Great Design versus Everything Else
With the right process, you can trust the process.
By Carla Kalogeridis
Who’s seen this movie before?
A design team spends several days creating potential covers for a magazine client. They work hard debating the merits of each, and eventually narrow it down to three. Out of six or seven concepts, they will show the client three.
Now among these three, the design team has a favorite. To them, it's a clear winner. But they don’t want to show the magazine client just their favorite — even though it’s obvious that their favorite is by far the obvious choice. Instead, they present the clear-winner cover, along with two others, to show the magazine client that the design team put a lot of thought and effort into the process.
But… you guessed it (or maybe you’ve lived it?). The magazine client doesn’t pick the clear-winner cover. In fact, the magazine client doesn’t even pick the second-choice cover that the design team thought they could probably live with if in some crazy, near-impossible scenario, the client didn’t pick the "right” cover.
And now, here the design team is, facing the nightmare that never should have happened: The client chose the third cover, the least-creative option that the design team just threw in there to make the clear-winner cover — well, the clear winner.
What is a house worth? Whatever someone will pay for it. What is a winning design? The one the client selects. (Note, I said the winning design — not the great design.)
Art, design, writing, editing — so many things in our publishing world are subjective. If you’ve ever judged Association Media & Publishing’s EXCEL Awards, you’ve seen this firsthand. One judge scores a design entry at super-star status, while another judge says the same concept is simply average. How can reasonable, experienced, educated people think so differently about what is good and bad?
Be that as it may — unless your publishing team is run by a dictatorship — then important things like cover concepts should be a group decision all the way until the very end, when perhaps they’re not. But at least then, the person that has the final yay or nay understands how each concept came to be.
Whether you’re pitching your design idea to a client or the other half of an in-house association publishing team, here are a few ways to get everyone thinking cohesively:
Be inclusive. Too many cooks spoil the pot, as they say, but that doesn’t mean to leave everyone out of your creative process just because you — or a handful of people — are the creative ones. Everyone who has a vote (and even a few folks who don’t) should be part of the initial brainstorm session. At this point, anything goes. Ideas are flying around like Quidditch contestants. No one has taken ownership of a particular concept yet, and there’s no real skin in the game. When decision makers understand where you started, they will have more understanding of where you end up.
Let designers be designers. Anyone who isn’t really a designer should step back during this next stage. Let the designers, the artistic crowd, do their thing.
Be analytical. If you’re the only one in the room who doesn’t like a particular concept, try to figure out why. Ask yourself what specifically it is that you don’t like. Is the concept solid but the color doesn’t work? Is the concept solid, but the coverlines don’t work? Is the concept solid, but you’ve seen it before? If you have the power to nix an idea that other people like, be capable of explaining why — even if your position on the team means you don’t have to. That way, you give the team a chance to address your concern and maybe even save the idea for another round of debate.
Show it around. Sometimes a concept can go from top choice to bottom based on its real-world performance. Take the cover(s) — make sure they have coverlines and are as close to finished as possible — to someone who hasn’t been part of the creative process. Don’t tell them what the story is about because, after all, your members won’t know anything about the story when they get the magazine either. Ask one question: "Would any of these covers make you want to pick up the magazine and read it?” Ask follow-up questions — but not leading ones.
Be a gracious loser. Once everyone has weighed in, hopefully, a clear-winner cover will have emerged. But if it hasn’t — and your favorite cover concept isn’t the final selection — put a little faith in your colleagues. You may not see what they see, and they obviously, aren’t seeing what you see, but that’s the nature of creativity.
You aren’t every member, and every member isn’t you. If the majority of the team likes a concept and you don’t — even if you have the decision-making power — it may be time to just trust your team.
And if you’re the customer, sometimes you’ve got to trust the firm you hired. It also helps if you remember why you hired them in the first place. You liked their work, remember? So, let them work.
Carla Kalogeridis is editorial director of Association Media & Publishing.