Psst, lean your shoulder in. I’m going to tell you a big branding secret that graphic designers and branding firms (like ours) keep safely tucked away in their minds, away from clients, away from you. Are ready? Here it is: There’s no such thing as branding. We made it up. We talk about it, promote it, teach you all about it, and do the powerfully inspiring work of defining the core character of your company that is branding. But yeah, branding doesn’t exist.
How can that be? Well, I’ll tell you.
When graphic design was in its infant years, it was all hand-painted, hand-drawn, and personal. It was the craft of artists, and as with nearly any artists trying to carve out a living, it was by no stretch of the imagination a way to earn a good living. People got by, did okay, but they were never considered professionals in the way that a doctor or lawyer might be, and they put in long hours to barely eek out enough to eat and pay the rent (and sometimes they couldn’t). There were a handful of good designers back then, and many average ones (a lot like now).
So how do you make a struggling existence into a comfortable, highly profitable one? You create branding. You might think that just saying, “We specialize in branding,” wouldn’t be enough to allow a graphic design firm to succeed at branding. The truth is, merely saying it is enough, and here’s why: relatively few businesspeople (and few graphic designers) actually know what branding is.
How can that be? Think about this for a second: If I ask you, ‘What is scorting?‘ How would you answer? You can’t provide an intelligent answer because you don’t know what it is. But I made it up, so I can describe it however I like. If I describe the service well enough, really sell you on it, your business will have to do it because you will know that all of your competitors are doing it too. It’s just like branding, except that branding has been in business vernacular long enough that it now has taken on meaning.
Where did branding start? On cows, literally. Cattle ranchers branded their cattle with a mark (well, they burned a scar with a hot iron) to show which cows were theirs and protect ’em from rustlers. Then, along came business savvy (hungry) graphic designers who adopted the practice for businesses (except we used ink and now computers).
Branding has created a separate category for design firms, and those of us who took up the challenge to do it well made a better living. We helped businesses connect better and prosper. But if we never promoted branding as a service, people would not ask for it. What they ask for is design. They know design is art, and art is valuable. But branding? What is that?
If I say the word ‘branding’ now, savvy business people know that it is the process of developing their brand. But most people—business people and designers alike—still do not know what branding means. So we teach, inspire, and connect the thoughts.
To many people, branding is a logo. For others, it’s advertising. Some people know branding is about laying the groundwork for how people will receive your brand, your company, or products. Some people think branding is a one-time proposition, while others think of it as something they do every day. Some people refer to their brand as branding.
Here’s the kicker though. Even though the design industry made it up, branding works. If it did not work, you would never have heard of Apple or Starbucks or Nike. There would be no such thing as category leaders because there would be nothing to categorize. You would not know about Wal-mart or Best Buy or Crate & Barrel. Without branding, your laptop or smartphone would not greet you with an Apple or Windows or Android logo. You would never have heard of Google. Chiquita would just be a banana. And all the smaller brands that earn a place in your day wouldn’t be there either.
Even though branding as a practice was made up, it works when it’s true. As with nearly everything else in our lives, your brand has meaning because people attach significance to it. They do that when every ounce of your brand is true. And that’s the real secret.
Want to know more about branding? Read on:
The important difference between brands and branding
Branding in 5 minutes a day
How to have a standout brand
Say you’ve just started a business, or you’re a marketing manager. You have a unique idea or approach, the inspiration to give your idea wings, and the motivation to make it happen. You know you need to promote, so you will need graphic design and web design. For many business owners, this is the point where things get either complicated, difficult or confusing. But you can keep it simple, armed with just a tiny bit of understanding about graphic design. In fact, knowing too much might make it more complicated than it needs to be.
4 Things to know about graphic design
The first thing you need to know is that business graphic design is never about making things look pretty. If that’s the focus, the design will fail. This might sound like an odd thing to say, but you would be amazed at how often people say that’s why they need a graphic designer– “to make it look pretty.” What you need is graphically rich, smartly-designed strategic communications, the kind a talented graphic designer can deliver.
To put this in a more positive frame, good graphic design is strategically sound. As a graphic designer, it’s my job to discover a complex set of variables and craft a unique, easy-to-understand design that embodies a brand, product or communication need.
