there’s so many different fonts out there. A designer will help you limit your universe because there are some classic font faces and some font faces now that can be used on digital format that are easier to read. So there are some practicalities in this also.

When is the best time to talk to a graphic designer?

Well, if you have your content firmed up or you’ve been working on a committee, it’s not likely you’re going to change the concepts. There are certain mandates you’re working with, so it’s best to wait to bring in a designer until those decisions are settled and you have a clear direction. If you think that the designer may solve the internal problem by guessing what you want, that probably won’t work too well.

However, if you have a clear direction—your team is in agreement on what the copy or content should say and do—then it’s probably the right time to bring in a designer. Start by summarizing what your content is about and laying down your expectations. A large part of what the designer will want to know is who the audience is. That will inform the type of design that the designer presents to you, and there could be a couple of different options that the designer might explore depending on what tone you discuss.

But if you’re a sole proprietor or writer, you may want to bring them in for a brainstorming session prior to creating the content if you’re having trouble getting your fix on what you should be talking about.

What are two common myths many people have about graphic designers?

1) A big myth is that graphic designers don’t read; they just design pretty pictures, which is not the case. Graphic designers are very interested in content. It’s not just pretty pictures or fine art for its own sake. This is commercial art, and so it’s about selling ideas and making money.

2) The second myth is that graphic designers are not interested in business. In other words, graphic design is not about winning awards—it’s about helping you sell your product. So designers want to know about your product, your content, and what you’re selling. They’ll probably ask questions about what other content you have published, what your brand is, and what your readers are looking for. The answers will enable  graphic designers to produce effective, branded, and relevant designs for you.

What if someone doesn’t have a clue what the design should look like?

Trust your designer. Hang out with him and just say, “I don’t know anything about color.” The good graphic designers will stay with you and help educate you.

For example, there’s a great color resource—Pantone.com. The Pantone system is a color-matching system used worldwide.  You can go on this website  and find all kinds of interesting information about color and the science of color. I’ll often direct my clients to the Pantone color website  and invite them to ask questions. But I will generally teach them about the warmth of a color, the coolness of a color, and how that translates into communication for their readers, and how it connects with the concept that they’re trying to get across to readers. It’s the same for typography or even design principles, for that matter.

Sometimes, I’ll just get out a pad of paper and my trusty number two pencil and will just sketch and say, “See, here’s a composition that’s balanced, and here’s one that isn’t.”

And then there are things like white space. Generally, I think people are tempted to say and show more than is necessary. What happens is the message becomes muddy and difficult to comprehend; there’s so much to take in at one time. So we just educate in a gentle way about what can be done and what shouldn’t be done for a design to be efficient and clear.

How can someone start learning the basics of design on their own?

If you don’t know what the design should look like, start by observing the things you see around you that you like. You could find inspiration to show a designer; but, just like copywriters, designers won’t plagiarize.

And inspiration comes in all forms. You could find something on the Internet, you could read a book or see a book jacket cover, a printed piece, go to Barnes and Noble, or you could be at a baseball game, and the way a little kid swings the bat creates an image in your mind. Just write it down and be aware that inspiration is everywhere.

You can bring these ideas to your designer who will immediately understand what you’re sayingand showing. He’ll see patterns and understand the tone you’re trying to set. You also want to discuss designs you don’t like; sometimes it’s helpful to discuss this first.

Why would someone spend money on a custom-designed e-book cover, for instance, when there are so many inexpensive ways to create a cover?

It’s a great question. Your content isn’t generic, and it would be a disservice to your project to get something free online instead of really customizing your graphic design to match your content. You want it to be packaged in a unique and customized way.

At the end of the day, you’ll feel good about knowing that the graphic design is completely yours. You won’t be seeing the design used by some other content provider who downloaded a stock design from the Internet.

Let’s say a project is already finished. Is it too late to work with a graphic designer?

It’s never too late to call in a designer, but here’s my caution. Some people will wrap up their writing and have strong feelings about what they want for design, but they may not communicate that specifically or explicitly. So a designer may go off developing ideas that don’t track with your vision, which will create undue stress and misunderstanding. Designers are good, but they are not mind readers.

So if you’ve written something and you have a very clear vision of what you want, let the designer know that this is what you would like. If you don’t know, express that too. After all, too much design development time may yield design charges that neither you nor the designer expected. Be very clear about how you initiate the project with a designer.

Thank you, Eduardo, for sharing your time and insights about the world of graphic design. Your insights will definitely help people who have never worked with a graphic designer before.

Summary

  • Graphic designers are creative partners in your communications process.
  • If you don’t know much about design, your designer will help educate you about your choices.
  • Content is just as important as design.
  • Graphic designers understand business; they want to help you sell your product or service.
  • Customizing the graphic design to match your content ensures your brand will be unique and stand out.

Over to You
What other tips can you share with those who have never worked with a graphic designer?

