Getting Graphic Designers to Design What You Want!

leftrightbrainLet me tell you a story …

A marketing manager asks their graphic designer to design a new website and gives the designer a comprehensive list of requirements and design ideas – they’ve done their job very well and consulted with everyone in their business, then documented everything and had a great meeting with the designer taking them through everything.

Off goes the designer who does what designers do very well … cogitate. What the client asked for is brilliant but they have a better idea of how to communicate their ideas with a concept that was never mentioned by the client. The designer then sets about creating concepts to share with the client.

At the next meeting the designer proudly shows the new ideas and is met with – “That’s not what we asked for”.

How many marketing managers are feeling the frustration of not being heard by this story. How many designers are feeling the rejection of not being understood?

This is a story being played out over and over between the marketeer and the agency. Great ideas are being lost, ideas that could make the difference between successful communication or design that is ignored; this is a position neither the marketeer or the designer wants. Ultimately this means lost business, lost messages, lost demand generation … the list goes on.

I’m not saying this is the predominant outcome, what I’m trying to show is that even when there’s been a fantastic outcome – how many ideas were lost along the way that have value?

So what’s going on here?

Is it that the marketeer knows what they want but sometimes can’t express that in a way the designer understands? Is it that the designer doesn’t listen or can’t extract what they need from the marketeer?

A recent exchange between a sales manager and our own business illustrates this. We weren’t producing what the manager wanted, even after THREE briefing sessions! However much the manager explained and however much we listened, we couldn’t seem to produce what was wanted – at least until we changed our approach…

Expressing Abstracts

Design is subjective; my favourite colour is blue – what’s yours? I like bold coloured, striped curtains in the kitchen but the chances are you don’t.

The left-brain hemisphere is dominant in the areas of language and logic* – the part of the brain used in the language exchange between designer and marketeer.

The right-brain hemisphere is dominant in non-verbal, intuitive, holistic modes of thinking* – the part of the brain that is a driving force in what the marketeer wants and how the designer designs.

The problem then is the language of expressing abstract concepts – once you’ve been through the list of factual logical features and objective preferences like “It has to be blue” and get onto the “I need it to have a feel-good factor” is when things can go wrong. The “buyer” of design services at this point relies upon their own intuitive reasoning for critiquing the visual design, which while important, needs to be overcome and somehow the illogical and intuitive needs to be changed into logical concepts and language.

As a designer my job is to remove my preferences and get into your head while also being in the head of the audience and striking a balance between the two so an effective communication takes place.

Transcending Personal Preference

The most common method used by designers is the humble pen and paper. Sketching as the client talks, trying to understand, requires both parties to find new ways of expressing in language the intuitive thoughts and feelings they are having as they both see their words being transformed into the visual. This works well but has one important limitation – the client often cannot find the words and will say things like, “You know what I mean” or, “I was trying to get something happier than that – I’ll know when you draw it”.

As well as being a designer I also spent a lot of my career in software development which has similar problems – turning ideas into useful software. From this experience I have learned that one of the best ways to change an idea into a tangible concept (going from right to left brain) is through how I started this blog entry – through stories. A long practised method of capturing client requirements in “Agile Software Development”** is by capturing user stories. Requirements are captured by expressing an idea as a story as if being told by a particular “persona”. The act of doing this changes our way of thinking from personal to inter-personal; it helps us to think “as if” we were someone else.

Two types of story are captured: a single broad story of the experience of seeing the design piece and many smaller ones with specific goals with a justification.

  1. First you identify the personas involved in the design piece e.g. Marketing Manager, Managing Director, Sales Person, Typical Audience Member
  2. Now tell a story as each of those personas about the interaction with the design. For instance, “As the target customer I saw the advert in the magazine and it was the face in the advert that caught my attention first. The strapline was something that related to my job so read on. I saw that it was an ABC Ltd product but I don’t know much about them – it was the customer quote that reassured me they were reliable so I called the number at the bottom of the page”
  3. Now you express ideas as tiny stories that express a goal with a justification like this: As a/the [Persona], I want [some goal] so that [some reason]. For example: “As the Managing Director, I want the person reading the advert to call us so that we can get a chance to sell them something.” or  “As the Marketing Manager, I want the design to excite the end user and grab their attention so that they stop to read the advert.”In this practice you remove yourself from the emotion, make the requirement specific and provide the reason why and in doing so will filter out many of the “just because” requirements. Think how much more difficult it is to say, “As the Marketing Manager I want the eyes to be blue because I like blue eyes so that I feel personally engaged with advert and so I can be reminded of Mel Gibson” – compare that to “As a reader of the advert, I want to see piercing coloured eyes in the advert so that I feel more emotionally engaged and feel good about reading on.”
  4. Now go back and adjust the broad stories from the micro stories you’ve captured.

This practice frees up the agency/designer to make something that fits all of the requirements and allows the “buyer” to truly express what they want.

So next time you’re talking to your design agency, get your story telling hat on!


Jeremy Graham-Cumming, Managing Director, Ice Blue Sky

*Read more: Right-Brain Hemisphere – Left, Hemispheres, People, and Split – JRank Articles
**Read more: Agile Software Development –

About the Author

Jeremy Graham-Cumming

Managing Director, Ice Blue Sky Ltd

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