Project Strategy = Knowledge of the Process + A Little Critical Thinking
Projects often appear daunting at first. Any early design career is full of trial and error, and it's through that early stage—throwing yourself into a seemingly futile task and throwing out solutions until something sticks—that makes it all seem so much clearer later on. We're all still learning, but here are some tricks and tips I've caught on to along the way to develop an effective project strategy:
- Ask the right questions.
I've worked on a lot of branding projects, and for every branding project there have been countless more print collateral. Though every project is different and deserves an individualized approach, I always start with the same types of questions that help reel an unfamiliar client with an unfamiliar brand into a comfortable domain that leads to clear communication and smooth next steps.
I usually start off new branding projects, or new client files, with a pretty straightforward survey to capture the information that's helpful for any project: what is the product, in short? Who is the intended audience? What type of marketing strategy is already in place? These identity-type questions then give way to visual ones: is there a specific color palette in mind? What amount of copy are we starting with? Is there a link to something that's already visually interesting to a client that could be useful as a reference or for a mood board?
The answers to these simple questions then help to kick into gear the more intuitive and individualized side of a project. Say a project is for a brick and mortar of a common type of business—a gym or a restaurant. Is there a local competitor that must be differentiated from? Is the client offering seasonal services? If so, would the brand benefit from a brand that visually adapts easily over time?
A lot of this sort of critical thinking happens on the business end, before pencil hits paper. But a lot of these questions intuitively lead to one another, and with an open channel of communication early on and some basic experience of things to look out for, the project will run much more smoothly and arrive somewhere a world apart from a simple copy-to-image prompt. And this forward thinking leads us to the next tip...
- Consider possible future obstacles early on, especially on the user end, even if it means reworking the "perfect design."
Here's a very basic example: say you're designing an e-blast, and you know that it will be more readable if you use common web fonts and offer an easy conversion to plain text and all of the beautiful things developers hope designers will do so they don't have to pull their hair out, but the client really needs something visual with custom fonts. Instead of just giving them a jpeg to embed in an email body and letting them hope for the best as the image is likely blocked by most email clients, you use the beautiful image that the project needs, but you also work with the client to use an email service that will easily back up to plain text, provide ample alt text by cutting up the image (MailChimp has a good example here,) and make sure there's a link to view the image online if there's any trouble. This way, the recipient will actually receive the message—and even the most beautifully executed design means nothing if it communicates to no one! Oh, and save that template so their future emails are consistent...that one's a given.
This is a very basic example that most of us probably would have resolved readily, as there are so many tools available and it's something you know to be proactive about.
Here's a sneakier example:
You're working with a startup on a branding project, and while every startup has dreams of greatness, the reality is that the initial budget is low (if existent) and those fancy flyers aren't very useful if the client cannot afford to print them. But you also don't want a design that just needs to be seen in color on nice matte paper to be xeroxed away into a grey blob. It happens, but you want to at least anticipate such a travesty! So you anticipate. You make a digital PDF of the brochure that's free to distribute. You design the logo in a way that is affordable to screen-print (with minimal colors) and looks good in greyscale (or ideally in black) for those early xeroxes. And while you're doing it, you anticipate how this can adapt seamlessly to the full color logo the client dreamed of and you can get those brochures printed when the time comes. I know, we want to live in a dream world where everything can be a perfect clean vector of the exact Pantone color that's prescribed, but reality must remain at the forefront while you're getting there. Good design is good business.
- Have a system in place to automate common steps.
This one's pretty straightforward. Regardless of how different any two projects are, there are going to be repeated steps, and there's no use in reinventing the wheel (or the contract, sigh) each time. Keep an arsenal of tools to move along each project, and stick with the process—not only does it save time, but developing this routine will help jog your memory of what types of questions and next steps to consider at different points in the process.
Some materials I always have on hand:
• Pre-project survey. It's in a sign-in only part of the website, and before starting a new project I send prospective clients the login. There are different prompts for different types of projects, and I'm able to collect all basic specs in one place while also capturing contact information and preferences to start a project or client file.
• Pitch templates for different types of projects (always changing, but a basic template with commonly used parts is useful and will develop itself with the more work you do.)
• Contract template that references the pitch. A great starting point for a standard design contract is available here.
• Branded templates for comps, notes, and style guides
• Invoice template (I used to do them in InDesign and email them the old fashioned way, but there are lots of tools like Quickbooks, FreshBooks, Wave and countless more that are much more efficient—some even offer direct online payment and tracking.)
This way, you're always prepared when communicating next steps, and those steps become second nature.
- Always think about your audience.
When I'm working on a big rebrand, I sometimes come up with fictional characters that represent the target audience. I've even done it in groups with clients. It sounds hokey, but it works! "Young tech-minded people" is far less relatable than "Tom, who just graduated from engineering school, loves to code, bikes everywhere and is actively involved in his local food co-op." Once you start these exercises you'll find that you're really reaching the heart of the brand, and the aesthetic sort of comes together within it. If you have access to members of your ideal audience, perhaps within the client company, see if you can fit in a 10 minute drawing or ideation exercise. This all varies with scale and project budget of course—and I'm not getting into marketing strategy, though the two are inexorably linked (and a working knowledge is important for any designer.)
With any project, big or small, at least be sure to take some time to consider whether your design will be practical. Is a proposed digital component right for your age group? What types of phones/computers/tablets are your demographic using to view digital content? What will the environment of your final design be (whether it's print or digital, a billboard or a banner ad)? Do teenagers actually think this is cool? And always remember to be culturally competent and sensitive to age and place. Design is an experience, and the audience brings expectations too.
- There is indeed an "i" in Design, but let's forget about it.
Always remember that you're part of a team working with the client on a project. The design needs to work for everyone. Always communicate with that in mind, and you'll find that communications are open and simple. When you aren't sure about something or don't know if you're going in the right direction, ask! The sooner you know, the sooner you get moving towards a stronger solution. Don't be so nervous about showing a client something that isn't perfect yet that you take up both of your time moving in the wrong direction.