Branding, charts, layout: What does your design budget really buy?

Recently, Crain’s featured a story about a company called ConceptDrop that boasts a network of 350 freelance designers in more than 30 countries around the world. Essentially, the company connects clients with low-cost designers who can work fast. The ConceptDrop CEO estimates that 40 percent of his company’s clients need a final product within one to two days.

For a small business up against a deadline, this must sound like welcome news, and in some ways it is a positive development. Well-designed presentations and reports are important. Having a polished look and feel tells others that you pay attention to detail, you don’t skimp on final steps or consistency, and your brand is strong. In the digital age, businesses increasingly seek this design polish. To serve this market, a plethora of agencies have sprung up to help staff freelance designers and production artists with companies that need them. So far, so good.

The problem arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of great design. Most business professionals see graphic design as purely superficial. Often, designers hear requests like, “Can you pretty this up?” or, “Make it look good.” While it’s a worthy cause to make your business communications look good, these companies are missing a huge opportunity to distinguish their brand and their ideas. When graphic designers are engaged from the onset of a project and given sufficient time (that is, more than a day or two), they can use visuals to support business strategy and elevate a company’s ideas in the marketplace.

For example, let’s take one of those 24-hour logo service agencies. Companies pay a small fee ($100–200) for someone who knows how to use the Adobe design programs to work as fast as he or she can and spit out logo after logo design. Here’s one whose tagline is “Where speed meets quality.” At first glance, these rapidly created logos don’t look too bad—they are executed and presented well, and most of the time the company’s name is spelled right. But when you look a little closer and dissect them, these logo designs don’t have much substance. Some of them are just altered copycats of existing logos.

Sadly, many companies go this route because they don’t want to pay a skilled graphic designer to spend a few weeks learning about a company, researching other similar companies, and designing a logo that truly embodies that company’s unique attributes and distinguishes it from the competition. Companies that pay rock-bottom prices for branding design services overlook the fact that a dime store logo is going to become the face of their company, appearing on everything from the website to letterhead, marketing collateral, and sometimes products.

It’s the same with reports, presentations, charts, and infographics. A good designer will always ask for and read the content in order to create the most appropriate design for the message, its highlights, and its organizational hierarchy. A good designer will also study branding guidelines, look at the company’s website, and read past publications. The more time a designer has to learn the content of what they are designing and experiment, the more thoughtful, appropriate, unique, and successful the design will be.

For example, say I am given data for a proposed column chart and ample time to consider the best means for presentation. In an ideal situation, I usually ask myself several questions: “What is this data showing me? Is it comparing sets? Is it time based? Is it showing parts of a whole?” I read the content and consider how the chart can complement the message. I then ask, “Is this the most appropriate way to display this data? Or is there a better way to visually organize this?” A horizontal bar chart might be appropriate to compare average product prices, but a line chart might be more appropriate if you are comparing product prices over time. So instead of taking what I’m given and churning it out in a matter of hours, I take the time to make sure the chart is actually working with the piece as a whole—and that level of thoughtfulness is why humans, not robots, make the best business designers.

When companies don’t commit the necessary time and resources to visuals, designers can only polish whatever is handed to them. While it might look better than it did an hour ago, it is likely failing to showcase the ideas and concepts—and the company—behind the presentation or exhibit.

Delilah Zak

The principal visualization artist at Leff, Delilah works collaboratively with the team to conceptualize and create all manner of graphic content, from public reports to management articles to standalone infographics and beyond.

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