Graphic design and marketing. Wearing both hats.

Graphic design and marketing. Wearing both hats.

Recently, I’ve heard the question, does a graphic designer need to have an understanding of marketing? Well, quite simply – yes. If you don’t have an understanding of how to market, whether it’s a packaging design, a promotional message or a website, you can’t adequately direct someone to take action – or even care, from interacting with your design.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m just like any other red-blooded creative guy, ready to run away screaming at lengthy PowerPoint decks and dozens of statistics-laden spreadsheets. But, there is definitely some use to all that drab information, and you just need to know how to process it in your own way. It’s marketing on your own terms.

It’s funny, after many years in the graphic design and advertising game, I’ve found out that ‘marketing’ has a bit of an umbrella stigma to it. I think it’s because it’s so loosely thrown around in the industry. By definition, it is the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising. But these days, I find it’s much more than that. It’s more about how your product or service materials can communicate and relate to people and whether or not they find them useful. It’s about trust.

I have a phrase that I have often had to use with my clients, when I am trying to extract what their communication is in a given project. It goes, “If I don’t understand it, I can’t make other people understand it, either.”  Essentially, designers are distillers. We take a group of images and information and purify it down into something palpable and packaged to attract the target audience in various communication mediums. In other words, making it simple and relative.

All that stuff in the creative brief – understand it. Over the years I’ve worked with a handful of designers that would get all worked up about the gobbledy-gook market-speak that would come out of client meetings. Now granted, the suits often get pretty carried away with demographics, psychographics, bar charts, spreadsheets and the like, but in there are some nuggets of very valuable information for the creative folks to work with. Without it, the work will likely be off-track, uninspired or just plain ineffective for the target market. But the important part of this equation is, statistics don’t sell products, people sell products.

It is, after all, commercial art. Sure, we all want to design something awesome and cool, but in the end it does have to serve a purpose. If you’re going into a project with that sort of mindset, then you’re not doing your client any favors and likely the work will ultimately fail. Loosely translated – cool poster, but no phone calls and no ticket sales.

People see cool stuff all the time, but do they give it a second look? Not often. To really get the consumer’s attention, you have to create something inspired and conceptual. Something that people can relate to. Something that makes them smile, gets them angry or forces them to take action. That’s the work that makes a difference. That’s marketing.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Directing your client is another part of the designer’s many responsibilities. A client may have great big budget to do everything under the sun, or barely enough to get started. Knowing what their objectives are and pinpointing the project budget to the appropriate mediums (logo design, direct mail, banner ads), will ultimately lead to better marketing success. Having the ability to explain that moving their budget dollars into a website promotion, versus a newspaper campaign has a lot to do with knowing how marketing works. And your client will appreciate that.

No marketing, no focus. Sure, having the creative freedom to do whatever you want sounds like nirvana, but to me that kind of latitude is stifling. I find that I have the hardest time coming up with good concepts when there is not enough information about the product, service or final objectives. The role of the graphic designer is to take the marketing objectives and translate them into something visceral for their selected audience. Without focus, the possibilities are just too vast and it is easy to get off-track. Not to mention, it makes the concepting time too long and painful.

Show your client just how informed you are. By deeply understanding how your client’s product or service works and what it’s audience’s perception is, you will be much more in tune with what your design work’s role will be. Maybe their audience is well-connected in social media, or maybe they are not technologically savvy at all. Being able to put yourself in the audience’s shoes makes for better and more effective personal communication. And, while you’re in the presentation meeting, you can speak intelligently about why you chose the creative directions you did, and defend them if needed.

Give it a reason to live.
If it is art for art’s sake, then it is just that – art. When it is a well thought out, focused piece of communication that also happens to be beautiful, then it is great design. Remember, smart marketing and great design are not mutually exclusive. No need to get a bigger hat rack.

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I’m sure there’s things I’ve left out. What do you think? I’d like to hear your comments.