In today’s show, Daniel picks the brains of David Kerr and Matt Marquis on graphic design and the language (and tools) graphic designers use to tell a brand story.
Read the transcript:
So one thing that I want to point out to both of you in the audience is that when I was going over the talking points for the show with both of you guys as your first suggestions about what you might want to touch base on. And you both wanted to talk about how incredible you were. But you also wrote it in two different languages– one was in English. I think the other was in French. So I just want to say that is a very creative kind of hubris that I want to applaud you both for.
It was just a Google translate. But I think it’s pretty reliable.
That’s for another show too. We’re going to talk about graphic design and what it means to be a creative, working with creatives, and basically, how you guys make the decisions that you do when you work every day. So maybe the best place to start is with some of the misconceptions people have about what you actually do, because I think a lot of people probably think that graphic design is just a way to fancy up a pretty picture or a logo or something like that. It’s something that anybody can do as long as they have Microsoft Paint or something ridiculous like that.
So maybe can you tell us what is it that makes you a valuable asset to a marketing team? And what do you think people actually think about what it is you’re doing?
Well it’s actually kind of funny that you mention MS Paint, because that’s kind of where I probably started in high school was playing around on MS Paint, seeing what I could draw just one pixel at a time with these squares built on top of each other. And eventually, you get more and more sophisticated with what you’re able to do. And you kind of learn what to do with it. I always was sketching or drawing. But I never really had any aspirations to be a studio artist or a professional artist in any kind of professional capacity.
But in playing with different things, I kind of learned that I could help communicate things. And that’s sort of what I think graphic design really brings to the table is helping clarify what the client is trying to communicate, what the graphic artist is trying to communicate, and what the viewer sort of brings to what they’re seeing.
Yeah, just I think to kind of tag off of that, I like to think of it as it’s sort of like we’re plumbers, and the client is the water source, and the audience is the house. And so we’re trying to get the stuff that the client wants to communicate to the audience in a vehicle that they’ll respond to and understand that will meet the goal or whatever that client’s trying to communicate. So we kind of build those pipes.
I’m picturing Super Mario hunched over Photoshop all day.
Yeah, as you should be. That’s exactly what I was driving at.
Those are those pixels that we were talking about.
So there’s a couple of different things that we touched on. You both have unique answers to that. But we’re talking about the technical elements as well as the, I guess you could say the human elements here. So we’re talking about being an interpreter as well as an actual technician. Why are these things that the average business owner might not be able to do on their own?
Well, as a part of becoming a graphic designer, the types of things that you learn to do and that you practice to do are learning what sorts of things– if you’re following the plumbing analogy, like, what sorts of pipes you have– what tools you have in your plumber belt– not a plumber belt– a satchel.
So we have something called the basic elements of design. And there are things like contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity, how close some objects on the design are to each other. And so we understand that using each of those things in different ways at different times will achieve different effects. And it will connect to people in different ways.
So for example, if you were going to design something and you know your audience responds really well to really modern design, and you’re trying to explain something really complicated, but you don’t want it to seem complicated, you would really simplify your design. And you’d have a lot of white space. So there was more contrast with the content that you’re expressing. So your audience is going to see that. And they’re going to say, oh, yeah, that looks modern. Oh, this is a really simple, direct message, even though it may be kind of a complex concept.
So the first step it sounds like is you really have to know what it is your message is and your intention. And then the graphic designers– part of their job besides just building it is to figure out which of those– pipes I think is the term you’re using for this one.
Yeah, we started with that analogy– the whole pipe deal.
It works, though. It makes sense. You have to figure out which of these tools is basically the best way to actually present this.
Yeah, a lot of what a graphic designer brings to the table is a lot of new tools for communication. A lot of people speak really well with their words. They can type really well. They can write beautiful prose to say everything that they want to do. And graphic designers, we have other tools. And we use things like visual hierarchy and typography and color palattes to say the kinds of things that we can’t say with our words as you might pick up. Sometimes it seems like I can’t carry a conversation as well as I want, but I could design you a beautiful poster to say the things that I was trying to say at the time.