The second thing you ought to know is that design is always purposeful. If your graphic design lacks purpose, the final design will appeal to people who lack purpose. That is, it will appeal to no one. Tell me, who do you know that lacks purpose when making a buying decision?
The third thing you need to know is that there are no shortcuts in graphic design. Software does not make you a graphic designer, and in most cases, it simply makes poor design, lacking the aforementioned strategy and purpose, much easier (which is kind of scary, considering the budgets required for graphic design). Skipping any of the preliminary steps in graphic design invariably results in boring or ugly or off-target design. Taking shortcuts will surely lead to failure. Processes exist because they work. A good graphic design process leads to success.
Probably the most important thing to know about graphic design is that good design strikes an almost magical balance between what you like and what appeals to your ideal customers. I’ve heard of graphic design that appeals solely to customers, but I believe that type of design leads people and companies to misery. You must like everything you send out the door because it represents you. If you don’t like it, what does it say about you? On the other hand, if you thoroughly like your brand and all of the graphic design solutions used to embody your brand in your marketing, you can be proud of everything you put out into the world. And that’s really what design does. Graphic design helps people communicate complex ideas in seemingly simple ways.
Great graphic designers challenge their clients. They work with them too of course, but graphic design that fails to challenge the client also fails to engage it’s target. Great graphic design upends the cart, and makes you uncomfortable. You don’t hire a graphic designer to bore you or keep you yawningly safe, do you?
When graphic designers deliver strategy-driven design concepts that make you uncomfortable, realize that the more uncomfortable you are, the more likely you are looking at either a business-winning design or an absolutely abhorrent amateur hack job. As a seasoned businessperson, you can probably tell the difference. It’s the stuff in between, the designs that bore you, that you should really be concerned about.
How will you know if the design is boring? Simple, you will experience neither nervousness nor that excited feeling you get at the moment of a great success.
If your graphic designer works to keep you comfortable, they’re not doing their job. And if you micro-manage your graphic designer, know that you will not get the results you want (unless your ideal result is mediocrity). BTW: This applies to web design, advertising and brand development too.
In my experience, clients who accept the challenge and push gently back or collaborate to develop stronger concepts are clients who encounter the greatest market success. They tend to enjoy their designer relationship more to boot because we develop mutual respect and admiration.
Corporate identity is just what it sounds like, the identifying marketing materials you use to identify your company or brand. Some people also call it brand identity.
Brands are made of three primary components:
1. Visual (identity)
2. Verbal (messaging)
3. Action (how you treat people)
The first creative part of virtually every brand development is visual design. I’ll cover the verbal and action components in upcoming posts.
Your logo and corporate identity, including your business card and website, set the visual tone for your brand and many of your marketing communications. Colors, graphic standards, and type selections are all determined at this phase.
One of the most common questions I get on first contact from someone looking for a graphic designer is, “What items do we need for corporate/brand identity?” There is some variation according to usage and business type, but for nearly every businesses I recommend the following basic items as a start:
2. Business Card
6. Tag line
7. Overview Brochure
8. Mailing Label
Here is an overview of each item, along with the reasons why nearly every business needs them:
Your logo is the visual cornerstone of your brand that tells people who you are, and does so in an incredibly memorable way. It sets the tone for all pieces and graces nearly all of your marketing communications. Love it, and never leave it.
When someone asks for your number at the market, that’s an opportunity hanging in the air, which you can answer easily if you have a great business card handy. Even if you never leave the dark dungeon of your home office or the confines of your plush leather chair, you must have a business card. And not just any business card. Your business card has the power to make a huge first impression, or to be silent as a lamb – even if it’s coming out of an envelope. Never skimp on your business card design or printing. Avoid cheap online printing of your cards at all costs. If you have to go that route, fine, but consider it a temporary stop-gap measure. Or better yet, find any way humanly possible to budget for a great card, and it will pay off in lasting memories in the noggins of your prospective customers.
Your website is the first or second point of contact for many people. Make it great. Budget well for it. Do not put up a website that you have to apologize for. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard people from large and small businesses alike say, “Our website sucks,” or “This is our website, and it’s not really, uhh, very good.”
If you’re not impressed by your website, no one else will be either (even if you apologize for it in advance). If you have a small budget, keep an open mind, and find someone who offers an outstanding solution within your budget. It may take time to find them, but someone can do it. Work incrementally if you have to. Never settle for a lesser website than your brand deserves.