What questions do you have about working with graphic designers for the first time? (Hopefully our readers can pitch in with their answers!)

Author: Thomas Clifford

Thomas Clifford is a B2B content marketing writer and certified copywriter. He helps companies generate and nurture high quality leads through eNewsletters, blog articles and free special download reports. Tom has 25 years under his belt as an award-winning B2B filmmaker. He's produced hundreds of marketing-branding films and brings his street-level interviewing experience to every project. Tom is featured in the book “Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business." He has also written dozens of articles as an “Expert Blogger” for FastCompany.com. You can follow Tom on Twitter at @ThomasClifford. His blog, "Humanizing Business Communications," is packed with new media business communication tips and writing strategies. His eBook "5 (Ridiculously Simple) Ways to Write Faster, Better, Easier" is free to new subscribers.

Other posts by Thomas Clifford

  • Mariana_hel

    Involve the designer in the business strategy so he/she can better understand the objective of the communication and product. Good context will allow the designer to do a more efective work.

    • Eduardo

      Absolutely, Mariana. The more context a designer has up front about the “big picture”, the better the final product.

  • http://dissertationtoday.com/research_proposal research proposal

    thanks a lot for the post!

  • http://twitter.com/magalogguy Mike Klassen

    Here’s one issue I hear from new clients. They don’t want to show me something they’ve had done in the past because they hate it or it failed. They don’t want me (or any other designer) to be influenced by it.

    But that’s the wrong attitude. You want your designer to be “influenced” by what you’ve done in the past that you hated so they get a better sense of your likes and dislikes. As mentioned in the article, we’re not mind readers.

    Too many clients try to remove themselves from the equation by saying, “Well, you’re the expert. Just do what you do.” Then, after you’ve shown them something they don’t like, they may say, “Yeah… I should have mentioned that earlier. We really don’t like….”

    Do your designer and yourself a favor… mention it earlier! It is a partnership. If you want it to be successful, be engaged in the process as much as possible so you’re more likely to see something you really like right off the top.

    • Eduardo

      Exactly Mike. Communications projects are nuanced. To manage expectations and to produce the very best work there really has to be collaboration between the client and the designer. I think the designer can create the environment for client participation by engaging them as a team partner, rather than an observer, in the process. 

  • http://www.webfadds.com Scott Frangos

    Hello Thomas and Colleagues… thanks for provoking a thoughtful conversation about design and collaboration with clients.  I suggest that you need to factor in one more participant and weight them heavily to achieve a successful design that meets business outcome goals — your site visitors and prospects.  I would rule out any designer that does not actively engage with visitors using a variety of available and affordable testing methods during design and after the first trial design is implemented at the site.  In the end it is a partnership with visitors that is the key win-win relationship.

    • http://twitter.com/ThomasClifford Thomas Clifford

      Hi Scott,

      Thanks for sharing and reminding us of this important point. You’re spot on re: integrating visitors and prospects within the design cycle!

      Tom 

    • Eduardo

      Thanks Scott. Yes, I agree it’s critical to know one’s audience before designing. The designer should ask the client for demographic profiles up front, in order to develop creative work that is targeted and that resonates with the intended audience. And YES, testing and tweaking based on visitor/viewer feedback of design can help refine and improve the final work.

  • http://www.webfadds.com Scott Frangos

    Hello Thomas and Colleagues… thanks for provoking a thoughtful conversation about design and collaboration with clients.  I suggest that you need to factor in one more participant and weight them heavily to achieve a successful design that meets business outcome goals — your site visitors and prospects.  I would rule out any designer that does not actively engage with visitors using a variety of available and affordable testing methods during design and after the first trial design is implemented at the site.  In the end it is a partnership with visitors that is the key win-win relationship.

  • Anna Ritchie

    Also- don’t be afraid, if you’re a writer, to share design ideas. Just because you’re not a “design expert” doesn’t mean you don’t have meaningful imput into how the piece should look!

    • Eduardo

      That’s right, writers and designers are partners in the creative process. Open and collaborative sharing makes for stronger concepts and better work. Thanks, Anna, e.

  • Pingback: Good Content Needs Good Design | Cheryl Pickett()

  • Gpcahill

    great article  passing it on to my many colleagues……thank you 

    • http://twitter.com/ThomasClifford Thomas Clifford

      You’re welcome! Glad you enjoy it. =)

  • http://twitter.com/NenadSenic Nenad Senić

    Hi, guys, a great interview and I second that’s been said here. I have built a strong and close relationship with graphic designers I’ve been working with and it has paid out in terms of great finished products, such as invitations, custom magazines etc. Trust, respect and hunger for getting better and better has to be mutual in order to succeed and to achieve goals. And be open to learn from each other.

    • Eduardo

      Hi Nenad. Sounds like collaboration heaven! Your story is a real-life example of respectful partnership between copywriters and graphic designers. Thanks for sharing this.