OK, so let’s back it up a little bit. We were talking about some of these concepts that you guys are referring to. Maybe we can put these into context for the people who aren’t going to be use in this in their day-to-day. So maybe you can talk about how you’re actually applying– Matt you were talking about contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity. Those are obviously, to me anyway, I’m a lay person in this field.
But it sounds like those are ways that images, and text, and you mentioned negative space and things like that, how they sit next to each other and the stories that they represent. Could you guys maybe talk a little bit about why that works or how you take into account those qualities when you’re trying to decipher or portray a message?
Well, I think the why of that is a little bit more– I don’t think is very well understood necessarily. We can tell you– contrast will make something stand out. But we know that because that’s a commonality among pretty much everybody. If you see something that has more contrast, you’re going to look to it first.
So there’s a lot of that fundamental, observational– this is what we know happens when most of humanity experiences these things. And so knowing that, we move forward. And we say, OK, want something to stand out. Oh, let’s use contrast. And as far as how we might look at a piece and look at the different elements, that kind of comes with just practice, practice, practice. And it’s kind of something that we’re always improving on and learning to see better.
A lot of that kind of visual language stuff is very dependent on the context it’s being used in. And you can’t always say that having super-high contrast will get your message across better, because if everyone around you is has seen super-high contrast pieces everywhere, sometimes the best way to stand out is to have some subtlety or some human element to it. And that’s why brands that kind of stand out in their industry sometimes it isn’t that of the standouts are the same. It’s that all of the standouts are unique to their peers.
Yeah, that’s what I was trying say.
Well put, both of you. So are there any very well known advertisements that you can think of that if you talked about them, maybe the listener would recognize? And you could say why certain elements of that work? Or like you can look at that and be like, ah, they were doing this here?
Well, something that popped in my mind when you were mentioning the contrast and hierarchy was I was thinking of Nike’s shirts lines that it’s all capital letters with a very bold statement, something about skills to pay bills or something.
And it’s just a square of text. And sometimes the words wrap around because it wouldn’t fit on that line. And it doesn’t matter. It just wraps around. It’s kind of visually giving you the sense that this statement is too big for the shirt or that this person is too big for the court. And I mean, in other contexts, it would just seem silly. And why would you split the word skills onto two lines. You’ve got room. Just finish the word. But in that context of knowing where you stand amongst the competition, it works to say to make that statement.
And I think David is touching on something that’s a really important underpinning of this whole thing what the goal is of the piece. It’s like with a t-shirt talking about wanting to stand out, wanting to communicate a feeling to the person who is wearing the shirt. All of those things are what the design then works to achieve.
Yeah, that makes sense. And you know, in a lot of other podcasts that we’ve done here too, goal setting has really come up a lot. Maybe you guys could talk a little bit about, I don’t know, what do you do when somebody says, build this for me, and they don’t have a clear goal? How do you make those decisions? Or what is that process like? And how does it differ today when they come in with a pretty clear goal that you’re like, oh, yeah, I totally know what you’re doing here.
Kind of another skill for a graphic designer to have is how to communicate with the client to pull those goals out and create that vision with the client, even if the client didn’t come in with a goal clearly in mind beforehand, we can help them determine what they’re trying to say with whatever marketing they’re creating.
So I work with clients outside of my work at Audigy Group just doing freelance stuff. A lot of people I work with are just establishing their brand. And so a frequent conversation I will have with them is so you’re looking to establish this brand. You’re building baskets– this has never happened– I’ve never worked with a basket builder.
How many baskets do you want to sell? Who do you want to sell them too? What sort of message do you want to communicate? When people buy your baskets? What do they want to think about the basket builders? What sorts of takeaways do you want?
And those are all kind of parts of the larger goal that when I build the brand when I design, those are the things that if I do it successfully, will have happened. If those things don’t happen, it’s not a successful design.
