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Columns by Nancy K. Austin:

Mission to Mars

Everyone's a Critic... Even You

Big Brothers Big Sisters

Follow the Headhunter



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The challenge is for the graphic designer to turn data into information and information into messages of meaning.
-- Katherine McCoy, designer

With my last two columns, I hope I've convinced you that the brochure is a marketing tool nonpareil. Assuming you're not a complete klutz and you're clear about what you want to say, you can probably produce a serviceable brochure on your own without burning through every last buck. But suppose -- just suppose -- your design attempts were bush league. Or maybe you're a newbie IP and you're loath to take any chances with something as important as a brochure. So you make up your mind to go out and hire the most excellent designer you can afford, somebody who can take your inchoate content and turn it into a publication with panache. Now what?

First, you have to find somebody who's good, somebody you can roll up your sleeves and really work with. Like all professional service providers -- podiatrists, lawyers, photographers, hairdressers, tree surgeons, consultants -- graphic designers, too, build their businesses chiefly on word of mouth, so get cracking and put that network of yours to work. Squash your ear to the ground, and ask your friends and neighbors and colleagues to cough up a recommendation or two. Keep your eyes peeled for designs that knock you out and find out who's behind them. Around the time I resolved to redo my brochure, I swooned over a poster that advertised our local Shakespeare Festival. Within the hour, I'd tracked down the poster designer, talked to him in general terms about what I had in mind for my new look, and mailed off some background materials. It didn't work out, but not because the guy wasn't brilliant and successful. He was all that and a bag of chips. No, this had more to do with personality than artistic prowess. We didn't -- how shall I put this? -- click. That, and he didn't seem interested enough in my kind of work to design for it. Ask him to interpret King Lear or Love's Labour's Lost, though, and stand back. "It's a personal thing, designing for somebody," says Elaine Nusser, an independent graphic designer in the San Francisco bay area. "In commercial art you have to put your ego on a shelf, because you're working to suit another's taste."

A good designer makes room for you, the client. (If you sense you're an unwelcome intrusion, split.) This is a partnership, or maybe a co-conspiracy, but never single-party rule. You want somebody who's eager to learn more about your specific industry and business challenges. Dispense with the showboats, and ditto folks who are designing to thrill other designers or to win snooty awards. Find someone who seems interested in coming up with something that communicates your message visually. An extra dollop of preparation now will save you from discovering, too late, that you've backed the wrong horse. A good designer will always ask certain questions (start sweating if he doesn't), and part of your job as a design consumer is to be able to answer them:

  • What's the purpose of the brochure? If there's more than one, which is the most important?

  • Who is the target audience?

  • What are some examples of designs you like?

  • What brochure style do you have in mind (four-panel, three-fold, press kit)?

  • How long do you want people to keep your brochure?

  • Will you write the copy, or are you looking for a copywriter?

  • How soon will you need the final brochure?

  • What's your budget?

How Much Will This Sucker Cost?

Client wants: 1) Good. 2) Fast. 3) Cheap.
Designer replies: Pick two.
-- Hugh Dubberly, designer

For most IPs, the $64 question is: How much will this sucker cost? A designer who asked not to be identified explained it this way: "I'll quote by the project, but my fee is pretty much based on the number of hours I think it will take, calculated at $75 per hour for design work. The norm is probably between $50 and $75 an hour, unless you're fresh out of art school. Then you might charge $35 or $40. It all depends: I have a couple of difficult clients who never know what they want, and we go back and forth, back and forth. I have to be compensated for all that pain." The reverse, of course, is also true. One independent designer who for years created whimsical watercolor illustrations to go with my words gave me a price break because I adored her work, and I always paid her faster than her deeper-pocketed but sluggish corporate clients; less red tape, you know. So keep in mind that when it comes to buying professional services, it's good to be an IP.

The easiest way to save time, trouble, and considerable dough is to make it clear to your designer that you're on a budget. Next, get organized. Take a stab at writing your own copy. The more polished your prose, the easier on your pocket the whole project will be. Assemble collateral material -- photos, charts, illustrations -- ahead of time. Decide whether you want a reply vehicle, like a postage-paid reply card that prospects can use to request more information, as part of your concept. That way, when you get together with a designer, you've refined the project focus from the get-go. Of course if you change your mind along the way, and decide you really do prefer the chartreuse paper and vermilion ink, expect to pay the designer's full hourly rates to accommodate your "author's alterations," as they're called in the trade.

Simpler designs are generally less expensive: that's not true if we're talking about an Armani suit, but graphics are another matter. "You'll save on your print budget if you design, say, a two-color piece instead of a four-color piece," Elaine Nusser says. "Or I can do something streamlined and elegant without a lot of diagrams and flourishes. That's good, because you want a brochure to be clean, easy to read, and eye-catching, or it's not going to work. People shouldn't have to hunt for your contact information." My brochure design, for example, was the soul of simplicity. It wasn't cluttered up with a lot of eye-catching graphic elements, making it easy as pie to locate my address and phone number. But it cost a bloody fortune to produce the thing because the cover was headed with my embossed logo -- a drop-dead gorgeous look that, while elegant in the extreme, is also one of the most expensive design choices you can make. I never regretted it, though, because fifteen years and several reprints later, it still rocks.

Sometimes, Nusser says, she can cut costs by creating design templates and letting clients take it from there, supplying content and doing their own layouts and text formatting. Even so, "your biggest expense is usually printing," she says, "but there are different levels of printers. Don't go to the same printer for everything. Take the time to find out what equipment he has and what jobs he's most suitable for. If you go to a big four- and six-color guy for your business cards, you'll pay three times as much as you should."

Pro's the Way to Go

A designer should use only these five typefaces:
Bodoni, Helvetica, Times Roman, Century, and Futura.
-- Massimo Vignelli, designer

Design pros offer prodigious technical know-how, tons of experience, inside knowledge, and trade connections that they've spent years cultivating, but the real value a designer adds is a special talent for communicating visually. That's a language we all understand, sometimes without realizing it. "You think visuals aren't important?" asks designer Ken Silvia. "Okay, what if I drew a swastika? Does that make an impression on you? It used to be a symbol for humanity during early Christian times, until somebody else copped it: Hitler was one of the first copyright infringers! Visuals are so powerful." After all the harping I've been doing on the value of plain, sparkling English, the mystery and allure of pure design deserves the last word, and it will have it.

Before you end up with 5,000 homegrown brochures that look like something you'd wrap codfish in, think seriously about enlisting a designer's help. Consider that design is becoming the only thing that differentiates one product from another in crowded markets. That's true for Sony TVs, PT Cruisers, and IPs. Design runs deep; it's not just veneer, not merely packaging, more than decoration. It tells the world who you are. It has the power to change people's minds. Have I changed yours?

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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