Helping You Help Me Do My Job Better
August 7, 2008 11:08 AM   Subscribe

How can I make someone else a better graphic designer?

Doing my new job well relies heavily on the effective print advertising and promotion of the events I coordinate (free events open to the public, if it matters). Because of the way my company is structured, all that marketing/PR-type stuff is handled through two people.

The problem is, their graphic design skills are atrocious. Not in a "They subscribe to a different design philosophy than I do, so I call their skills atrocious" kind of way. More like a "They are not visually artistic people, have no training in art or design (or the industry-standard software of either) and have no clue as to what makes for effective visual communication" kind of way. They can't see, for example, that crowded, serif-y text with alternating-rainbow-colors and long, slanted shadows might be poor design choices, or at least not on par with current professional standards.

They were hired long ago, their main qualifications being that they made up the newsletters for the last companies they worked for. But our industry has changed a lot, and is much more driven by the perceptions of our customers than it used to be (now most firms in our industry hire design/ad firms outright). But hiring new people, or a design/ad firm, is not an option.

I have both formal and on-the-job experience in graphic design, marketing, advertising, and promotions, so I'd be more than happy to handle my own promotional material. Trouble is, company structure and politics won't allow it; I can only submit my event schedule to the people in question, pray fervently that the tidbits of subtle advice I give (e.g., "I envision something really bold for this," or "This will be posted in a high-traffic area, so let's make it easy to read from far away") are considered, and vomit when I get the final product.

The bosses above these people don't appreciate the importance of effective graphic design, and I'm not in a position to address the issue with them directly. The designers are really nice people, and I completely appreciate that they don't want someone outside their department telling them how to do their job. But in the interest of my own (and the company's) success, and my sanity, I have to exercise the little influence I have, without sending the message that they don't know what they're doing.

The key is, this has to come across as me offering "helpful hints," not as being the squeaky wheel or Mr. Too-Big-For-His-Britches. So I turn to you, hive mind: assuming the limitations I describe above, what resources and tactics should I use to "nudge" these people toward a higher-quality graphic design sensibility? I'm thinking (very) user-friendly website tutorials, or books for beginners that don't take a "For Dummies" tone, but tactics for broaching the subject in a non-threatening way are also welcome. Please also assume that responses along the lines of "Nothing can be done" or "Change jobs if you don't like it" are not solutions.
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The best thing I can think of is to give them very specific instructions that are impossible - or almost impossible - to fuck up. You be the art director and make them the production artists - draw very specific comps with the layout, indicate the type treatment specifically (the header must be Helvetica Neue Bold 36/40, or the body text must be Adobe Caslon Pro 11/13, or "no fuckin' drop shadows, no rainbow gradients," etc).

Failing that, can you give them projects that are too difficult for them to produce in an effort to get them canned? A 40 page booklet in CMYK but with two images that are Tritones with a foil and very specific perfs or folds, say.

I feel for you. No designer can do every project well, and it's standard practice to give a project to someone else if the current AD/PA/wevs can't handle it for whatever reason. Is there anyone at all higher up you can speak to? No one should be guaranteed a job if they suck at it.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:32 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I did note your last sentence, but if their bosses don't care, and they don't have the skills, I think you're screwed.

That said, if they do have an interest in learning, sharing some websites "that I really dig and you might like," could help. Buying some quality books and making a library of these might help. Not giving the books to them, mind you, but surrounding the office with books so they might look on their own.

My best suggestion, and it probably won't work either is, go ahead and do the materials the way you want them, then hand them off with, "I was thinking something like this. Do whatever you need to to make it work." Sounds like you're kind of trying to do this already, but with just words.

Give them the files, realizing they're going to change them, but since a lot of people are lazy, they may not muck with them too much. And if they make bad choices, then you can come back and ask why. Opens a dialog. They probably have ideas on what will work (obviously wrong ones), but trying to articulate their choices might make it possible for you to discuss decent design standards.

I think you know, from reading the question itself, that you can't make someone into something. You can only guide, and if that guidance is unwelcome, then again, you're screwed.

Does your company structure allow for you to create and give a graphic design class? A "Lunch & Learn," sort of thing? Then the problem becomes getting them to come, and hoping they take something away from it.

Maybe also give some concrete examples done by others? Actual printed materials you like, then explain why you like them and hope for the best? This way you'll probably get better design, but then you have to worry how much was "borrowed."