Along with that, say you’re helping out a basket weaver create his brand, what you want to know is why this basket weaver and not that basket weaver. And that’s part of talking to the client and really seeing what sets them apart as a basket weaver. What you want to know is how do people feel when they choose your basket over another basket. That’s sort of getting into a little bit more brand territory.
But all of your marketing pieces should follow that brand to have that same messaging across the board. It depends on the person. You’ve got the whole Mac and PC debate. A lot it’s personality based. I You’re got extremely powerful technology on both sides. But you want clean, easy-to-use, fun to work with, and fun to sort of build with. You’ve got the Mac side. And you want people who pull out their soldering tool. Is it sol-dering? Sod-dering?
People who want to get into the technical pieces of it and reprogram their phone to make it so that it doesn’t look like any other phone, even if they bought the same model, working with the hardware directly. That’s more the personality of a PC person who builds their own machine. And maybe it doesn’t look as pretty in the end. But it’s what they wanted out of that technology.
So when you’re having these conversations with your soldering, basket weaving clients a very, very small demographic I met. But they’re out there. I guarantee. So you’re having these conversations. You’re helping them to decide their brand, or they’ve already got it. And you guys have your wheels turning about. It’s like, how am I going to represent this?
And that’s how you get back to these things that we’ve already mentioned. And actually, I’ve got a list of other things that you guys were sharing with me too that you’d talk about like colors and how colors work with the demographic that’s they’re trying to reach. Typography was already mentioned, which I think we could probably talk a lot about.
I had a couple of jokes about Comic Sans yesterday that were golden, you guys, but not appropriate for air. And hierarchy, which is something that you had both mentioned a little bit. Maybe we can dive into that one a little bit more. So you guys are just thinking about all these things when you get presented with this, and then out comes the stuff? Or is it more like they say here’s a picture of a basket, can you implement these things?
The hierarchy is also a big part where the goal is very important, because as far as order of hierarchy, the goal should be the top piece. And you want to make sure that that’s as clear as possible. And if it’s getting pulled under a bunch of other information that maybe doesn’t lead to that goal as clearly, it can just be confusing for the viewer, confusing for the graphic designer, and end up not been as successful as it could be.
So real quick though, when you’re talking about the hierarchy, are you talking about first comes the message and the goal, and then there’s something else below it? What are the actual levels of the hierarchy that you guys are taking into account?
Usually, we’re thinking about well, I mean we kind of think of it on two levels. When you first start, let’s say we’re designing a flyer for underwater basket weaving. And we want the people who read this flyer to understand that this basket weaving company is the most reliable basket weaving company out there. But they’re a little edgy. They do the underwater thing, which not everybody does.
So we want to touch on, let’s say, two main points– reliability, edgy. So then we look at the different content that we have. If we’re working with a copywriter– somebody who writes the paragraphs of copy– that’s going to be on the flyer.
Then look at what copy we have. And if we have a headline, look at that what the headline says. Or what could be the headline. And then think, OK, so our primary goal is reliability. So what of all of these things that we have, including the things like color and typography will best communicate the primary message of reliability?
OK, so these things need to be the first thing that the viewer interacts with. And then the next step down is the edgy. And so then we kind of do the same thing with edgy. So then when we’re designing the flyer– that’s kind of like the conceptual hierarchy, and then when we design the slyer, there’s the visual hierarchy where we’re basically guiding the viewer through the content in a way that will touch on those things in the way that we want them to. So we use things like really big headline– or obviously we don’t want it too big. Bigger is not better, as David kind of touched on earlier with the–
The skills to pay the bills?
Yeah, the skills to pay the bills and things like contrast where it’ll make it stand out or less contrast to make it stand out, if that’s the case, if there’s a lot of contrast elsewhere. So that’s where the visual hierarchy comes into play. So there’s two hierarchy touch points, I think.
OK so let’s just say you’re at the point where you’re soldering, underwater-basket-weaving plumber has finished there first flyer. And they are representing themselves. And they are like boom, I’ve got a visual representation of my brand. And now it’s time to take that flyer when I want to go into print ads. And I’ll go into digital ads. And I want to go into commercials or whatever it’s going to be.
