I mean it. Really.
We all get up on one side of the bed or another. We pull on jeans or our chinos or skirts, one leg at a time and set out to live our daily lives; designing our life every step of the way. We design our abodes, our wardrobes, our children’s educations, our dinner parties, our once-in-a-lifetime trips and many more things that make up our personal portfolios.
Is it any wonder, then—that during office hours, whether we’re called designers or clients—we approach a brand design assignment wanting to contribute to the creative process in a similarly meaningful way? Of course not.
We, as designers, cannot possibly deliver successful design solutions without open collaboration between our clients and their audiences as partners in our efforts. It’s necessary to realize that we are not the exclusive arbiters of good taste, even within the realm of graphic design. Every brand proposition, cultural situation, client and design team is unique. The key is to respect each contributor for their experience and expertise and to establish a process that clearly defines when and how everyone’s input is considered. It seems so simple in theory: everyone plays his or her part in the process based on what they’re good at. I guess if it were truly so simple, there would be many more successful brands, and a whole lot more good design.
The truth is that no designer can know the business as well as the client—the client lives it every day. Nor will the designer typically know the brand like its audiences do. As designers we have to learn from those we wish to attract.
Conversely, a client won’t benefit from telling a designer how to design. In addition to the design expertise we deliver, an outside design team brings fresh perspective, perhaps even a healthy dose of naiveté. “Fresh” is what audiences are looking for. Fresh is part of what keeps businesses vital. Fresh helps to stir up interest in the marketplace.
So what is the key to successful collaboration? I believe it starts by involving everyone in the beginning and by employing creativity from the start. It begins with a deep dive into the business, the competition and the hearts and minds of your audiences. It requires a clear and concise verbal brief that everyone buys into. This is the foundation, but not enough.
For instance, I’ve learned from experience that “contemporary” means many different things to many different clients. You can exchange the word contemporary with nearly any other word and the issue remains that our language remains open to vast interpretation. Even more, it seems that too often we’re given briefs that are virtually the same for various clients, across myriad categories at any one time.
You may be thinking – “no, not possible.” But it is.
It makes sense if you think about it. The typical brief or brand strategy comes from mining opportunities to make connections with people. The brief aims to tap into a relevant cultural chord—emotionally and rationally. So I’ve found that the ingoing strategic direction we receive from client A and client B, at any given point in time, may be frighteningly similar.
That is often where and how our work begins. With the challenge to mold the brief into something that is truly different. Something that cannot be copied. Something that connects right and left brain thinkers. Something that aims to minimize subjective interpretation and begins to foreshadow not only the conceptual territory to own, but a truly unique executional opportunity, too.
To do this, we dig into cultural trends, our collective memory banks, past studies and relevant archives to gather imagery. Visuals that we believe are relevant to the brand and compelling to the people a brand seeks to connect with. This is where the designing starts—as we begin to turn words into pictures—as we create a holistic, visual expression of our brief. We create a collage, along with our clients, to establish an aesthetic filter through which design decisions will be made.
It’s always amazing to me how an approach so simple gets everyone on the same page at the earliest and very critical stages of a design project. Everyone participates. Conversations ensue about why certain executional elements are appropriate and why others don’t make the final cut. If you get this first step right, it lays the foundation from which designers can begin their work. Everyone contributes conceptually. It mitigates “executional” contributions by people other than designers during the process. Importantly, it minimizes creative surprises at the end of the process, because everyone involved has had a shared vision from the beginning.
It works for any design effort—professional or personal, identity, environmental/architectural or packaging. It works for a design evolution, a brand revitalization or an entirely new business or product concept.
This practice is different than the “mood board” compiled by so many marketers. Contributing imagery goes far beyond what’s found in popular magazines. It is the collective expression of successful businesses, the people who steer them and the visions of professionals. They are equal parts conceptual, strategic and executional. In the end they are edited, choreographed and refined by designers. The very same people who understand how each image is intended to influence the final work product.
I’ve included a few of collages here. At the end of a project, many of them hang on our studio walls. These pieces of art are not only beautiful, but meaningful. They are the art of our business. The art of good brand design.