A marketing campaign without visuals is like a museum with empty walls. Not exactly a people pleaser.
Hence why there’s such a strong intersection between graphic design and marketing. A brand must have a distinctive visual identity to compete in today’s market, as well as the professionally designed content to keep audiences engaged. What does that mean for you? Endless opportunities to apply your creative skills.
Of course, designing for brands comes with a side of marketing elements to consider. There are strategies and timelines, client demands and various assets, including infographics, eBooks, white papers, blog and social graphics, websites, ads and so much more.
No one knows this world better than our own in-house designers – so we asked them for their insight and summed up their wisdom in these useful pointers.
1. Get to know the brand
When graphic designers work in marketing, they have to share the creative vision with the brand. Before any creative work begins, designers should have a strong understanding of the company, brand guidelines and content goals. That way, they can design with purpose and create deliverables that are not only visually appealing but also serve the brand’s needs.
To do this, Brafton designers suggest meeting with clients and asking the right questions before creating work for any brand. Graphic designer Mara Sahleanu wants to know four things before she takes pencil to sketchpad (and definitely before opening Adobe on her computer):
- How does the brand describe themselves?
- What does the company want to communicate?
- What kind of branding and design styles do they admire?
- Who are they trying to reach?
Fellow Brafton designer Alissa Herman is also a big proponent of getting a sense of the brand’s style and preferences. She already has a folder prepped on her computer with examples to show clients. As she guides them through the samples, she can get a better idea of what they like and dislike. Your own portfolio can also convince potential clients that you have the skills to create successful marketing content.
The more context you can gather, the better. While not as glamorous as the designing itself, this prep work is essential when working on the visual elements that align with a marketing strategy.
2. Meet the audience
Once you know the brand, it’s time to get real close with their target audience. You won’t be able to create designs that are eye-catching and effective unless you know who’s attention you’re trying to attract.
For Brafton’s Director of Design & UX Ken Boostrom, understanding the audience is always first up on the list. In this exact order, Ken asks his clients:
- Who’s your audience?
- What does your audience value?
- What is your product or service?
- What does success look like for the company?
The answers to these questions can then inform design decisions. For instance, the age, gender and characteristics of the people in your designs will most likely mirror the brand’s target audience. An audience that values getting the most bang for their bank will probably respond well to graphics that highlight the prices. And say the brand’s goal is to stop more people in their mindless scrolling and generate more social engagement. Your goal will be to create the social media graphics that can do just that.
What’s more, these questions are especially important when starting from scratch. Once you have a solid understanding of the audience (and only then, according to Ken), you can start building a brand.
“Everything begins with the audience and what they value – or what’s important to them. We create a design using various tactics, and if we’re building a new brand then we incorporate aspects like voice, signature, color, typography, illustration and tone,” Ken explained.
Everything begins with the audience and what they value – or what’s important to them.
Creating a good-looking design is only half the battle. The real challenge is making sure the effort you put into the work pays off by effectively reaching the brand’s audience. To your clients, this success translates to marketing money well spent.
3. Tailor your design to the brand
A brand’s distinctive style generally stems from corporate identity as well as company mission and target audience. Competitor branding also helps eliminate certain elements and drive the differentiating factors. Fully developed logos, websites and other branding elements have consistent characteristics that designers can utilize when creating illustrations, graphics, formatted content and other marketing visuals.
Consistency in color and typography is especially important for brand recognition. Even when designers experiment with different color palettes, for instance, they aim to stick with hues that complement the brand’s main palette. That way, people will still automatically associate the content with the brand.
If a client already has well-established brand guidelines, you can use those to steer your aesthetic choices, such as colors and fonts. Your research and prep work will also come in handy, as you can use what you know about the brand’s identity, mission, message and audience to inform your designs.
When a client comes to you with little to no branding or design style, work with them to develop an aesthetic goal. A collection of samples (much like Alissa’s trusty folder) can be a good starting point to get a feel for the client’s preferences. Another pro tip from Alissa: “For defining a brand’s illustrative style or logo, I ask them to write down five words that sum up their mission.”
