Beyond ‘I Don’t Like It’ (Part 1)

(This is the first part of a long post based on my presentation at the 2010 AIM Conference – Part 2 is here)

It wasn’t always easy for me to take criticism. To start with, I had classes with a man named Tony Mann in my second year at NSCAD. This man, who allegedly lives in Lady Godiva’s castle in the UK and has a toy shop that builds kinetic wooden models of people having sex, had the strangest way of grading our papers. Instead of the traditional method of handing in an assignment and then getting a grade from the professor, Tony would instead make us lay our projects out on the long table in the middle of class. After much hemming and hawing, we’d slowly begin to organize them from best to worse. Then, we’d place them into groups. A- for these 2 (mine was often in this group—I know, total nerdlinger) then, B+ and so on usually down to C-. It rarely went to D, but I remember it happening a few times.

Someone, usually Hoover Chung, an unapologetic Chinese-Canadian designer and utterly RUTHLESS design critic would bump a piece of work down to the far right of the table and declare “You just started this fifteen minutes before class, didn’t you? I saw you working on this when I came into the class!” This often ended in tears. I can say that one of the things I’m most thankful for is Hoover only ever called me too literal. I sincerely hope I’ve become a better figurative designer since then.

The Centre for the Book

This was a project from my second last semester at NSCAD. We brought in a non-profit from some library somewhere and our project was to produce a logo and other stuff for the client. I created a logo that I thought was pretty tight. Most who had seen it agreed with me. It was a book shape that rose up form the shape of the letter C for “Centre”. The rest of the type flowed in around that. It was GORGEOUS. It was PERFECT. It was simple. It was NOT liked by the client.

She kept saying how it looked like a sickle.

Each crit, I would adjust it a bit more, and present what was essentially the same damn logo.

And, you know what?

She kept telling me it looked like a sickle. I refused to back down.

I argued with her. At one point, I’m told I forcefully said “IT’S NOT A SICKLE!”.

And then, I went to the library and re-looked up the russian flag.

Yeah, I know.

This is when I realized what Hoover meant about me being too literal.

You see, I learned at exactly that point that I needed to do a better job of responding to the feedback of people like Ms. Sickle.

Designers and other creatives really want good feedback, even when it’s hard to hear. You, as a client know your product or service, it’s our job to put it out there in a way that communicates effectively. So what do we, as designers, need in order to do that?

Getting it right from the start: providing good direction

So, how do you make sure your project starts off on the right foot? Tell us what you want from the beginning. It’s weird, but big agencies are really the only ones who sort of get this process dialed. Probably because they have the staff and overhead and understand the process enough to get it right. If you’re giving a project to a designer, you need to be prepared to put in some time up front as well. And your designer should ask the questions you haven’t answered in your RFP or initial discussions. The most important things to learn for any project, whether it’s a web site, email campaign, logo, ad campaign or anything, really.

Obviously we’ll need to know the background about your company. Where did you come from? How did you get here? What marketing has been done in the past? Are samples available?

What does the audience look like? Are they old? Young? Male? Female? What’s their level of expertise? Is it a captive audience, running out-of-date hardware or software? More research will need to be done into this group by the creative team, but it’s good to have a starting point.

What are your goals for the campaign? More email signups? Actual sales? A list of prospects? Brand awareness? Mentions in traditional media? It’s amazing how often this question never gets asked, especially when it comes to building web sites, which are often seen as a must have with no particular purpose other than to provide information. And this is ok, but it still needs to be understood.

Who are your competitors? What do their websites look like? How do you compare to them? What’s better about your product than theirs? What threats do you foresee?

I once had a client who sent me a link to a competitor’s website as an example of what he liked. He wanted me to download everything from the site, change the logo and the name and repost the site. Of course, no ethical designer would ever do this. But that doesn’t stop people from asking.

What do you like? Dislike? Keep in mind, that really this should have absolutely no bearing on what gets produced. Although it’s your project and needs to represent you, it’s really your customer’s site or logo. In the court of opinion, theirs matters more than yours. Sorry. More on this later.

And lastly, prepare to be challenged by your creative team. If they’re doing their job right, they should be making you comfortable that you’ve chosen the right team, but perhaps a bit uncomfortable with the probing questions.

Read Part 2

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