With brains or no brains?

A common misconception is that a designer’s work is a no brainer thing. Give them a brief, let them come up with the design and that’s it. For creative stuffs either look for an agency to come up with something neat or find a copywriter.

I wouldn’t say it’s wrong, in fact, it’s the safest way to do so. But when budget are short and you just want to have something up running, you just can’t afford to hire an agency to do it.

Then came disaster – you thought your ideas were superior – until it’s too late, the idea backfired, and everything came crashing in. Then who is to be blamed? You? The designer? What is his role anyway? Wasn’t he supposed to provide some feedbacks?

But I would ask you back – would you take his suggestions seriously in the first place? Would you really willing to be criticised and able to swallow up all the comments that you wish you would not get? And also important – is he to be trusted?

However, I have to give a benefit of the doubt that in some cases, the designer actually won’t utter a single word. He would blindly follow what you asked him to do. And his rationale would be “Hey! You paid me, so I just follow. I don’t care about the outcome.”

This is quite a typical situation, and I can’t blame the designers sometimes. Some are totally clueless about what they do. Whether I want to blame the rapid education programme in some colleges/universities that sacrificed quality by offering too much subjects to cover in a short period of time (ka-ching!), that they were just not trained to “think” or the direction that the students groomed were towards “skill” than “thought”.

As a client, you have the privilege to seek advise from the designer. In case you didn’t know, if, let’s say the designer really went though a good and proper education, do you know he was taught not only about art and learning design software, but also basics such as marketing, sociology, psychology, research, theories, history and probably a lot more than that? Where else do you think he or she spent in their 3-4 years of education?

As my mentor used to say – garbage in, garbage out. It applies to the quality of education institution the designer enrolled, all the way to the designer you hired. If the input is bad, expect the output to be REALLY bad.

So how would you know? Does your designer knows what he is doing? Is he just another Igor?

When you look at portfolio reviews, and found them really attractive, creative and well executed, you can do the following:

  1. Ask him how much is his involvement in the project. Who came up with the creative? How it was developed?
  2. Have a chat with something in general – see how much he knows and how he answers it. Some might not be eloquent so perhaps you should also check the way he or she answers email.
  3. Some designers are slow, but doesn’t mean they aren’t good. So throw them some questions, perhaps the current creative problems you are having, and see how they can answer impromptu, or wait for their email/phone answer once they started brainstorming.
  4. Do not look only at the execution, but how their work reflects their personality. If the work has a personality, it means great thought and effort have been placed into it. And that probably means he is a thinker, not just a worker.
  5. Overall, your budget also reflects who you are hiring. You can’t expect to hire someone good if you are paying less than 50% market value. Unless he is a freelancer or he is desperate… but squeezing people like this is just really bad.
  6. Unless you are a visionary, just lacking the skills, then you can happily engage a really affordable designer and just follow what you do.

Now, from my point of view as a client (I hire people to do work for me as well):

  1. I always keep my core ideas 75% tops. The other 25% I hope the person who is executing it would give suggestions and ideas how to improve, or do it in his way. But, before I give him this freedom I make sure I have chosen the right person to do it (based on the 6 points above).
  2. I am always open to criticisms, but only at a restricted crowd. I only give this to people whom I know qualified to give comments, and are open (not shoe polishing type). Normally it would not be more than 5 people.
  3. Unless it is very crucial to get opinions, then I contract a market research company. And not any tom, dick and harry!
  4. I always have to imbue the idea that nothing is free. If I want quality, I have to get the budget to do it.

