The Changemaker's Guide to Working with Designers
Non-profits, political organizations, unions, and movements work with designers all the time in different ways. Small non-profits rely on the volunteerism of designers to help them produce pamphlets, posters, and even websites. Movements inspire activist designers to contribute. Political organizations employ designers to create cohesive brand systems. Unions hire designers to design lawn signs, microsites, and advertisements.
In all these interactions between designers and the social and political game-changers, there is potential to communicate messages that compel social change. The key to unlocking this change is establishing a great process between yourself and the designer you’re working with. If you can inspire and inform, creative possibilities will open up.
This article is an incomplete guide to collaboration with designers that we hope will take your work to the next level. We welcome your questions, insights, and anecdotes in the comments section.
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So you want to design a poster/website/brochure/logo
You’ve been planning your conference/campaign/action for weeks and now it’s time to hire a designer to create all the assets. Hold up! Take a step back. It’s indeed possible to bring a fully formed idea to a designer and have them realize your vision, but this is not necessarily the most direct route to getting what you need.
Before you pick up the phone and start asking around for designer recommendations, or typing out that RFP, take stock of what you need and what you have.
Start by figuring out what you have. If you’re commissioning a new website, do you have photos, will you need to write new content, what state is your brand guide in? All these are services that may be offered by a designer. If you need new content, for example, you will want to hire a designer with some background writing web content, or a firm who can work with you to develop this. What assets you have on hand will help you determine the scope of the project, the budget, and the fit of the designer.
Next, figure out who will be managing the project. If you are strapped for cash, you may want to manage the project yourself, in which case, you need to figure out who on your end will be involved in decision making (more on this later).
Put together a small committee and determine who the leader of the committee is, who has final say, and what sort of communication you will use. If you don’t have capacity to project manage, you may want to hire an agency or team with project management experience as opposed to a single freelancer.
Writing a design brief
A design brief is a document that outlines the project to the designer. This is different than an RFP (Request for Proposal). An RFP is written to find a fit between a project and a bidder. They are often focused on making sure the bidder has the qualifications to complete the work, and are not generally living project documents.
A design brief is something that can be referred back to again and again throughout the project as a touchstone. A design brief should be more outcome and brand focused. Try writing your brief starting with some of the following questions. It doesn’t have to take too long, just get your team to brainstorm on these points and write them up in simple language.
- Who are you and what do you believe in? What have been your most successful campaigns or projects and why?
- How did this project/campaign come about? What is the change that you are trying to make in the world? What is the path to victory? Who do we need to inspire/persuade to win this campaign or make this project successful?
- What assets do you have that could contribute to the success of this project? What contractors/designers have you worked with in the past and what lessons, successes, or failures came from that?
- How will you define success in this project?
Hiring a designer
You should now have some clarity on the purpose of the project, what kind of help you need (design firm, single designer with writing skills, designer and photographer team), and how your organization will work with the designer you hire.
You will also have braindumped with your team about the project at hand. Now it’s time to ask everyone you know for recommendations on who to work with or start sending your brief around.
Do not under any circumstances approach a designer without an idea of budget and timelines.
This is the most painful part. You may not know what the project should cost, and you might be embarrassed to put a number out there that will get shot down. Still, you know what is too much and what you can afford. In this case, have a casual conversation with the designer and ask for their hourly rate and a range for a similar project, but don’t ask them to quote you without an idea of what you’re willing to spend.
If you believe in labour rights, you’ve got to understand that asking a designer, especially a freelance designer, to draft a proposal without a sense of timelines or budget is a drain on their time and labour.
Being open and honest about your timelines and budget is not only the most direct route to coming to terms on a project, it’s also the most ethical. It’s okay to ask for bids from a number of providers, but the energy a person will expend on a $20,000 bid versus a $5,000 bid is much different, as are the costs of a project with short turnaround versus longer lead times. If you are ambiguous with those details, your bidder may drop 10 hours into a proposal that they should only have spent 2 on, and those 8 hours are unpaid labour.
Honesty, transparency, and an openness to negotiate are your friends here.
