9 Tips for Collaborating with Designers

June 26, 2017

Drawing a lightbulb

Editor's note: This post was contributed by Josh Richie, CEO/Cofounder at Column Five.

At some point, people who work in content marketing will collaborate with designers. Naturally, there are differences in how designers think and work. To have a successful collaboration, you need to communicate with them in ways that inspire them to create the best work for your project.

This sounds easy, but it can be more challenging than you think. People naturally talk to others the way they like others to speak to them. And that's fine; this construct works if you’re working with people similar to yourself. But the reality is that different people—and different minds—require different methods of communication.

I have learned the hard way (through many communication mistakes over the years) that sometimes you need an improved and nuanced approach, so I’m offering these tips to help you get the best work from your designers.

9 (Easy) Ways To Get The Best Work From Designers

Explain why you’re asking them to do the work.

When starting a project, always make the "why" the first thing you communicate. This helps them understand the ultimate goal and how their work will contribute to it. Never start work on a project unless this fundamental point is clear to everyone on the team—designer or otherwise. Lacking clarity around this will inevitably lead to trouble down the road.

Brief them well.

People often refer to Graphic Design as “visual communication.” It’s about taking complex ideas (or a group of ideas) and explaining them as efficiently as possible. But before designers can communicate those ideas visually, they need to know everything about what they’re meant to be communicating. Share as much info as you can with them. More is better when it comes to providing background context. Less is better when they actually execute it.

Be prepared to answer a lot of questions at the start of a project, and listen hard.

Designers should ask you many questions to help them capture the feel, tone, and look of your project before they start work. That’s their job, so encourage them to ask away.

But sometimes it's not enough to just let people know that they can ask questions. Sometimes you have to invite people to ask questions. If you are working with a team of people that includes individuals in various roles, it’s important to understand the different communication styles of each and provide an environment where each party can share openly. We call this "creating space" to share ideas and ask questions.

Many (but not all) designers are introverts, while many (but not all) marketers, copywriters, and project managers tend to be extroverts or ambiverts. Being introverted means a person derives their energy from internal sources, which means you need to give them space to think and respond on their terms and in their own time. (A common misconception is that introversion equals fear and shyness, but this is not accurate.) Keep this in mind when you interact with them.

Encourage debate.

Having people disagree in the final hour of a project is so incredibly frustrating. But friction, healthy debate, and conflict at the onset of a project are typically good, as long as you work as a group and everyone respects each other and communicates respectfully.

When I’m briefing a group or a designer, I always try to make a point of saying, “Please feel free to dissect that, tell me if my idea is garbage, or suggest approaching it in a different way.” If I'm in a room full of people, it can sometimes take a bit of prodding to get people speak up. But typically, after the first person chimes in, the others feel comfortable to share as well. Healthy discussion usually follows, and often we go in an entirely different direction than my initial idea. I love when this happens.

I do this at the very beginning of everything that I work on because I’d rather have that conversation early on rather than later on. It's better for everyone involved. Also, having this type of dialogue at the beginning of any new project helps us develop better creative work in the end.

Include designers in the decision-making process.

Don’t just delegate work to be done in the Adobe Creative Suite—get your designers involved in decisions early on. If they feel like they aren’t an active participant in the project, they’ll be less invested. (No one likes feeling they’re just a resource.) If included, they’ll be more passionate about what they’re working on, which always results in better work.

Speak like a human (and don’t try too hard).

When briefing and collaborating with designers, don’t use catch phrases, acronyms, or marketing speak—no "wheelhouses," "unique value propositions," "circling the wagons," etc. People outside of niche B2B marketing communities don't know what these mean. (Everyone knows what NFL means; not everyone knows what MQL means.) Avoid these to reduce confusion.

Also avoid generic phrases like “eye-catching” or “modern” unless your team has a clear and shared understanding of what that means in terms of the project. A vacuous description is just as damaging as a misguided understanding of what “modernism” is. Be direct, and be clear.

Discuss edits in person or during a call.

When you have edit requests on a first or second draft of something a designer worked on, don’t simply write a laundry list and send it over Slack or e-mail with no follow-up. Spend time, either in person or on a call (video preferred), to discuss, ask questions, and explain the design elements that need to be changed. And don’t be afraid to ask designers why they made a particular creative choice; good designers will have a reason why everything looks the way it does.

Call me old-fashioned, but I stress the importance of having the conversation in person or via phone because I think this leads to more constructive and less contentious discussions than more impersonal communication tools.

Say “thank you.”

It’s simple, and it’s important. It gets the best out of a designer during and after the process. In my experience, designers are hard workers and will go above and beyond if the work is for someone kind, who treats them respectfully. Appreciation and thoughtfulness are relatively universal motivators.

The next time you’re about to work with designers, do yourself a favor, and keep these tips in mind.

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