If you are starting a branding project of any sort, it will be an investment that you will want to have succeed, in many cases, it must succeed. As a brand
identity firm in San Francisco for nearly 30 years, we’ve worked across
industries and verticals, from startups to legacy brand reboots and while every project is different, there are some commonalities to successful projects. One of the biggest factors that separates the great projects from the ones that don’t thrive are not brands themselves, not audiences or goals but really, the biggest difference is in the people, their dynamics, and expectations.
Every organization has its own culture but the specific players on a given project will have a particular dynamic that is brought to the project. Across the board, the conditions that create the best outcomes:
- When leaders are clear about the goal and expect a process, without expecting it to be straightforward or easy.
- When projects are rooted in realism around time and budget.
- When teams demonstrate a healthy culture of trust and are not operating out of fear.
Clients generally like engaging in brand identity and design projects. We hear it all the time, “These are our favorite meetings!” Clients get to come to a
meeting and be presented with creative work —— and a client gets to give feedback, make decisions, edit, curate, it can be a lot of fun. But there is always an investment at stake and you want to feel confident that you are engaging with the right design or branding firm that will not just be fun but also deliver success. To clarify, when I say “success”, I mean the project that helped you grow your business, secure more leads, secure more donations, sell more. I do not mean the project just looks nice. We operate, and anyone you hire should operate, with the most expanded definition of design, which is about the translation of ideas; to harness design as a secret weapon for your message.
Design work is a forcing mechanism that will evolve in real-time. It will include shifts in thinking and an unimaginable number of revisions. Decisions that seemed clear one day, may change the next once you see them as comps or with copy or in context of other material. Cultivate realism. Expect a process and an evolution.
From where I sit, after years in the business and across industries and project types, here are my recommendations for the best return on your branding and design investment:
- The whole project team expects the design process to be a forcing
mechanism that unearths all kinds of decisions needing to be made that you might not have expected.
- The powers that be are more or less on the same page before they begin but have no expectations that they have figured everything out already; the whole team expects a process of starts, stops, changing of minds, and even what feels like inefficiencies but it’s really discovery.
- The ultimate decision-makers stay involved in the process. No one has to second guess a higher up’s opinion and try to deliver perfection to their boss. The notion that you are insulating your boss from the firm you’ve entrusted with this investment in the name of saving them time means that they do not understand that they do not have time to connect with the audience that matters. When it’s really not possible, suggest that he/she/they reach out directly to the firm and ask how things are going.
- The atmosphere is devoid of fear (especially of superiors) and supports being a bit brave. We’ve seen the effect of fear on a group and they are incredibly hard to deliver good work for.
- An adequate budget has been allocated for all phases of the project, including contingency to value-engineer if needed in the end.
- A realistic amount of time was factored in for coalescing internal feedback.
- There was clarity about a production budget going in and there was a receptivity to spending more if it promised a greater return on
investment. Often the most effective communications are the ones that are unique and stop the viewer in their tracks. Sometimes, it takes
working harder or spending a bit more to make something out of the box that will end up being the most valuable money spent.
- Entrust the firm you hire to do their job, ask questions, and reveal things that you cannot see from the inside.
WHEN BRANDING AND DESIGN PROJECTS DON’T WORK
The term design, in fact, is from de signare…which translates to, “out from” signage (to plan). It encompasses collaboration and a process by which all kinds of stuff is figured out. The best clients expect design to deliver a lot in terms of results. If you find your organization being disappointed in its design or in the firm it hired, stop to consider if any of these factors could be at play:
- You are hiring a YES firm that just executes and you are not prepared for a process.
- You think the firm’s task is simply to make finished content look good when the truth is that getting the content right takes the majority of the time.
- You are asking to see the completed project with all content BEFORE IT IS ACTUALLY DONE. (You might be surprised at how often we are asked to show a client examples of the project before we have done the project.)
- You have not allocated a proper budget which prevents a firm from doing anything outside of precisely what you prescribe. A tight budget leaves little room for exploration and a design professional to bring versions to the table that might surprise and delight you.
- You have a fundamental misunderstanding about what is on offer through design.
- You do not have clarity about the proper budget and human dynamics that will set a project up for success.
- You and your other internal stakeholders are not on the same page.
The path forward when things have gone awry can go a few ways. The good way: as the project progresses and different points of view emerge because they invariably will, the client recognizes the advantage of aligning internally and uses the project process to do so. The bad way: the client does not
acknowledge the differing opinions or align internally and instead points a finger at the designer. The client feels disappointed and frustrated and does not stop to ask what they need to do to allow us to be successful.
One of the interesting things about what we do is we get to interact with a lot of organizations and see the internal differences. What we refer to as “our client” is really a collection of people, often with different points of view. While rare, there are times when the different opinions of a client are so fundamentally different from one another that it’s hard for a design team to take direction and succeed. One wants to check the project off the list, the faster the better and cheaper. Easy is best. One of them has a vision of what they want us to do but it is out of alignment with the others. One of the players would love to keep the project going because it’s fun. One cares far more about the ideas and process than executing anything. One cares deeply about securing a template—the fonts and colors—and has little patience for or
interest in ideas. Often, we could please any one of them but you can imagine a firm can not be set up to not please them all.
Keep in mind, “fine” work is easy but most people are not paying a firm for
“fine”. Great is generally not easy but it’s generally joyful. The end result will make the sometimes challenging path of working and reworking worth it tenfold. You will see a return on your investment. You may have heard the
expression, “Measure twice, and cut once.” The spirit of that applies to hiring a firm to help you execute your branding or design work. Interview, vet, check portfolios, and references. Then hire the people you like and trust the most
(not which firm worked with the biggest brand names.) Hire the people and allow the process to work its magic.
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