Designing under the influence . . .

By John McWade    December 20, 2011

Designing under the influence, Design Talk post by John McWadeDaniel Winters writes, “I have recently taken on a rather large client, doing design for an annual event of theirs. As is typical, they brought to our meeting the materials used in the past. Well, that really doesn’t do it justice — they dropped on me about 20 pounds of material from the past four years of the event.

“I actually like that they gave me so much, because it gives me great insight into their expectations. But I’ve noticed something when clients have done this before: Client-provided materials can be toxic to new, innovative design. When I see so much of their past material, it has a huge influence on my design, and then I realize that I am just moving in the direction of duplicating their previous work. It creates a massive design block!

“My question is, how can you use client-provided material to assess their wants, needs, and expectations without it becoming toxic to your creative process? Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated!!”


Smart of them to bring you up to date! It sounds like they liked their previous stuff and that it worked for them. Did they ask for something new? Is their venue the same? The theme? What more do you know?


The client is a very large, nationally recognized non-profit doing their annual fundraiser. They’ve not really asked for something new; they seem to just want it done in time for the event in three months.

The main item is a 150 or so- page catalog of items for their silent auction, as well as information about those who have donated auction items, and about the organization itself. They’ve indicated that they really like the style of Food & Wine magazine, but that’s about it. I get the impression that they’re changing up designers every year in an attempt to get closer to their vision, which they seem to find a bit vague.


My guess is that you’re trying to innovate when innovation is not called for, you’re getting predictably stuck, and the resulting “design block” is why you’re falling back on what’s been done before.

This is why a good creative brief is invaluable. It gets on paper what’s to be achieved in terms of message and image. A creative brief gives the project objective goals and keeps the critique at a high level. It is valuable for both you and the client.

You’ll almost certainly have to tease it out. You mentioned that their vision was “vague.” This is normal. Design is difficult to articulate. It’s a right-brain thing, more “feel” than words. And words are only part of the issue. Chances are high that your client is not entirely clear in his own mind what he wants. Explore together until it gets clear for both of you.

Be specific, too. Avoid statements like, “We want to make a good impression on our audience,” or, “We want the design to inspire readers to participate.” These are emotions, not design directives.

Instead, say, “We want our program to look like a high-end auction. To do this, we’ll use classic book margins and fine typography — serif type with wide leading — on glossy paper. Every item will be professionally photographed against a white background, with uniform lighting. We’ll give major items a full page, and minor items we’ll group four to a page. All pages will have a distinctive heading and a small, consistently placed space for auction notes. The cover will be black with thin, gold trim, and the title will be understated.”

Of course, this is only an example. Before your next meeting, you might get a copy of Food & Wine and study it. Ask what it is about Food & Wine that the client likes. Is it sophisticated? Trendy? Understated? Perhaps they like the colors or images or typography. Can they say how Food & Wine’s look applies to them?

(You’ll also need to ask yourself if you’re capable of transferring attributes from Food & Wine to the auction program without copying or losing the feel.)

Then comes the hard part: achieving your stated goals. I can’t count the times that I had a clear idea of what I wanted, but what I put on paper looked nothing like it. You’ll have to slog through this. Seth Godin calls it “The Dip.” But now, instead of defaulting to past imagery, you have a visual goal by which to measure your work — and by which the client can measure your work.

Remember, too, that you’re a team, not a lone wolf. Stay close. As you work, more will often be revealed, and new ideas, sometimes great ones, will arise.


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