So are there different elements that apply to each of these different formats. How do you decide which parts go directly from the flyer into the newspaper ad or whatever it’s going to be? Where should it be the same? And where should it be different and why?
Well, when you’re working with different kinds of pieces, you have to keep in mind what kind of space you’re working with, what kind of environment the viewer is finding the piece– say you’re doing an online ad, they are on the computer. They’re not reading the newspaper. They’re not walking down the street. They’re on their computer. And you’re sort of adding yourself to their space.
When you’re walking down the street and you see a billboard, it’s less like you’re involving yourself in what they’re doing. When they’re working on the computer, they’re deliberately looking for something, watching something, hanging out, looking around. And so you have to cut to the quick the same way that they are, because they’re not there for leisure.
If you’re a page that you turn to in the newspaper, you’ve got a little bit more space to tell a story, to give some background. But if they’re online, you can say they’re shopping, and your ad pops up, they better know why they should click that ad immediately. And you only have a couple hundred pixels to do it.
Yeah, that makes sense. So basically, what you’re saying is beyond just the demographic of people you’re reaching, you have to know at what point are they going to interact with your representation of this brand and what’s the most likely reason that they happen to be at that stage. Do you agree?
Yeah, yeah, and also thinking about what the format it’s going to be presented in, how it will affect the stuff you’re trying to show. So things like– if you’re doing a newspaper ad, usually that’s going to be a lot smaller than a flyer. So can’t you can’t include everything from the flyer because there just isn’t room. So you have to simplify the message. So because we did the conceptual hierarchy already, we know which messages are important and which ones come first.
And so you can kind of use that as a guide to simplify the different things that should go and the different things that should be cut out. Also, in the newspaper again, it’s really easy for ink to bleed when it’s printed. And it’s difficult for registration to happen if you’re doing color stuff. And let me just clarify registration is if you’re printing and then you print over it again, like a lot of times when color is printed, it’s printed over with several colors.
Right, they have the mix. So the real color comes out on top.
So registration is just saying how accurately do they match up the second printing? Is their color over more on one side than the other? And so in the newspaper, that’s little bit more difficult. And so if you’re using really small type, what can happen is it can get blurry because the colors don’t correctly match over each other when it’s reprinted, and then reprinted again, and reprinted.
So when you’re working with a newspaper ad, and you know that you can’t use tiny type. You know that, OK, I need to use at least 10-point type. And that means that this much content from the flyer is available to me. And so for each medium that you’re working in, you know with web ads, you have this much space in this many pixels. We know that a screen resolution will do this to this certain size.
So there’s kind of a lot of the– as well as the conceptual translation, there’s also a medium translation that has to happen.
Yeah, I have seen some examples of that gone wrong. Like, I remember one ad that we produced– I don’t remember where it was printed. But it was a newspaper. And it came back where the shade of red that was supposed be portrayed came out more of a magenta or something like that. And so we were able to discover through trial and error and working with the printer that if you actually want to print out the right color, you actually have to put in as a pink into Photoshop, or something like that.
And then they printed it and the color was right, but then the faces that were like scribbled all over the place. I think that’s probably a place where negative space comes into play quite a bit too. In my opinion, one of the most controversial things when you’re dealing with clients– they often want to fill up everything, because they’re paying for the space, right? And so they want to make the most of it. But you run into issues like that and all kinds of stuff.
Yeah, a lot of that can have to do with the goal. If the goal is say technical education, then it makes sense to have more of that space filled up with content. It can feel more like an article so that for the viewer who’s interested in that messaging then they feel like they’re readings something a little bit more official. But if the goal has a little bit more emotional ties, then that empty space isn’t wasted. It’s saying something. Depending on what it’s working with on the piece, it’s part of conveying that message.
So how does that actually work? I’ve seen it. And I know that looking at it, I can tell that it’s cleaner. And there’s some things that I like about it. But I don’t really know how you guys apply it.
