Back in 2001, I spontaneously walked into a design agency in Ottawa and introduced myself. With an aura of excitement I said, “I’m in my first year of design school and I’d love to see what a design agency is like! Can you show me around?”

The receptionist was delightfully supportive and gave me a brief tour. He introduced me to some designers as a new design student and the first comment I received was:

“Don’t do it! Being a designer is not what you imagine it to be.”

He was serious and I left slightly confused. I filed that comment in the back of my mind and charged on with my career. Over the years, every now and then, this memory pops into my mind and I wonder whatever happened to that unhappy designer? And how do I feel about being a designer?

Anyone can be a graphic designer

Common thinking about this industry is that anyone can be a designer. And sure, I suppose that’s true—on a technical level. Anyone can purchase industry standard design software and learn how to use it. However, to become a master in say Photoshop, it can take on average three years of consistent experimental and repetitive use. Just because you have technical capabilities does not mean you are a design thinker.

The history of visual communication roots back thousands of years to the days when early, nomadic man hunted for food and lived in caves and huts. They drew images (graphics) to relay information. The symbol of an animal’s footprint conveyed the image of the animal in one’s mind. Fast forward to the 1800’s, graphic art was most common in posters, advertisements, and packages. Today, graphic art is everywhere! Look around your environment right now and notice the imagery and typefaces in almost every element.

The combination of graphic marks, whether on screen or print, forms images. And these images form ideas in the receivers mind. Every graphic mark, including a typeface, has an effect on one’s impression of the subject being presented.

It takes a particular type of person to be a graphic designer

People who are attracted to the world of graphic design usually have an artistic mindset but, the artists that become successful designers have more than an interest in self-expression. The designer is an analytical problem-solver. So what does our modern world operate on? Money. How is money attained? By selling, promoting—marketing. Graphic design is the business of thinking strategically and expressing information, ideas, and brands. Graphic elements (packaging, websites, ads, etc.) create an experience for people and that experience needs to be positive or motivational.

Graphic designers don’t just make things “look good”

One of the reasons many designer are not happy is because of the misconception that our role is to just make things look good. A lot of time in business is wasted because of this misunderstanding. The primary role of a graphic designer is to create graphic solutions that help your business or organization achieve its goals. In order for this to happen there needs to be a communicative partnership between designer and client (or in-house designer and manager). All people are naturally creative. It’s a blessing that every sentient-being on earth has a creative mind, but many businesses spend a lot of time internally brainstorming and deciding amongst themselves about what to design. I’ve seen everyone from CEO’s, to sales people, to financial managers making design decisions for designers! This is a waste of time, and time is money. It interferes with productivity, responsible design decisions, and can breed resentment within people and teams.

Designers are not data-entry production artists

The primary responsibility of a designer is to ask questions, listen, and hear. Listening and hearing are two different abilities. I can listen to you speak, but hearing is understanding what you are saying. And so intuitive translation is necessary and can grow with mindful practice.

The role of the client (or the manager) is to thoroughly understand the value and the purpose of their business, product or service. They need to have a clear understanding of where the business is at, and the goals they want, or need to achieve. This contact person needs to be able to effectively communicate this to the designer.

With open communication the design process can begin and the process is what a client pays for—not just the deliverable form-based end result. Graphic design thinking is all about the design process. It starts with:

  1. Defining the problem
  2. Brainstorming ideas
  3. Creating the form

Seems simple enough but, there can be up to eight phases within this process a professional designer will work through before you end up with your first proof of concepts. This is most common for projects such as a brand redesign or a marketing campaign. The client doesn’t need to concern themselves with these various actions; just understanding how experienced designers gather and process information to create concepts is enough.

The designer and client partnership

The design process does take time, so it’s imperative that businesses implement a healthy pattern of forward thinking. Every entrepreneur has heard of a marketing plan and there are valid reasons for this tool. Planning to work with designers is one of them. Achieving the great success you envision ultimately depends on your understanding of your business, industry, and audience, your forward thinking, and your communication skills with your designer.

Once you have established an open dialog, a relationship can form and flourish. Behaviour patterns and intuitive understandings develop. As the body of work grows, the faster the processes and results become.

Designers are rarely credited as brand-builders, but we are among the most influential shapers of perceptions and behaviours in the marketplace. So the next time you hear someone say, “just get the designer to make it look good” remind them that design has value. It’s a profession that takes years of study, practice, and experience and it will ultimately make-or-break your next campaign in the eyes of your audience.