[Note: This is part 2 of a series I started here]
I'm a sucker for great design. I live for it and I even write about it on my Med Hed blog. Whether in the tangible world, or the world of Web 2.0, great design (UI or branding), isn't an accident. It takes a lot planning and some really talented people. Don't skimp on this!
In this piece I'm going to talk about good design and working with a design firm to help you develop the identity and brand for your new (or old) company.
Do Your Homework
Before you even start looking for a design firm, you need to prepare. It isn't the design firms job to look at your technology or company and tell you what your brand and identity is...and that is a mistake many companies make. It is up to you to effectively communicate who you are and what you want to reflect to the designers. Now there are a lot of people who aren't artists and can't communicate visually through words, so what might work best is to include a number of people and brainstorm a variety of words and phrases which best describe what you do. Make this short. Don't write six paragraphs about who you are.
Another fun idea for discovering who you are visually, is play a game of brand Pictionary where each person has to draw a picture of what your company represents.
"Technology is always changing, but the importance of good design and branding remains the same. ID should reflect clear positioning. Image and attitude must be communicated clearly and effectively. Your ID is the unique way your brand is presented visually and reflects your personality. When carried out over a period of time, a well done ID can play a significant role in building 'share of mind' in promoting something online, etc."
-Josh Brown, Capacitor Design Network
Also keep this in mind, regardless of what you think you want, always look a little bit into the future. Will the work ever need to be translated to print? Video? Make sure when you make these decisions, you hire the firm that has experience in all these areas.
Get a Good Designer/Firm.
Whether UI development or branding, you can't underestimate the strength of good design. Period! I've seen a lot of companies who think that because they are good software developers they can build a great brand...and I've seen great branding companies who can't build decent software.
Not long ago, I was the Marketing Manager of a company and I wanted to create a brand and an image that had been missing since it's inception. After coming up with some ideas with my team, I made a list of websites and companies that reflected the sense of design I wanted. One of those rose to the top...and that was the Delicious Monster site. I didn't want a site just like that, but I knew the company that developed that site could deliver what I was looking for. That firm turned out to be Capacitor Design Network.
Because I did my homework, I was able to tell Josh Brown, of Capacitor, exactly what I wanted and what my budget was. This allowed them to give me a quote and a time frame to work with. As any relationship expert will tell you, communication is key. You have to have a clear dialogue with the people you are working with. If you don't have a clear understanding of time, responsibility, and price...you will waste a lot of time and money.
The onus of this is on you, since you are essentially their boss.
Ask For Clear Deliverables
You want to make sure that the work you hire for is not only original, but when payment is made, you own all the legal rights. Make sure you get original vector-based Illustrator files or if the work is done in Photoshop, make sure that you have Photoshop files with all the original layers. Don't just ask for gifs, png, or jpegs unless you negotiate in advance for those copies as well.
If your brand work will be translated into print, as well as web and video, you want layered files where the layers are clearly labeled. You will likely have some in-house person convert these files for you down the road, so you not only want scalable art, but you also want to make sure when you are working with files that have 50 layers, you can figure out which layer is which.
You might also want to do a little homework and learn the difference between pixel and vector-based artwork.
Set a Reasonable Time Frame
Many designers want to please their clients, so at times they will agree to unreasonable delivery times. Design takes a lot of time, especially when you are being presented with a first round of ideas. Don't get angry if you ask for the impossible, the firm agrees, and they are late.
You should ensure that you give them a reference point of when you need the work, and MAKE SURE that it can be done in that time without pressuring them into agreeing. The best way to handle this is to build in extra time for delays before you hire a firm. Decide what a reasonable time is to get the project done in and add two weeks to that.
Trust me...you will almost always go over schedule, so build that time into the project. That way if they come in early, you also look like a management rock star.
Managing the Process
Be a squeaky wheel, but don't be a pest. There's nothing wrong with checking in each week to see how things are progressing. It helps them stay on track and reminds them that you are waiting. Don't just send off a job and come back four weeks later and say..."is it done?"
When you get the first drafts back, meet with your team to review what you gave them and what they delivered. The first round is rarely the only round. Talk about what you like and what you don't. Write up detailed critiques and make sure you communicate that back to the firm. Don't be wishy-washy or be afraid to speak your mind. You should listen to their input and listen to their expertise, but ultimately it all comes down to you being happy...you are paying for this...make it right! But remember, if you don't communicate effectively during this process, it could fail. Designers aren't mind readers.
"Provide a single point of communication, and make sure all "stakeholders" are involved in design reviews so you don't get a nasty surprise at the end when a VP decides is isn't blue enough :-)"
-Corey Marion, Iconfactory
I asked Josh Brown of Capacitor Design Network to give some of his own input on working with designers...what to think about...and what can knock a project off the rails.
Client Homework:1. What are the basic goals of the project?
2. What would be a 'success' for this project? High traffic? Increased awareness? Membership growth? Direct Sales?
3. Are you interested in creating a community of dedicated visitors?
1. Who is it that you want to attract to your web site?
2. What do you want each user to get from their visit?
3. What do you want them to do on your site? Make a purchase? Come away with a message? Something else?
1. Where will content come from? Will it be new, repurposed, or both?
2. If repurposed, in what format is the new content in right now? MS Word, text, rtf...?
What will your web site have to do? Sell things? Display product catalogs? Organize lots of content? Stream video? Link to other sites or commercial sites?
What knocks a project off the rails1. Client blows the original schedule by not providing us with needed assets/content
2. Client sees something and decides to switch direction midstream
"The way to avoid this is we give clients a detailed set of questions before we start an assignment."
-Josh Brown, Capacitor Design Network
Whether something is tangible or virtual, great design is what makes people fall in love with something. Great design anticipates what you want before you even know you want it. It communicates and speaks to us from a deep need that we may not yet know. Great design also comes from listening to people outside of your box. As Kevin Hale from WuFoo (one of my favorite examples of good Web 2.0 design) had said in a previous interview on this blog:
"In the early days we did interface testing on our girlfriends, who were very tech-incompetent at the time. Just sat and watched (no help allowed). If they couldn't build a survey with Wufoo, then it wasn't easy enough for us. Their feedback was so great that it lead to releasing an interface demo two months into the project, so we could gather as much feedback as possible while we built Wufoo. The thing is I'm an okay designer when I'm left to my own devices, but with data (passionate data from people who were just as frustrated as I was) I was able to design something much, much better."
Get outside of your box and bring in people who might be able to give you inspiration from perspectives you may never have thought. A great design can help distinguish your product from your competitors. Don't underestimate that.