    • http://twitter.com/ThomasClifford Thomas Clifford

      Hi Nenad,

      “Trust, respect and hunger.” That sums it up nicely! 

  • http://blog.openviewpartners.com/blog/the-open-marketer Amanda Maksymiw

    Great interview.  Thanks for sharing Thomas.  Unfortunately from time to time, I have seen graphic design come as an afterthought of a content project.  I like how you stress that design is equal in importance to content.

    Best,
    Amanda

    • http://twitter.com/ThomasClifford Thomas Clifford

      Hi Amanda,

      Thank you!

  • http://www.globalcopywriting.com/ globalcopywrite

    Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for an informative interview. I’ve been writing about asset-based marketing – the concept that you can turn your marketing expense into a business asset when you invest equally in content and design.

    I do think it’s important to have a clear vision of your content before you call in the designer. It can get very expensive to have a design changed repeatedly. Having said that, I always bring a designer in for a kick-off meeting. They often have definite ideas about how to shape a project that will influence the kind and amount of content you need to write.

    Cheers,
    Sarah

    • http://twitter.com/ThomasClifford Thomas Clifford

      Hi Sarah,

      I can definitely see your point re: bringing a designer in for a kick-off meeting. Content and design clearly go hand-in-hand; shaping the two ingredients together can be highly beneficial for certain projects. 

  • http://www.globalcopywriting.com/ globalcopywrite

    Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for an informative interview. I’ve been writing about asset-based marketing – the concept that you can turn your marketing expense into a business asset when you invest equally in content and design.

    I do think it’s important to have a clear vision of your content before you call in the designer. It can get very expensive to have a design changed repeatedly. Having said that, I always bring a designer in for a kick-off meeting. They often have definite ideas about how to shape a project that will influence the kind and amount of content you need to write.

    Cheers,
    Sarah

  • Claire Doyle Ragin

    A lot of people confuse graphic designers with artists and illustrators. Although a lot of designers wear these hats as well, a graphic designer is trained primarily in how to communicate content and strategy, not how to draw pretty pictures.

    A good designer will not only be interested in the content, but will design for optimum readability. There’s been a lot of research on how to optimize readability through typestyle, type size, color/type/coating of paper, contrast ratio, leading and justification. A designer should be familiar with that information…and know when it’s OK to break the rules by, say, placing copy on top of a photo or in light gray on a white page. It doesn’t need to be black helvetica on uncoated white paper to be readable, but you don’t want your message to get lost in the design, either.

    From an efficiency standpoint, it’s best to have the designer at the table as early as possible, *but* not put actually copy into the document until it is in its final draft, other than as a rough for estimating space. The biggest mistake I find clients making is to send in copy that is not really final. Ideally, the only copy edits that should be made once the copy is in the designer’s hands are for space considerations, e.g. when a page of copy is just a couple of lines to long, or a headline wraps to a second line and you want it to fit on one line without reducing type size or tightening the tracking between the letters. Making lots of edits, much less huge content changes, once the copy is in the document is a poor use of the designer’s time and the client’s budget.

    • http://twitter.com/ThomasClifford Thomas Clifford

      Hi Claire, 

      Thanks for sharing these ideas and furthering the conversation! :)

    • http://twitter.com/ThomasClifford Thomas Clifford

      Hi Claire, 

      Thanks for sharing these ideas and furthering the conversation! :)

    • Eduardo

      Excellent comments Claire. Graphic design is a constant judgement/decision-making process between typography, forms, color, value, contrast, etc. The devil (or angel) is in the details. And yes, working with final draft will eliminate graphic revisions — saving time, money and frustration. 
      Measure twice, cut once! e.

    • Eduardo

      Excellent comments Claire. Graphic design is a constant judgement/decision-making process between typography, forms, color, value, contrast, etc. The devil (or angel) is in the details. And yes, working with final draft will eliminate graphic revisions — saving time, money and frustration. 
      Measure twice, cut once! e.

  • Christine B. Whittemore

    Tom and Eduardo, thanks for sharing your recommendations. This is a wonderful reference you have created. Best, CB

    • http://twitter.com/ThomasClifford Thomas Clifford

      HI CB,

      Glad you found this helpful! Thanks for letting us know. :)

  • Dawn Yun

    Hi Thomas,

    Insightful! As a writer, one of the best parts of the creative process is working with an epic designer,
    such as you. This is where ideas are realized and come alive! I’m a Bahaus kind of girl in words and art. Less is more. White space helps to tell the story. Thank you!

    • http://twitter.com/ThomasClifford Thomas Clifford

      Hi Dawn,

      You’re welcome; glad you enjoyed the article. 

      And, yes, space definitely helps tell the story. Just like the space in narrative storytelling and music. :) 

      Tom

  • Nikki

    Both my sons are graphic designers and we are planning on launching a magazine, the problem is, I need to know where to start. No problem with the graphics and design as they are truly pros, but I need directions on how to start.

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