Design Basics: The Artwork Proofing Process

Hi All! 

I'm writing this series titled "Design Basics" to help with common questions.

This post is about what happens when you hire a designer.  It covers the design process: both the part you see and the part you don't.  By writing this post I hope to help you make the most of your artwork proof decision.

In the studio we get certain kinds of questions and feedback often so I've set out a standard way of handling them.  

First, a quick primer on what a designer does -

There's a good chance you've hired a designer in part for their technical skill.  Usually something's come up that's made you decide to hire them.  Whether it's a print company asking for a vector file, or not having the time or skill to do the digital drawing yourself.  

While knowledge of design software and professional processes are part of a designer's skill, our most important tools are line, shape, proportion and colour.  Add a background in art history, knowing cultural references, skills in layout and marketing communications and you have a complete design professional.  The last bit is the highest value part of what we bring to you.  Yes we have technical skill (knowing the computer programs, understanding how to measure & spec a project, manufacturing processes, materials science...), but our skill in visual communications is the most important part.  We know how to make your project look gorgeous and generate more sales for you. 

Because design can sometimes be a misunderstood profession I'm going to use a second profession alongside design to help illustrate the idea of professional competency.  For this post I'll use a lawyer in my example.  The highest value part of what a lawyer brings you is their knowledge of the law and how it works.  Yes, they fill out paperwork but usually we hire them for the above. 

On to your design project -

When you hire a designer, they'll ask you about what you'd like and what your goals are for the project.  In that conversation your designer will ask more questions to find out how you define success, what you feel is impacting sales, who your audience is and whether there are detailed requirements (i.e. the finished product must include your web address).  

If we use the example of a lawyer - You've hired them because you're being sued and you want to win the case.  Your lawyer will sit down and ask you the details of the lawsuit, what your ideal outcome is, whether you'd be willing to negotiate and what your budget is.

Back to design.  We let you know we'll be sending you an artwork proof. 

Now the behind the scenes work begins...

Your designer will use their background in art and marketing communications to design a product that will do a number of things.  This includes but is not limited to: being legible in its intended context, appealing to your target audience, matching with an existing theme or branding, meeting the budget you've set aside, meshing with manufacturing requirements and achieving your project outcomes.  We do this for ALL projects, whether it's a brand design or a name sign for a baby's nursery.  All projects get this level of attention.

To do these things we employ all the tools in our toolbox: line, shape, proportion, colour, typography, cultural references, marketing practices, knowledge of art history... all the obvious and subtle things humans use to communicate with one another.  We're experts at this in particular: visual communication.

Similarly, a lawyer is an expert in working with the law. 

Let's go back to him for a minute...

At this stage, your lawyer will determine the best way to argue your case so you'll (hopefully) win.  He'll do this using his professional tools and processes.  He'll look at the background of the case, examine applicable laws, consult professional texts, read case studies, assemble evidence and so on.  Because he practices this as his profession, it's his forte. 

In design, once we've designed option(s) for you we put our top recommendation into something called an artwork proof.  This is a single page of visual option(s).  It includes the research we've done on your project, the behind-the-scenes experimenting, the outcome of testing several different ways to solve the design problem, channeling our background in arts & communications and using our technical skill to synthesize both a visual and a project that can be physically successful (i.e. it can be manufactured and will perform as expected once its a real product).  It includes our top recommendation for line, colour, typography, logo use, layout and other visual elements.  A great deal of time, expertise and background work goes into creating the proof.  It's the presentation of our professional recommendations.

This is akin to your lawyer sitting down, after all of his research, to tell you how he suggests you go about winning your case.  He'll give you his professional recommendation, which could include: what to say, what not to say, which evidence he plans to present, how the judge is likely to react and which laws are applicable to your case.  He'll share his professional opinion on the best course of action to take to win your case.

Here's a common scenario:  We send out an artwork proof and our client pushes back on aspects of the design.  This is no problem.  It's something we want to have resonate with you so we don't mind taking the time to explain.

If you communicate that something about your goal has changed, we can make changes to suit the new goal.  For example - "I thought my target audience was teenagers, but I realized their parents are included in my audience too."  Or, "I wanted my road sign to have a car in it, but my partner mentioned our boat services are equally important - it needs to address both themes."  We can apply our expertise to find solutions for these shifting needs.   

This is like saying to your lawyer - I thought I'd be willing to negotiate, but I've changed my mind.  I feel strongly and I'm not willing to budge.  Your lawyer would go off and adjust his strategy to accommodate the change of heart.

Flipping back to design: Where feedback becomes challenging is when a client details very specific changes to the design.  You may not realize it, but you are inadvertently wading into our toolbox.  For example: a client asks us to take the underline out, make the logo bigger, change blue to yellow and swap out the image we've selected.  These requests may seem subjective or like a matter of personal taste, but to a trained professional they're not.  There are proven solutions we know will work and specific, well-researched choices we've made while putting the design together.