Letterhead, Envelope and Mailing Label
Many businesses use these items few times in a year, however, those few times are usually worth investing in good design and printing. If you send someone a fat proposal on a lasered letterhead in an ink-jetted envelope, you’ve just sealed a fly-by-night look on your hard work. Why risk losing that $150,000 contract (or even the $5,000 deal)? Spend the bucks on quality offset printing, and look professional every time.
We’re venturing into the waters of the verbal part of your brand, but since your tag line accompanies your logo nearly everywhere it goes, your tag line development should be included with the initial brand development deliverables.
While your logo tells everyone who you are, you tag line succinctly tells people what you do and what you stand for. Your logo and tag line are a potent combination of meaningful, memorable brand smack.
Think brochures are outdated? Think again. When your computer, iPod or iPad are absent, your brochure can make the sale. I’m not talking about that yawn-inducing tri-fold in your dentist’s office, replete with cheesy clip-art. I’m talking about the uniquely formatted and crisply designed rockstar brochure that makes you feel like two million bucks handing it out. The one that can be passed on to someone easily and with a word of recommendation. I’m talking about the brochure that makes breaths be held and helps people connect with your company. Your overview brochure is your impressive, convincing voice when you can’t be there.
Sometimes we add in vehicle design, t-shirts, thank you cards, holiday cards, bookmarks and other branded items.
Investing in professional brand identity materials does three things:
1. It makes you look and feel more professional.
2. It helps you project more confidence, thus you sell better.
3. It makes the difference between looking like a fly-by-night organization or a real business people can depend on.
Take care of your basic corporate identity deliverables, and they will take care of your business.
Setting a list of 3-4 goals before hiring a graphic designer can help you find the right person or firm for the job. If you are new to setting goals, this may be challenging, but goal setting is so powerful because the goals drive the project strategy.
What do you intend to achieve with this project? The question surprisingly gives some clients pause. The answers range all the way from detailed bullet lists of goals in creative briefs to, ‘I have no idea, but I know we need it.’
Communication is key
If you want a big change in the perception of your business, or a boost in sales, or you have some other big goal, find a designer who speaks your language, both verbally and aesthetically. You can usually tell if you’re on the same page within 15-20 minutes of talking. Branding is a personal process, as is graphic design, so great communication with your graphic designer is critical to getting what you want.
Align your budget and goals
If your budget doesn’t align with your goals, ask about options or adjust your goals to a more modest start with increasing ambition as your efforts start paying off. Some graphic designers can get pretty darn creative with solutions to meet your budget.
If you find yourself theorizing about the least amount of business you can take on to survive (to deal with a low budget), try instead thinking about your ideal client capacity.
How do you set goals for your project?
Depending on your business size, a brand audit is a good place to start. A brand audit will show weaknesses and enlighten areas to improve. If you run a small business, a brand audit shouldn’t take very long. If you’re just getting started, do a reverse brand audit by thinking about all of the places you think people will interact with your brand.
Think about every single point of contact you have or will have with customers and prospects. This may be a little hard to do by yourself because you may take your brand touch points for granted, which is easy to do.
Listen for the red flags
Some designers actually view a logo as a secondary element to a website. If you get that vibe while talking to them, find another. Your logo is one of the primary things you want people to remember on your site. It should never be an afterthought. If it is thrown in as a side order, move on. Your logo is the most important visual element of your brand.
Example graphic design goals:
• Design a new logo that you totally love
• Get an identity design that you can be proud of
• Develop a brand that speaks to you and your audience
• Develop a clear brand that motivates employees
• Design packaging that is strong at every touch point
Ask your prospective graphic designer the following goal-oriented questions:
• What is your specialty?
• Where can I see examples of your logo design, corporate identity design, and websites?
• Can you help me do a brand audit?
• Can you provide both individual and package pricing?
Try to get a feel for how the designer listens to you, and how responsive they are to your questions. If you have worked with a graphic designer in the past, think about some areas where you would like a better relationship with a new designer. Ask about those when you are interviewing designers.
This is your opportunity to find a graphic designer who can deliver exactly what you want. Make the most of it.