Negative space and making it effective can kind of be a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s more of a dream to be able to utilize that negative space and create a piece that is clean and clear and a joy to look at, because often that’s more effective for the viewer. If they enjoy looking at the piece, there’s also more likelihood that they’ll pay attention to the message, even if there’s less copy surrounding it.
But if you’re just leaving empty space and leaving things unsaid and the things that need to be said aren’t conveyed, then it can just look incomplete.
Yeah, I’d say that negative space is a tool just like any other then we use. And that means that it has to have a purpose to be involved. So there’s always going to be a need for some negative space. You could think of it like if you have a wall at home, and you just covered that wall in photos, wall to wall–
A teenager with band posters.
My wife would move out.
None of them would stand out. And when you when you looked at that wall, you’d say to yourself, oh, that’s a wall of photos. But we want you to see specific pictures on the wall. So essentially, the negative space allows us to frame the things that we’re trying to communicate in a way that will guide you through the piece like we had talked about earlier.
Well, so clearly, that’s one of the problems that I had run into most frequently. Do you guys have anything else that you run into a lot? Like people want you to change something, and you’re like, well, actually maybe it’s better off this way.
I think one of the biggest things comes back to keeping the goal in mind every time is a lot of times as the process of developing a piece goes on, changes can be thought of and made without the overall goal being kept in mind. So changes can be more and more removed from the specific point of the piece.
And to kind of build off that a little bit more, I think a key part of that is allowing us to dialogue if you’re the client to town to talk with you about that, because if we both agree on the goal. And we’re talking about a change that maybe the client wants, and we know that for whatever reason, red when it comes to basket weaving demographics, red doesn’t work. It turns people off. They just walk away to another basket weaver.
If we come to the client and say, OK, I understand that you want red, here’s what I know about the demographic. And because of the goal that we have to reach that demographic, I think it’d be a good idea to maybe consider other colors then red. If you are unwilling as the client to engage in that, that makes it really difficult for us to help you reach that goal. I would say the client always has the last say because they are obviously the client.
But it’d be a little bit similar to like if you had a plumber come over to your house to do some plumbing in your basement. And then you were kind of saying, oh cool, can we have this pipe actually go this direction? And the plumber says, well, actually it needs to go this way so that it gets to where it needs to go upstairs. It’s kind of a similar thing. That’s not to say that graphic designers are never wrong, because we are.
And I’ve had some bad plumbing in my life too. So I can verify that.
It is a little bit interesting with the graphic designers, we are dealing with another person’s expertise. And it isn’t just our game. The point of the piece isn’t to be designed well. The point of the piece is to convey something for the client. And it takes the expertise of the client to bring that message to life.
And maybe if I can reframe that a little bit– if it’s designed well, it does those things. I would say the goal isn’t to look pretty. But I think a good the definition of good design is that it achieves the things that we’re talking about.
All right, guys, this is my favorite part of the show where I put you on the spot and ask you to help us round things up. So on the count of one, tell me your top three takeaways from here. What should people remember the next time that they are consulting with their graphic designer.
Well, I think one of the big ones is that graphic design is basically just communication. And as graphic designers, all those things and we’ve talked about color, contrast, repetition, the different tools in our tool belt, or satchel, if you will. Those are all just tools that enable us to communicate better and more effectively.
Another thing that I’d say sort of sums things up is that we work with goals and having a clear vision of what you’re trying to say lets us build that picture and communicate it clearly.
And to build off that, maybe for the third point, collaboration is really huge. If you think of it less as a– it can be like a contractor relationship. But it’s I like to think of it more as a side by side relationship where we’re both working and looking at the same end goal.
All right, guys, well, thank you for summing that up. We’ve covered a lot of ground here today. And I gotta say I’m a big fan of both of yours. So thanks for all the stuff that yo do here. I’ll sign autographs afterwards.
Thank you, Matt and David for joining us on Reach. And I will talk to you guys soon.