Remember that not all of your clients will be visual people. You’ll have to read between the lines to create what they may not fully realize they have in mind (and earn praise for delivering exactly what they wanted). Mara put it this way: “Designers serve as the bridge between an abstract concept and its visual representation.”
Designers serve as the bridge between an abstract concept and its visual representation.
Don’t worry – each client gets easier with time. Once you develop a distinctive style for the brand, you can quickly replicate the look and feel in various pieces of marketing content.
4. Define the goal
Everything you design should have (or serve) a specific purpose.
“The more care and intention you design with, the more you can communicate while you have the reader’s attention,” according to Mara.
There you have it: Make sure you’re clear on the purpose of the piece before you start designing. When you have a goal in mind, you can communicate a stronger and more specific message.
Plus, you can take the mission a step further by creating more unique elements. Rather than using common icons to represent a concept, you can spend time creating custom designs and visual metaphors that are more likely to make impactful, lasting impressions on audiences.
5. Pass Marketing 101
While the basics of graphic design still apply in marketing, having an understanding of the marketing process can help you grasp the goals of each asset you create – which will translate to more successful designs for your clients.
We’re not saying you need a degree in marketing, namely because a lot of this knowledge comes naturally after working with multiple clients or designing in a marketing agency environment. However, reading a blog post or two, talking to your peers who work in marketing and maybe even taking an online class can help you build a foundation at the beginning of your career.
6. Praise the words
I promise this isn’t me making a shameless plug for copy just because I’m a writer. Marketing is all about reaching audiences with a targeted message, which means words and visuals have to work together to tell the brand’s story.
The best graphic designers and art directors enhance the message the words create, using visuals to communicate the ideas in a faster, more visually appealing manner. They don’t let the words get lost in the design, but rather make them easier to comprehend with tactful design elements.
Colors and contrast can help ensure readability, as well as choosing fonts wisely. Lean on trusted tactics – like the Rule of Thirds – to make sure viewers can easily digest the content on the page. White space will also always be your friend, as it helps separate and emphasize elements with easy-on-the-eyes minimalism.
When in doubt, keep your designs clean, consistent and clear. That way, the message won’t get lost in flashy or crowded visuals.
7. Trust your design process
While there are marketing elements to consider, you’re the design expert on the team. Develop your creative process, and make sure you know the questions you should ask to get the information and tools you need to execute. Your clients won’t always know to volunteer this info, and they’ll rely on you to be the creative genius.
Remember that your process will vary for each asset. User experience design is not even close to eBook design, and formatting a white paper is wildly different from designing a website. As you work the various types of graphic design, you’ll learn how to approach each piece creatively, while also meeting the requirements of each asset.
Keep in mind that some flexibility in your process is important, too. Marketing changes on a seemingly daily basis, and the ripple effect can reach the design team in the form of new types of assets and timelines. You might also tweak your routine to fulfill specific client needs.
As with any creative endeavor, your process may be different from your peers. For Alissa, some assets require a sketch before heading to the computer, while others don’t. Mara is likely to include a sketch stage for assets where the text is secondary to the visual elements, especially when she wants to create a visual metaphor.
Don’t overthink it – we’re not here to judge your quirks. More important than the specific steps you take to get to the finished result is simply having a process in place to deliver quality work in a timely manner.
8. Master the tools
It’s true: Earning a degree in graphic design is pretty much synonymous with selling your soul to Adobe Creative Cloud. It houses the apps that design professionals use on a daily basis – and those that work in the marketing world are no exception. Even if you’re working with other design tools, you’ll benefit from taking the time to get well acquainted. In fact, Alissa advised aspiring designers not to downplay the importance of mastering design software and techniques.
“While we need to be experts in aesthetic, knowing the tools inside and out opens doors to more beautiful designs,” she explained.
Ready to start designing?
If the intersection between graphic design and marketing feels like a natural home for you, keep these tips in mind as you start honing your skills. Before you know it, you’ll be sharing expert advice of your own.