When asking for detailed changes you are unknowingly asking us to make the project less effective and limit the success of the outcome.  That could mean making the finished product harder to read, causing the project to generate fewer sales, creating something visually overwhelming or creating something that's unclear or unappealing to your target audience.  In some cases you may be hampering the ability to have it physically manufactured or installed.

When clients tinker with the tools in our toolbox, without having comparable education, experience or professional knowhow it puts us in a challenging spot.

I'll use our lawyer to illustrate...

You respond to your lawyer.  Instead of saying your feelings have changed and you're no longer willing to negotiate, you start wading into his toolbox.  You tell him to take out two pieces of evidence he's put there to prove your case.  You tell him to put more emphasis on an argument he said would be irrelevant to the judge.  And you tell him that two parts of the law he's mentioned don't say that.  They say something else.  You hand these requests to him and tell him to change the strategy.  You'll wait on an update. 

You can see how this puts him in a tricky position.  He either has to defend the merits of his strategy, or make the changes you're asking for, knowing it will damage the outcome of your case.

Back to design.  This is how we've chosen to handle this:

1)  Clients who are well-informed about design trust our expertise and professional ability at the outset.   They have small requests or ask for clarification, but as a whole they know they've commissioned a well-executed piece of professional work.  Once we've clarified anything that needs to be discussed they'll normally see how the finished product will benefit them and approve the project. 

The lawyer equivalent is sitting down to the meeting where he tells you his legal strategy.  You listen to what he says, ask for some clarification, and trust his legal opinion on how best go about winning your case.  You ask him to go ahead.

2) Clients who are new to design may inadvertently wade into our toolbox when giving feedback.  When this happens we'll spend one email helping our client understand the process of design.  That can include illuminating the work and processes that went into making the artwork.  We may address specific requests, justifying our original recommendations and why they are in place to achieve your target outcome.  We may also help by showing how your suggested changes will be counterproductive to achieving your goals.

The lawyer equivalent looks like this:  You tell him to take out 2 pieces of evidence that are designed to help you and that the law doesn't say what he thinks it does.  Your lawyer responds by telling you those 2 pieces of evidence are important to winning your case.  He recommends leaving them in.  And he takes the time to explain that he's familiar with the law, by way of his professional training, and the law states what he'd originally mentioned to you.  

3) If we still get pushback after taking the time to explain and justify our original recommendations we stop explaining.  We'll make your changes verbatim.  

The lawyer equivalent is he stops justifying.  He takes out the 2 pieces of evidence you wanted removed, even though he knows it will damage your ability to win the case.  And he nods his head and says "sure the law says that", when it doesn't.  

The alternative for the lawyer is to return again and again to the same conversation, trying to assert his professional competency and failing.  His reason for stopping this cycle might be to maintain his dignity, or it might be in the interest of saving time so he can move on to the next project.  Our reasons are the same.

A quick recap:

  1. We'll send you an artwork proof.
  2. If given feedback we'll give clarification and explain our reasoning to illuminate why these choices have been made and why they're our top recommendation.  We may make small changes to the artwork but we'll largely stick to our professional recommendations.
  3. If faced with further pushback we'll stop justifying.  We'll make your changes verbatim.

I hope this helps walk you through the proofing process.  This post is not meant to make you feel bad (at all!).  Client interference is common.  Design is a widely misunderstood profession.  If you've inadvertently waded into a designer's toolbox, chances are your designer didn't take it personally, but they will want you to trust them so they can make your project a success.  That being said, don't be afraid to ask for some changes.  Usually we can accommodate one or two small requests. 

But be conscious of steering the things in our toolbox.  Avoid language addressing:

  • Proportion
  • Line
  • Shape
  • Colour
  • Typography
  • Layout
  • Art Direction
  • Cultural References

DO:

  • Communicate Your Feelings & Impressions
  • Clarify Your Goals
  • Speak To Your Audience
  • Share The Biggest Challenges You Face
  • Share Any Specifics That Must Be Included (i.e. web address, phone number)
  • Lay Out Technical Limitations (i.e. room size, indoor/outdoor usage)

We can recommend a visual strategy to address these things. 

A great tip for trusting your designer is to give it space.  Opening the initial design always produces an emotional reaction - whether it's good, bad or indifferent.  A new design needs time to percolate and settle.  If you open the design and you're unsure about it wait at least 24 hours before replying to your designer.  Review the design with fresh eyes before responding.  When you reply, ask for clarification and avoid detailing numerous changes that fall within our toolbox (see above).  Instead, speak to your feelings and goals.

And what happens if, in your heart of hearts you just can't bring yourself to approve the design?  Even after changes?  Communicate!  Your designer will be happy to help.  Your designer will know how to address what you're bringing to them.  When they've deemed a challenge unsolvable they'll recommend a different designer.  If you've communicated and there is no way to reach a consensus - it may just come down to a difference in working style.  That's ok too.

What do you think?  Was this post helpful?  Let me know in the comments!