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10 Things Great Brands Are Not

by Kelly Hobkirk

When I tell new acquaintances I do branding, they often think it means I make up fictional stories to bamboozle unsuspecting minds into falling for fake value, because somehow that is the reputation this industry has managed to build. We have never worked that way. Train of Thought is all about crafting real, compelling, true stories with which people relate because there is real alignment and harmony. That’s been our focus since day one, yet this approach is not universal in graphic design or advertising.

Ever hear of spin in PR and advertising? That’s most likely where design gets the reputation of faking fabulousness in the service of sales. I’d like to set the record straight. Thus, here is a list of 10 things great brands are not:

1. Fiction
2. Image
3. One-sided projection
4. Empty
5. Innocuous
6. Unimportant
7. Outdated
8. Cliche
9. Predictable
10. Pointless

Bonus Not: Lacking integrity.

If your brand is any of the above, it may not be performing to potential. If that’s the case, try shoring it up, or try something new.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • October 9, 2016 • Tags: ,,

Do you understand Graphic Design?

by Kelly Hobkirk

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.

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • October 19, 2012 • Tags:

Finding a great graphic designer, an introduction

by Kelly Hobkirk

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.

Read on:
Finding a great graphic designer, part 1: Budgeting
Finding a great graphic designer, part 2: Goal Setting

Posted by Kelly Hobkirk • March 4, 2010 • Tags: ,,