Five ways to keep sane when briefing creatives

This blog will help you end up with the creative result you want … without anyone (you or the designer) having a nervous breakdown.

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If you’ve ever briefed a creative person to create your marketing materials, you might find yourself wondering if one of you has suddenly started speaking Elvish. Miscommunication rules!

I’m not going to provide you with a checklist of things to cover when you meet with your designer (there are plenty of those available elsewhere on the ‘Net – just ask Lord Google). What I have provided here are some tips borne of 20+ years of hard experience, that will help you end up with the result you want … without anyone (you or the designer) having a nervous breakdown.

Know what you don’t like

This sounds completely counter-intuitive, but sometimes designers can get a better idea of what you want if you categorically state what you don’t like. If you loathe the colour green, and a circle is your least favourite shape, please tell your designer. Then you won’t be irritated when the first draft of your new company brochure appears in your inbox, with lime bubbles erupting up the margins.

One of my favourite (not) briefs from a client is the airy wave of the hand, and being told to “just make it pretty’.

Instant stress.

Let’s be clear here: my idea of “pretty” is probably very different to yours, so a vague description such as this is going to end up with everyone feeling a bit misunderstood and weepy. Saying firmly: “I don’t like flowy fonts” or “no trendy icons” or whatever else annoys you immediately rules out a whole range of possibilities from the start.

Do your research and see what the competition is up to

This is not carte blanche to blatantly copy the logo or style of your competitor, or to go so far off the beaten track in the quest for originality that your corporate identity looks bizarrely out of place in your marketplace.

However, taking a look at the competition can be illuminating, as you can get a feel for what is awesome, average … or just peculiar.

Certain industries lend themselves to certain colours. For example, if you’re in the pool-cleaning business, odds are that most of your competition will feature a blue logo, and I can almost guarantee a few dolphins cavorting across company websites for good measure. So you can either go with the blue flow (but maybe ask the designer to add a secondary colour to change it up a bit) … or you could go a completely different colour (purple? pink?) to stand out from the crowd.

Be careful with being too radical though – I routinely drive past a sign for a dentist’s rooms which features a logo with a huge red tooth, complete with root. Picture blood and pain while you lie strapped in the chair, screaming to be released… you get the idea. Dental work and the colour red just should not go together. EVER.

Be clear on the budget

This one is crucial. If you don’t tell the designer how much money you are prepared to spend right at the beginning, you have no right to react like a scalded cat when the quote comes in.

You need to be realistic. If you don’t routinely work with designers, chances are that you will have absolutely no idea of how much it costs to put up a new website, design a logo or create a catalogue. Telling a designer that you have R200 to spend on a shiny new corporate identity, website and brochure – and you insist on getting it all at that price – is likely to be met with hysterical laughter.

Designers, however, should not dictate your budget – it’s your money, and you know how much you can afford. However, if you’re clear upfront about how much you are prepared to spend at this particular moment, the designer will be able to explain exactly what you will get for your money – no more and no less. That way, no-one feels cheated at the end of the process.

Value professionalism

If I had a buck for every time I’ve had a client say that they’ll “just get the talented nineteen-year-old son of their neighbour’s cousin to design the new logo for the bargain price of a case of Heineken”, I could probably retire.

If you’re happy to settle for something like this and think you’ve got a great deal, then you’re not really in the market for professional corporate image. Good thing too, because you’re not going to get one.

An expert, specialist designer has been properly trained and has genuine talent– and more importantly, real market experience. In this business, you get what you pay for. I’ve worked for a number of clients over the years who initially went for a full colour, overly-detailed logo with a font that can’t be read from further away than 30cm, but looks “cool” at first glance. Of course it does: it was put together by a teenager who has just discovered the grunge effect in CorelDraw and is now using it on everything they can lay their mouse on.

However, what clients discover as they try to actually use this logo in the real world, is that is that it’s pretty much unworkable on anything but a business card (and it’s costing them a fortune to print because it’s full colour). A single colour version looks like an amorphous blob after all the jazzy colours have been removed. You can’t embroider it on a shirt because it’s too complex and the stitch count is higher than bacteria in a primary school bathroom. It looks fuzzy when enlarged because no vector version was provided; and prints differently on every job because no standard RGB, Hex or CMYK colours or Pantones were specified.  

And if you don’t know what any of those acronyms or terms mean, you definitely need a professional to do your design work. Otherwise, that golden logo that you see on your screen will almost certainly turn out as mustard-yellow on the 40 metre billboard that straddles the N3. Which will you then have to look at on your way home, every single day for the three-month contract period, while you grit your teeth and try to pretend that actually, that colour’s not so bad.

Go cheap at your peril, as I can guarantee it will cost you more in the long run. A professional designer will look at your requirements, ask plenty of questions, do some market research, and provide you with several options that will work across a range of media with maximum effect. On top of that, you will receive professional instructions (otherwise known as a CI – corporate identity – document) on the correct use and implementation of your completed project which means you will get exactly what you signed off on … every time.

Understand the creative process

At the risk of sounding a bit artsy here: putting together a design that is new, exciting and fits the brief is not a formula. You can’t just plug in the variables and expect creative genius to explode at the touch of a button.

Sometimes, things happen quickly – the designer is immediately inspired, rushes back to the office after that first meeting and puts together a range of options that just ring all your bells.

More often, though, some percolating is required, and even though you think the designer is doing nothing and it’s taking way longer than you thought, they are putting considerable thought and effort into the process. I often spend many hours on a project, working out different angles, fonts, colours and styles, before tossing the whole thing and starting all over again.

Is this time wasted? Not at all. As Thomas Edison famously said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

By the time the client sees the finished proposal, your designer will have been through a multitude of options and discarded all those that don’t work over a multitude of applications. What you see before you are the results of considerable effort, and yes, it took longer than 20 minutes with Photoshop and a few gee-wow filters to get it right.

Happy briefing!

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