Finally, from my point of view as a consultant and designer (I have also written a similar article about this, read back my previous posts):

  1. Be responsible. When client hires you it means he is relying on you. Don’t mess it up and give yourself a bad name. Words can travel fast.
  2. You have to project yourself as the brainy type if you expect them to listen to you. If you think you have the qualities as a consultant, make sure you project that image the first time client set his first impression on you (or on your website).
  3. If you wish to remain to be Mr Igor, then it’s easy – cut to short and simple emails, and set terms about your scope (just do, no thinking) and bill them by the end of the project.
  4. If there is a grave mistake and your gut feeling tells you he is landing himself in trouble, speak to him nicely and point it out. If he doesn’t want to listen then too bad if it happens. If he does, he will trust you even more and grateful of your comments.
  5. Every one has an ego. Be sensitive and don’t burst your clients’ especially. Go for the soft approach.

10 things a designer (both audio and visual) should do to be successful:

All right, these could be solely my own point of views, and if you’d think otherwise, feel free to point them out ;)
  1. Read a lot. I really mean a lot. Be a sponge. Learn things that are outside your scope of study. That is how “think outside of the box” happened. There is something magical about reading – it expresses things in many ways that even film or music could not express. Find these hidden qualities and if you can translate it into design, it will be magical as well.
  2. Watch all sorts of movies and listen to all types of music and get to love as many genre as possible. And then figure out how it was done that would create its unique identity. You do not want to restrict yourself only into a single genre or otherwise your target would be too niche and you will lose a lot of opportunity.
  3. Be daring. Change rules often, but never forget its roots. If you simply use an idea without knowing its origin, you would bump into trouble later should it contradicts with the new concept you are proposing.
  4. Do not succumb to routine works. If you are stuck with routine works, venture into personal projects – things that you love to do. Fund it yourself if necessary.
  5. Talk to friends, share ideas, and acknowledge their creativity. And learn. By supporting one another you built a positive creative energy around you.
  6. Always, and I repeat, ALWAYS RESPECT INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. Do not plagiarize and do not steal. If you are operating a business and making money don’t give an excuse that you are too poor to use original software. Read back my previous posts about devaluing your own profession by supporting piracy and plagiarism.
  7. Be multi disciplined. If you are an animator, be a motion graphics designer as well. Or even venture into film. If you are a sound designer, be a graphic designer too. The more skills you have, the more things you can do and the less creative energy will be used up on a single discipline. In this way you can switch to other areas when you are exhausted.
  8. Entering competition can be healthy, but can be dangerous too. As what Bruce Mau said: “Don’t enter awards competitions. Just don’t. It’s not good for you”. Well in my interpretation, if one is too obsessed in entering competitions and winning it, it has turned into a game. A game which you would then analyse how to win it, and in this case, adhering to its own rules and regulations which you have to CHANGE in order to win it. The outcome it will turn you into someone you are not. Your unique identity will be lost, and your self development will be hindered.
  9. Always know that the quality and standard you have set for yourself, even though in your own point of view is excellent, it could also be perceived as horrible or mediocre in another person’s point of view. That is the beauty of it actually. Because art is subjective. So do not be too stern on your standards and be prepared to be criticised and do not take it too personally. I know it is hard but try. Don’t let it get to you.
  10. Perhaps the most important thing of all, even with the 9 points I have summed it up, none could beat this one – attitude. Humility is the greatest asset a designer can have. I do not wish to reveal too much here because humility can only be learned if you are one. If you are too proud of yourself, I have only one advise – make sure you are really damn good at what you do. Then nobody can criticise you. But if you are still learning and try to be cocky, good luck laddy ;)

Group review – is it necessary? (Especially for websites)

Too many cooks spoils the broth.

I can’t find any other proverbs more sound than this. I came across an article once, which I regretfully forgot the link, that summarizes the personality of a client. There is one in particular that is the most difficult to deal in the lot. At this moment I have yet to find a foolproof solution to this, as so far the closest client I have that belonged to this group we have pulled out from the project after it has been dragged on for more than a year.

Anyway, what I’m trying to explain here is the danger of “over-reviewing” a design.

Now, why a design will be over-reviewed in the first place? How does that happen?

Two possibilities -

  1. Client is not confident of your work
  2. Client is not confident of himself

I would not want to be biased and pinpoint the problem is only at the client’s side, but let’s just say the client has hired a good and experienced designer. And this scenario occurred – that the design could not be finalized even after 10 revisions, because it has been bounced to all departments, seeking an unanimously vote of YES!