Even people with a desire to learn this stuff can't always become designers. I can identify what makes good design and why, I study it a lot, but my design skills plain suck, and I have a desire to do it better. It doesn't sound like these people do.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:36 AM on August 7, 2008

"Change jobs if you don't like it" are not solutions.

Honestly, having been in your position as a designer, it certainly is a solution and the only regret was that it hadn't been done sooner.

But in the interest of my own (and the company's) success, and my sanity

Is this really a problem or is it something bothers you personally? Is the company actually losing money or at least stuck at a certain profit level due to the shitty design? If so, you need to communicate that to the higher ups and/or somehow demonstrate it. If they can't or won't see it then your options are to learn to deal with it or leave.

They are not visually artistic people, have no training in art or design (or the industry-standard software of either) and have no clue as to what makes for effective visual communication" kind of way

This is not a rational situation and in order to change things, you'll probably have to step on some toes, which may result in the current "designers" getting fired. You should decide if you're ok with that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:39 AM on August 7, 2008

Put together an assortment of design work that you like.

Spend some time in a bookstore flipping through the magazines ... don't just look at the magazine, look at the ads, too! Some ads are just beautifully designed.

Buy the magazines featuring design elements that you admire. Clip them out ... you could put them up on a large bulletin board, or keep them in a file folder.

The next time you need to have one of the "graphic designers" put together something for you, have them follow the style of one of your "inspiration pieces." Just tell them you want an ad that looks a lot like this and give them the clipping you want to use for aesthetics.

This way it's a little less personal - you aren't directly telling them that their design sense sucks - just that you wish they'd emulate a particular style.

Also, take an afternoon off and go on a field trip to your local upscale shopping center. Bring your digital cameras. Look at the hang tags on the merchandise, the window displays, the posters and collateral materials. This can be helpful, especially if you work in the consumer goods field.

Ideally, it would be great if you could hire a marketing/graphic design freelancer to set up templates and stylesheets for your communication materials. Then your in-house people would have some established rules to follow when it came to creating new materials. They could open up the default file that the highly-skilled pro made and then make the appropriate changes to the text.

It sounds like your people are really not graphic designers, but rather production artists, so having a true pro develop the overall style/concept would make a difference. But, you just gotta do what you can.
posted by Ostara at 11:43 AM on August 7, 2008

I sympathize with your position and I'm trying to think how I would handle it.

Maybe you can occasionally "treat" the designers in a "wink-wink designers love this stuff and you will too" kind of approach with some resources. That should at least warrant curiosity and not invite resentment. There are several graphic design trade magazines that you could subscribe them to, often times for free. I have no idea as to how legit this website is, but have seen it recommended before: Trade Magazines.

As for books, maybe something inspiring in the hopes that they will start to emulate what they see? On my shelf I have a rather dated but still cool copies of Creative Jolt and Creative Jolt Inspirations. Something with pages and pages of well-done examples would be good. There are some "Best of" series out there for things like logos, letterheads, business cards etc.

Maybe eventually you can convince them to build a small library for their art department full of inspiring and authoritative books on design topics. Books on typography, color and other design basics would be essential, but I would expect they probably are not up to snuff on things like pre-press and the latest programs and books on those could also be helpful.

I've suggested some six times in the last month on this site, but I'm not a shill- just a happy customer! is a website with very easy-to-follow video tutorials on the more technical side of being a designer, although there are some typography principles featured on there, too.

As for interacting with them, don't hesitate to draw thumbnail sketches of what you expect. And keep copies. When they come back with something abysmal, you can casually point out that what you got wasn't what you expected and/or needed and to please refer to the drawing again. God knows I've run up against that many times as a designer, but if the art director knows what they are doing, it's not necessarily a bad thing to hold the designer to something like that.

When it's all said and done, I think it takes both education and intuition to make a good designer. If these people are not going to have an open mind, however, you are going to get nowhere and that's just going to be have to be something you have to face eventually. And don't forget - they are responsible for the design in the long run.
posted by bristolcat at 11:45 AM on August 7, 2008

When I was a graphic design intern, my supervisor would say things like "I want to see six different designs for this package" or "This client needs a logo simple enough to be embroidered on a polo shirt, and it should include their initial. Give me fifty sketches." Then we'd walk through what worked, what didn't, what almost worked.

Though I didn't end up going into design, my understanding is that this is fairly common - you have to come up with multiple preliminary versions of a logo, layout, or product. Sometimes the only difference is a minor tweak, a longer left leg on the stick figure or a slightly bluer red.