Keep the following in mind: most designers worth their stripes can work within a range of budgets. If you don’t have a lot of money, say so. The designer of your dreams may be able to do what you need with a reduced scope, or with a delayed launch date. Honesty, transparency, and an openness to negotiate are your friends here.
Your budget is your complete project price including printing, materials, external contractors, advertising, subscription fees, and the designer’s fee. All these line items help designers determine the scope of the project.
If your designer is managing any of the above, they are within their rights to charge an additional percentage on top of, say, the printing fee, for sourcing and managing the printing. If they have relationships with printers already, they are potentially using their connections to get you a good price, and this fee is well warranted.
On timelines: If you need something yesterday ask for it weeks ago. Plan early so you don’t shift the burden of poor planning to an unsuspecting designer. Not only is that tough on your relationship, but also it’s a waste of your money. You will be charged more for less, like booking a last minute flight: twice the price and with connections in Chicago and Dallas.
When writing out timelines, be sure to include all the dates you know of including interim meetings, when your staff is on vacation, when your event is, when you will be launching your new brand with the Former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (for example). Make the stakes really clear by indicating which dates are firm and which ones can shift.
Building flexibility in to your timelines isn’t a failure, it makes your project more resilient.
Kicking off your project
Start your project with a thorough face-to-face (or Skype-to-Skype) with your designer. Come prepared with questions, and your designer will have a ton. Give yourself a good amount of time for this meeting. If you have them on the phone for an hour, block off the 30 minutes afterwards in case it runs long. It always will. Once you get started the ideas will flow and you may not want to cut that short.
Here are some tips on having a great tête-à-tête with your designer.
- Be inspiring: Designers feed on inspiration and challenges. Tell stories about your constituents, go around the room and talk about why you do the work you do, dream big and talk about how the world will be better when this project is successful. All this is lifeblood to design. Remember that designers are artists, and they are inspired by beauty and what is good in the world. Sound like anyone you know? Tap into your passion and idealism and you will get the best work from your designer.
- Start blue-sky and work your way to more detail. Put away your laundry list for a minute, and talk about the big picture. Designers are dreamers more than anything else. You want to get those big ideas flowing before you needle in on the details. You don’t know what will trigger that brilliant idea from a designer, so don’t shut down any ideas until you’ve laid everything out on the table. Which brings me to the next point:
- Say “yes and” in place of “no but.” This is the mantra of improv comedy for a good reason. When you say “no”, or “but” you trigger defensive mechanisms in people, and they begin to shut down. You’re limiting the scope of their imagination. Try replacing nos and buts with yesses and ands. You’ll find they are interchangeable, and they make for better relationship building.
- Make sure you’re really clear about your capacity and your assets. This should be outlined clearly in your design brief, but go over it with the designer in detail. Nothing is more painful than getting excited about something ambitious and finding out it can’t be done after you’ve invested time in the idea. Greenpeace may be able to reward their petition signers with a trip to the Arctic but can you?
- Be clear and honest with what you have and what you can do. This includes internal capacity. Do you have hoardes of volunteers? Are you an organization of one with a grant application to get out next month? Let the designer know so they don’t design you a website that requires daily maintenance, for example.
The design presentation
Every designer has a different way of presenting their work, so I won’t get prescriptive here, but I will say, make sure that everyone who needs to be in the room needs to be in the room. If you are the final say, then that’s great, but in larger unions and non-profits often the board has final say. Make sure a board member is on your committee. Make sure they are in the room for the design presentation.
Your role at the design presentation is to listen and ask questions. Note that the designer has poured their heart into their work and probably has some attachment and ego (probably a lot of attachment and ego, we’re working on it), so allow them to go through their presentation before jumping in.
Take notes. For the love of everything good take notes.
If your board members get final say and they’re in the room that’s great, but often the people in the room are tasked with taking the work back to decision makers and relaying what the designer said to a set of fresh eyes.
Designs are a million little decisions and million more little compromises. We cut half the word count to accommodate sponsor logos. We went with this photo because it represented our constituency better. Write down the “why” of how things were done, write down the most soulful aspects of the presentation, and you will be better at relaying these ideas to others.
