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Design on a Dime - 3/16/2010 -

The more rounds a design project endures, the more expensive it gets. Here are several tips to keep your association's design costs to a minimum.

By Jennifer J. Salopek

TIME IS MONEY when it comes to publication design and production. As participants discovered at a jointly hosted Association Media & Publishing and ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership Lunch & Learn recently (titled "Design on a Dime”), the more rounds a project takes, the more expensive it is likely to be.

Moderated by Jen Smith, creative director of Network Media Partners, a panel of experts explained how they produce effective communications without breaking the bank. Wendy Bogart, director of graphic design, Council for Advancement and Support of Education; Amy Miedema, senior director of communications, American Academy of Audiology; and Rita Zimmerman, communications coordinator, American Inns of Court, showed samples of their work as they addressed the following elements to help attendees get the most out of a tight design budget:

  • Planning
  • Workflow
  • Imagery and artwork
  • Working with external consultants


Planning is the most important part of maintaining your design project's budget and avoiding cost overruns, says Miedema. She recommends using a graphic request formthat asks pointed questions about the properties and purpose of a project; completing the form will ensure that your association communications team really thinks about what it wants.

Once the form is complete, the association team, staff designer, and outside design firm (if one is involved) should review it so that all needs and expectations are on the table. Then, take the 30,000-foot view. Ask a few probing questions, such as:

  • What else will this piece be used for?
  • How does it fit into our organization's marketing plan?
  • How will it affect the big picture?

For example, on one project, when Miedema learned that a poster was to follow the association's postcard series, she was able to save money by designing and printing all of the pieces together.

Zimmerman recommends considering digital printing as a cost-saving measure; it is usually suitable for smaller pieces with a print run under 1,000. Planning can help your association be a loyal, consistent customer, which can also help lower costs. Bogart was able to negotiate rates with her printer to do all of CASE's conference promotions in color.

Adequate planning allows you to piggyback one-time or special publications with your regular periodicals, as Bogart did with CASE's annual awards yearbook. She saved significantly by having it printed, polybagged, and mailed with an issue of the association's monthly magazine.

Planning also extends to brand identity and campaigns. Consider all possible applications of your organization's brand and design elements universally, says Zimmerman. Ensure that logos are readable in various sizes and in black and white as well as four-color. Finally, make sure to design and create artwork that has multiple elements that can be used separately and together.


Workflow is an extension of planning and just as important. Helping the association publications team communicate its expectations to the design team is a key first step. Also, have all project components – including copy that is as final as possible – in hand before beginning design or handing the project off to a designer, Zimmerman says.

"Don't pay for design twice,” she says. "Get all of the necessary approvals early in the process.”

Imagery and Artwork

Find out early on whether the project budget allows for imagery, then exploit opportunities to get what you need. For example, a couple of years ago, CASE commenced a series of publications that features portraits of the organization's members. The portraits are taken in temporary photo studios set up at conferences and trade shows. Of her $8,000 annual photography budget, Bogart spends up to $5,000 on portraits, which are taken at events around the world. A careful instruction sheet for freelance photographers ensures consistency, while a spreadsheet helps to ensure balance, diversity, and variety among the demographics captured.

If you can't afford original photography, Zimmerman suggests stock photography sites, such as Getty Images, and microstock sites such as iStockPhoto. The latter contains user-uploaded photos that have been reviewed before posting; audio and video clips are also available. She also suggests using type for art if your budget is particularly tight.

Other panelists and audience members suggested convention and visitors' bureaus, the Library of Congress, and the Department of Defense as sources for free images that can be used with proper credit.

Working with External Consultants

Sometimes your project needs will require the hiring of external consultants, including printers. Miedema notes that doing your homework can help you avoid unpleasant surprises and unplanned costs. Assess consultants on the basis of their experience, the quality and variety of their portfolio, and recommendations by current and former clients.

"The level of attention and customer service you receive during the bid phase is a good indicator of how you will be treated during the actual project,” she notes.

Once you've made your selection, don't proceed without a written contract. This document should spell out not only the scope of work and compensation, but also confidentiality requirements, final ownership of project elements, any conflict of interest provisions, and reasons for terminating the contract. The American Institute of Graphic Artists and the Graphic Artists Guild have excellent templates on their websites.

Jennifer J. Salopekis a freelance writer based in McLean, Virginia. Association Media & Publishing thanks her for volunteering to cover this Lunch & Learn for those members unable to attend.


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