Finding a great graphic designer, an introduction
Finding a great graphic designer, part 1: Budgeting
Finding a great graphic designer who fits your needs can be a complex equation, but knowing what you need and having a set of important questions to ask prospective graphic designers can shorten the process by leaps and bounds.
Budgeting for graphic design or brand development often draws a question mark for people new to hiring a designer. While frugality is important, your visual identity is the last item to skimp on because it is the most important tool you have for making a great first impression. People often ask, ‘What about me? Aren’t I a great tool for making a great first impression?’ I hope we can agree that you are not a tool!
The first thing you need to do before contacting graphic designers is determine your budget. Designers are masters of crafting solutions to meet budgets, but if you don’t know your budget when you start calling, they will not be able to provide responsible estimates.
Some graphic designers do design only, while others competently offer a full range of services. In my experience, working with one person or office can be of great benefit because it keeps your overall brand message focused. It saves money, energy and time too.
A quick word of warning for those hiring a designer for branding: Many graphic designers have no idea what branding actually is, so be sure to ask some tough questions specifically about branding. I’ve covered this in greater depth in another post.
There are many ways to find a great designer, from referrals to checking samples, to good ole Q & A. Conversation wins out nearly every time, so my vote is Q & A. First, you have to ask yourself some tough questions, then it’s time to start quizzing a short list of designers to find the right one for you.
Budget setting: use the new computer rule
When setting your budget, use the ‘New Computer Rule,’ which states that you should always buy the most expensive computer you can afford. The reason for this is simple. If you buy the cheapest computer, it will have a slower processor, it will become outdated much faster, and it will not serve your purposes very well.
Similarly, if you buy the cheapest logo, identity or web design, it may be lacking in power and longevity, and it probably will not communicate the essence of your unique business. If your goal is to increase sales by making a bigger impact right from the start, a cheap identity or website will not do the trick. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, but don’t sell your brand short either.
Budgeting questions to ask yourself:
• What is my annual operating budget?
• What can I budget for brand development?
• Do I want to work with an established professional?
• What are my needs for deliverables? (i.e. brand strategy, brand positioning, logo, business card, tag line, packaging, website, etc.)
• What do I expect from the working relationship?
Questions to ask your prospective graphic designer:
• What are your primary services?
• Can you provide an estimate? (If you know your deliverables, ask for an estimate. Even a ballpark estimate might help you determine if you can afford to work with the designer you like.)
• How many revisions are included in your estimates?
• Can you create a project package to cover all my needs?
Notes on hourly rates
You might be tempted to ask hourly rates. Proceed with caution or at least a very open mind here because all designers work at different speeds, which means that a fast designer will probably have a higher rate, yet you may still be able to afford them. You might be surprised – some designers work 5-10 times faster than others. Also, while a low rate may be hard to resist, it can often be a red flag signaling lack of experience that can cost you bigtime down the road.
Some designers don’t charge by the hour. Seasoned designers estimate jobs based on several factors, and many don’t use an hourly rate.
If you start out with the idea that the work you need is worth only a low hourly rate, you will probably undermine your marketing goals. Similarly, focusing on a low overall dollar amount will limit the depth of the work that is possible. For instance, if you start out by saying, ‘I need a 30-page website with a CMS, e-commerce, plus a logo and a brochure,’ followed by, ‘What can you do for $500?’ Well, you’re going to get politely laughed out of the room. If you put your budget on the table right from the start, however, we can begin aligning your realistic budget with your needs.
Try prioritizing your marketing goal first, and see how the possibilities open up. Starting with your goal first in mind is a smart strategy for getting the designer thinking creatively right from the first meeting.
Finding a great graphic designer, an introduction
Finding a great graphic designer, part 2: Goal Setting
I frequently get the question at speaking events: ‘How do I find a great graphic designer for my brand development?’ There’s no adequate 30-second answer, so I thought I’d write a few posts here on finding a great graphic designer.
‘Great’ is a relative term. The designer has to be right for you by working with your budget, meeting your goals, inspiring you, and delivering effective work. How do you find the perfect designer for your needs?
One way to start is by considering locale. For instance, if you are in need of graphic design in Seattle, there are over 500 of us in Seattle alone, and those are just the ones listed in the local directory. Once you decide to choose a local designer, figuring our your budget and goals will help pare down the list of people you can work with. Don’t know your budget and goals? That’s ok. I hope to help you figure that out.