Take ownership of the design. If you have worked through the previous 4 steps, then you will have had made a large contribution to the design process. Own this and you will find your reception of the outcome to be better.
A camel is a horse designed by committee, as the saying goes. I prefer the analogy of the pilot flying in the fog. Guided only by her instruments she course corrects until she leaves the fog and finds her plane is upside down. The tendency in delivering feedback is to focus on details out of the gate, but this can make you lose sight of the horizon. This is where your design brief is going to save the day.
Re-read your design brief and answer the following questions: do the designs fulfill the brief? Do they represent your organization? If there is a building phase (i.e. in the case of a website) do the designs maintain the scope of the project? Are there any flags about the capacity of your organization to meet the aspirations of the design? For example, if this is a branding project, are the guidelines too strict for your union locals, etc.
You’ve taken amazing notes during your design presentation. Now, get those guys out and go over the designs in more detail. Write down all your thoughts and critiques and organize them.
If you’re working in a group, look for contradictions in these critiques and resolve them. Either come to consensus, or choose a formula to evaluate them. For example, if one person says “I don’t like the image above the fold” and another says “I love the image above the fold”, remember that designers are professionals, agree these cancel eachother out, equaling a neutral reaction, and go with the professional opinion.
Rank your feedback by importance, allowing your designer to prioritize. If you have a small budget, an exhaustive revision round may blow it, so be careful to balance what is really important with how much time and money you have to spend.
Get your money’s worth by giving your designer problems, not solutions!
Finally, the most important step.
Rephrase any prescriptive feedback to be a problem, rather than a solution. “This text is hard to read” is a great piece of feedback. “Make this text black” is not. For every problem, there are infinite solutions. The job of the designer you hired is to make the one that best executes on the goals you stated in your design brief. You’re shortchanging yourself by stepping in with solutions. Get your money’s worth by giving your designer problems, not solutions!
Launching your project
If you haven’t yet, create a launch plan. Launching a project is as important as starting it. Depending on the project (a poster is different than a website), you will face different challenges of getting your project out the door. Involve the designer in this as they will know how to problem solve with printers, web developers, at events, etc.
We’ve had numerous instances where once the core project was up, we were asked to follow up with some collateral pieces, like signage for an event, or Facebook ads for a campaign. When you’re budgetting, you may want to retain a little money for these eventualities.
The great thing is that if you were to hire a designer to simply make conference badges, for example, the fee might be quite expensive, but if you’re asking the same designer who built your conference site to add on some badges, you’re looking at a smaller bill, since the foundational work has already been done.
If you think you will need help from the designer after or during launch, build it into the timelines. A lot of freelance designers use the opportunity of having finished a big project to take a holiday or start a new contract. You don’t want to be left in the lurch for lack of planning.
Credit where credit is due
Are you happy with your final product? Are your colleagues telling you how great it all looks and works? Let them know who helped you out. Tweet out a little thank you to your designer. Invite the designer to your event, to the rally, to the conference. Freelance designers, especially, rely on word of mouth to build their business and they worked so hard! They earned a little recognition!
Make sure to credit photographers and illustrators separately from designers, but they need the same love.
Bonus: paying designers
Every contractor will have a different payment schedule. I’ve know designers who won’t give over final files until they’re paid, where at our agency we’ve billed out monthly over the course of a year. It all depends, but let me finish on this. Freelance designers, especially young ones, live a precarious life waiting by the mailbox for cheques. If you can send an e-Transfer, do. If you can pay the majority up front, do. Pay promptly, and that next project you need asap just jumped to the front of the queue. --
- Take stock of what you have and what you will need.
- Form a committee who is empowered to make decisions.
- Write a design brief
- Make sure you have a sense of budgets and timelines before approaching a designer
- Collaborate with the designer—start blue sky and then work down to the details
- Take your passion for social justice, human rights, the environment, labour rights and use that to inspire the designer
- At the design presentation listen carefully and take notes
- Deliver feedback in the form of problems, not solutions
- Create a solid launch plan and account for things that may go wrong
- Give your designer credit, and pay them quickly!
I hope this has been useful. Please add any questions or comments below and I will amend/expand on anything that needs it