Well, frankly, that would be the slimmest chance of happening.

Let’s put this into another analogy – say the home you are living. Frankly are you really 100% happy with it? When it was handed back to you with the keys, was the paint job perfect? Was the tiles all cut properly and placed in a straight and flawless order? Was the basin stainless and without any scratches? Was the roof tiles placed in properly and without any cracks? Were there any cracks on the wall as well?

The fact is, NOTHING in this world is a finished, perfect product. Not even Mona Lisa. It is the reason why it has gone through so many revisions, painted upon itself and itself, over and over again. Even the most complicated structure or even a nuclear reactor –  it is not perfect. That is why it needs to be maintained. What many people doesn’t see this is because these large scale structures are beyond their control. But for a piece of design, say a website, now, that is something they can control (I have to exaggerate this a little so that you would know how the comparison works).

And thus, the client would then send this design to everyone that he trusts, and hoping to get a full nod that it is perfect. What he forgot was that a piece of design is extremely subjective and everyone would have their own tastes. You don’t see them liking the same colour or using the same brand of products!

If you found that you are this type of personality, you need to let it go. You have to make to a point that when it is finished, it is finished. Just like when you had your house renovated, you do not have to necessarily micro inspect the finishes. All you need to do is to inspect the work as a whole. So this should be applied to the design as well. Because people who are seeing it will not bring a microscope and inspect your house in every petty detail.

By reviewing a design over, and over and over again you have not only delayed the project, which have slowed down the possibility of generating business for you (with every name card you pass to your potential clients, you risk them checking your website everyday), but also you are wasting money and time from your employees.

To me, scrutinizing a website is really bad decision. Take a step back. Stop staring at the tiniest detail, and look at it like a single piece of painting.

Just one question – since when do you actually cared about Yahoo’s design, or any news portal that you have visited? Are their design flawless? Do you access these information websites to enjoy the design or your main intention is just to access the news?

And lastly – when you hire a web designer,  you are hiring him for his expertise. If you took him in, means you must trust him for his skills, knowledge and know-how. The moment you have doubts about him, then it’s either you have trusted the wrong person, or that you just never trusted your own judgement.

The client and designer relationship

Designer and clients is like a two way relationship. All it needs is to understand one another and if the preliminary “test out jobs” are working well, you can be certain that more will return.

But before we reach to this stage, many bad things can happen. Clients’ expectations not met, due to poor understanding of the brief, or poor quality of work/attitude; or clients themselves can be too strong headed and unwilling to listen to advises/suggestions, the list can go on.

Perhaps to avoid the clashes, the first thing the designer needs to ask it this:

  • Do you want me to be in control and oversee the entire work?
  • Or do you want me to assist you and bringing your ideas to life?
  • Or, do you want me to just sit down, do the work and follow exactly what you want me to do?

How your client would answer that depends on how well you present yourself and how good your portfolio projects your image and professionalism.

In a designer’s point of view, a client should understand the following:

  1. When you hire me, it’s because you trust my work.
  2. I hope you will look into my suggestions as being into the field of work for many, many years, but most importantly, I am here to help.
  3. Like painting, or even building a house, a design work is first built upon a concept, followed by its preliminary “layers”. As the process goes deeper, it will be refined to its finished form. So expect the first draft to be raw, but expect the final work to be refined. If you expect the first draft to be refined, you could land into some problems at later stage of being overdeveloped.
  4. Moreover, an idea or concept needs to grow in you. Expecting something to finish in the early stage without your participation you will not see it “grow” and thus you will not able to sell this concept itself to your customers, or partners. It goes to this saying – if you own something without really being part of it, you will easily discard it because you find no value in it.