Train of Thought frequently takes calls from business owners who know they need to hire a graphic designer for brand development or web design, but they have no idea where to start. By ‘no idea’, I’m not just talking about the finding a designer part. If you haven’t the foggiest notion of where to begin, you are not alone!
Small business owners frequently have no budget in mind, no known annual operating budget from which they might figure out a project budget, no business plan, and no long-term goals down on paper. They often have no idea what constitutes a good logo design, and they have no idea what elements make up a brand. They just know they need a graphic designer. All of these unknowns are okay, if you can trust the designer you ultimately hire to help you answer them. Can I work with this set of variables? Well, I certainly try! The truth is calls like that are often the launch pad to a bunch of tough questions. Sometimes it leads to a great relationship.
Now, I could throw a guesstimate price out there based on what I think they need – and sometimes I just have to – but if I really want to help the person by providing an accurate estimate and have any chance of landing their business, it’s important to learn a few things first. Primary among them are their budget and goals.
If you have no budget, as in the sky’s the limit, every designer under the sun will LOVE you. But if you’re like most companies, you have a budget for each project. Sometimes budgets are set arbitrarily, and other times they’re determined by operating costs. Once you figure yours out, and find a designer you trust, it’s okay to share it.
Hands on the table
Ten years ago, if I asked about a project budget, I got a straightforward answer, but things have changed. Now when I ask for the budget prior to providing an estimate, about 85% of the time the answer is, “I have no idea. What should the budget be?” If I then produce a middle-of-the-road estimate, I stand a good chance of seeing my prospective client’s utter surprise fly across the room or through the phone, smacking into the wall like a herd of wild spoonbill platypus.
People often have a preconceived notion of what a design project is worth before they have any idea what the end-product will do for them, or what the development process might look like in terms of hours or services required.
Some people hold back on sharing their budget because they think it’s smart business, like maybe they’ll get a better deal. (It’s far more likely they wind up with a worse deal.) A more efficient strategy for getting an exceptional design is everybody with their hands above the table, working towards a common goal.
If you truly have no idea what your budget is, that’s ok, as long as you’re willing to do the work together to figure it out. At some point, your budget and goals absolutely have to align, or you will wind up frustrated or disappointed—or worse, over budget with a crummy design.
Budget alignment, an example
A company called me last year wanting a custom font designed and programmed. I was told that budget wasn’t a problem. I mentioned that custom type design and font programming can run between $5,000 and $15,000, depending on complexity. I heard this: “What?! Oh, I thought it would be maybe one or two hundred bucks.” Click.
Type design is often a 100-200 hour (or more) conquest. The end result is a truly unique typeface that becomes a core part of a company’s marketing communications. It provides a distinctiveness that few other elements can. The financial benefit of it is tremendous because it can transform a company’s marketing pieces from mediocre yawnfests to attention-getting masterpieces.
Say I spent 50 hours on their type design project. At their $100 budget, I would make $2 per hour on the project. Had the company’s goals and budget been aligned, I could have suggested a smart solution for them.
It’s the thinking that counts
Creative problem solving is part of what you should be looking for in a great graphic designer. It’s what elevates design to another plane that connects with people on multiple levels, generating greater sales possibilities. Savvy graphic designers can help you figure out a realistic budget.
Say you need a logo, corporate identity and website. You don’t know your budget, but you have an open mind. An experienced designer can tell you off the top of their head what a logo and identity costs, then ballpark a website estimate based on page count, features and work required. That’s some valuable input when you don’t know your budget, right? From there, you will be able to quickly access whether or not you can work with that designer.
Finding a great graphic designer
Finding a great graphic designer is not like finding a decent order-taker. Good designers are paid to think. Mediocre designers may do what you tell them, but they usually will not produce graphics that support marketing. And that’s really the whole point of hiring a graphic designer.
If you read every article in this series, you will be one dangerously informed entrepreneur, ready to march out and find an absolutely perfect fit in a graphic designer for your brand development needs or virtually any graphic design project needs.
Finding a great graphic designer, part 1: Budgeting
Finding a great graphic designer, part 2: Goal Setting