So I'm wondering why you apparently give these people the assignments and don't say a word until you receive the final product. Have them submit a few mock-ups well before the final product is due and schedule quick meetings where you give them specific and constructive feedback ("There is a lot of blank space in this area and it draws the eye away," "Comic Sans reads as too informal for this letterhead"). Ideally they'll start to see for themselves what works and what doesn't.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:02 PM on August 7, 2008

Ideally they'll start to see for themselves what works and what doesn't.

Even if they don't, they'll hopefully start to figure out what kinds of things you like, and will accept rather than turning them back.

The problem with a lot of the otherwise-good advice being offered here is that people who're that used to producing such cruddy stuff aren't really going to be reworkable into good graphic designers with a wink and a nudge; it's going to really take "Sorry, this is just crap, here are all the things wrong with it." You're not looking to tweak their output - you need/want to totally redo their style, and they probably don't have the skillset or instincts to 'get' the reasons for the designs you desire. If you really do have mission-critical, public-view-defining documents being messed up by people who have no business producing them, you have only three real options: Tell them they're producing crap and try to have them fix it; talk to their superiors about the fact that they're costing the company a lot of money by doing things they're extremely unqualified for, or find a new job.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:09 PM on August 7, 2008

Perhaps get yourself a copy of this book, and give it to them. Unfortunately the potential insult in the title might be a problem, but you could always gush about "forget the title - I know experienced designers who love this book!"

It is light reading that boils down principles to their simple essence, demonstrates the difference they make and how. It's also a little harder to put down than many design books, as it keeps up a good pace.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:21 PM on August 7, 2008

The next time you need a one-off brochure or whatnot...go ahead and do it yourself and damn the politics. Seriously.

If these people are as terrible as you say, and you have the chops you claim, then the end results should be demonstrably better than what the others have been doing, to where even the higher-up will recognize the quality. You're either going to have to rock the boat or sit there and learn to enjoy the ride.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:26 PM on August 7, 2008

I don't think you can 'educate' them as such, but as a damage limitation exercise you can provide detailed reference material for each project, i.e. stuff for them to loosely mimic, partly to minimise excesses and partly to expose them to examples of good work without being preachy.

As Metroid Baby suggests, make sure the work is done in stages. You don't want to be constantly interrupting and standing over them, but it's sensible to ensure there's a meeting to discuss rough ideas before they progress to final designs.
posted by malevolent at 12:43 PM on August 7, 2008

Like others have said, give them ads to copy. Go through a few magazines which advertise local events, shop for good templates on flickr, give them design elements from iStockPhoto you want used, draw up a style guide you want used with your adverts. When I was untried at designs, my marketing manager would just attach an ad and it was my job to just duplicate it as closely as possible with new copy. When you see something sloppy in their execution, then link a tutorial from a blog or Lynda to get them up to speed.

If you don't have the authority to request drafts, mark edits on those drafts, and repeat until you're satisfied, you'll have to assert yourself to get it. This is basic production control, and since no one else is doing it you seem like you're in a good position to step up. I never broke any bad design habits until I got a draft back with arrows and X's and other basic edits. I wasn't wounded or resistant, I just made the edits and felt good that my coworkers were getting what they wanted.
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:57 PM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

(or, what Metroid Baby said. :P )
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:59 PM on August 7, 2008

harlequin, I was going to suggest the same book. I'm no designer but after reading that book I can spot a bad design and explain why (Look! Mixed alignments!).

It also helped me become much more aware of designs all around me. Reminds me that I'm due for a re-read.
posted by trinity8-director at 2:13 PM on August 7, 2008

Another book suggestion: Before and After. It has simple instructions on designing newsletters, postcards, etc. They also have a PDF magazine with many ideas for inspiration. They also include all the necessary information to replicate their examples, down to typography and Pantone colors.
posted by clearlydemon at 2:35 PM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I normally respect limitations given in questions. But I honestly think your time, creativity, and diplomatic efforts would be better spent getting permission to either hire someone or do it yourself. Those two people are so overworked. This isn't [what they do], of course you'd never hire out for that, it's [some other thing]. Etc.
posted by salvia at 7:37 PM on August 7, 2008

Oh, Ostara's advice is good, too: "hire a marketing/graphic design freelancer to set up templates and stylesheets for your communication materials. Then your in-house people would have some established rules to follow when it came to creating new materials. They could open up the default file that the highly-skilled pro made and then make the appropriate changes to the text."
posted by salvia at 7:43 PM on August 7, 2008

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