Now, in a client’s point of view, these are important because it can really be a turn off:

  1. I expect the person I am dealing with to be humble, and most of all, dedicate his work and solving my creative problems efficiently. No bad attitudes please.
  2. I expect the work not to be delayed and if you do, please give me a valid reason, and ALWAYS in advance. Do not play missing in action because that can very unprofessional.
  3. If you don’t understand my brief, ask me immediately and not until it is 1-2 weeks later.
  4. I trust you and please don’t cheat by stealing ideas from elsewhere when I have specifically wanted something original.

The 3 most common questions to a designer

I have found these 3 questions constantly being asked and I think they needed some attention:

    I see that you are good at designing “[genre 1]” websites. Are you sure you can you design “[genre 2]” type of websites?
    Every designer has its own strength in many ways – some are good combining photography with design, some with illustration, while some are purely into typography. But whatever their preference in applications of design, it does not mean their skills are focused in a particular style or genre. No doubt, some designers fancy experimental works, some are influenced by pop-art and so on. But it doesn’t mean they can’t do anything else.
    I would relate this as an analogy – while it is true, that a pasta cook should only cook pasta, but the problem is, many clients were referring to a pasta cook that specializes only a particular dish! A designer is like a pasta cook that can cook any types of pasta for their customers. So in other words, we know how to design any particular style or genre, which is usually not a problem. The only limits of our abilities are our skills, knowledge and experience in understanding the creative problems and how to tackle it.
    That means, it’s not how many types of pasta we know how to cook, but how delicious it is. Thus, a good designer is one is that is not only creative, but also knowledgeable and experienced.
    Why there is no fixed price in your services? Or, you are expensive!
    Whether high or low, a designer has its own price tag. It is the same like hiring a model or an actor which depends on his popularity and capability. Design, is a branch out from art, and for art, there is never a fixed price. You can purchase an affordable oil painting as low as RM100 compared to an RM20k painting, and to some, they all looked the same!
    At the end of the day, it is whether do you find the work that you have commissioned justified your needs and expectations.
    And for the designer, when you are paid to the amount that you agreed on, you have to fulfil the promise and make sure you commit 100% to your client and get the work done as good as you can imagine (or at least to the value that it is worth). If you felt you are being short-changed or “cheated” then you should not have taken it in the first place because at the end, the quality will be compromised and you will risk getting a bad name for yourself.
    Regardless, a designer’s principle is first to help the client. If he is low on budget on a particular project, and it is not possible for you to work with him, suggest or recommend the best alternatives for him. If you look far ahead, you might want to take up the job as helping him out, seeing other potential jobs in the future which could be in better prospect.
    Last but not least, client also need to know that we charge based on the hours we spent on it, as well as our skill and knowledge we have acquired over the years. There is always a value in design, and in some cases, it can be very expensive!
    Why must I obtain licensed images for my project? Wouldn’t pulling the image out from Google is more cost effective?
    Here lies one of the most important, often neglected point – intellectual property.
    Do you know that back in the late 80′s, way before mp3 exists, that listening to clear, crisp music such as a compact disc is a luxury? Yes it is. Many did not know that everything costs money to produce, and in return, costs money to obtain them even for leisure.
    Nothing is FREE in this world, unless the owner allows his work to be published for free. Otherwise, you have to pay for it. By obtaining a copyrighted image illegally for your commercial project you will be held responsible. It is the culture of ignorance that landed many organizations in trouble as they are being sued for copyright infringement and resulting losses from tens of thousands to millions of dollars.
    And as designers, many are often taking comfort too by stealing images for themselves to use for their projects. This leads to a chain reaction whereby the designers themselves does not value intellectual property, and hence, planted ideas to clients that everything can be easily accessible and, most important thing of all, cheap, and affordable. In this case there is no one else to blame but designers themselves that they have driven down the value of creativity.

A new direction

This blog will no longer serve its purpose as a personal diary of mine. Instead, I will occasionally write down my views about music, sound and design in general.

This serves a good read for clients and designers alike, though by all means these are purely my views and I welcome comments if any.