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Resourceful Designer: Strategies for running a graphic design business

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Resourceful Designer: Strategies for running a graphic design business
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Now displaying: November, 2021
Nov 29, 2021

Don't confuse clients with rates that don't match your brand.

I’d like you to imagine this scenario.

There’s a neighbourhood in your city that you love. It has beautiful homes with big yards and lots of green space around. It’s close to amenities like schools and shopping. And the internet infrastructure is state of the art, which we know is a must for what we do as designers.

It’s the type of neighbourhood that you occasionally drive through and think to yourself; I would love to live here.

The problem is, home prices in this neighbourhood are way out of your budget. You figure you can afford maybe $350k. Perhaps you can push it to $400k. But unfortunately, homes in this neighbourhood typically sell for over $700k. But you can dream, can’t you?

Then one day, while driving through the neighbourhood, you see a FOR SALE sign in front of what could be your dream home.

You’ve admired the homes in this neighbourhood for a long time, but always from the outside. But here’s your chance to get a peek on the inside because there are sure to be photos on the realtor’s website.

When you get home, you fire up your browser to take a peek. As you’re navigating to the page, you play the guessing game in your head. You guess its listing price at $795K. But when the page loads, that beautiful house, the one you’ve been admiring for years, is listed at $295k.

What do you think your first thought would be in this situation? Or maybe second thought after you realize you can afford it. You would probably start wondering, what’s wrong with it? Why is it listed so low? What mess would you be getting yourself into if you were to make an offer?

I’m sure you’ve experienced this feeling before. Maybe not with a house. But perhaps with a car, or something else. Especially when the item in question is something previously owned, what’s wrong with it that’s making the seller offer it for such a low price?

It’s not just houses.

Something similar happened to a designer friend of mine just a couple of weeks ago.

He was at a business conference, and on one of the days, they divided people up into small groups—kind of a Mastermind format where each person in the group had time to present their business.

Being prepared as only designers can be, my designer friend had a presentation ready and walked everyone through his business. He showed them what he does, how he does it, his processes, and his annual billing and 3-year financial snapshot. It was a business conference, and he was very transparent in everything he shared.

After his presentation, One of the attendees, a woman he had met earlier at the conference, approached him to talk. She told him that after the 5-minute conversation they had when they first met, she thought, “this guy knows what he’s doing, but there’s no way I can afford him.” But after seeing his numbers on paper, she told him she could easily afford him. And that’s not good a good thing because his prices conflict with the brand image he’s putting out.

Do you do this?

You’re a designer, you’re proud of what you can do, and I’m sure you like to showcase the best of it in how you present yourself. After all, you know that if you only put in a half-baked effort, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

But what happens if the brand image you present to the world conflicts with the prices you charge for your services?

Just like the house in my opening story, people may wonder, what’s wrong with you. They may be hesitant to hire you because the prices you charge seem too good to be true compared to the skills you showcase. And you know that when something looks too good to be true, it usually is.

Could this be happening to you? Could it be that you’re not getting enough work because you’re not charging enough for the talents you possess?

My own story.

About a year or two after I started working from home, I was working for a department of the Canadian government located in town. They were pleased with my work, so they passed my name up the chain. It wasn’t long before I had the chance to bid on a big federal government project.

I received the RFP (Request For Proposal) and read it over several times to ensure I understood what was involved. I then calculated every aspect of the job. I figured out how long it should take me, what assets I may need to purchase, and what contractors I may need to hire. I then added in time for revisions, and, like all good designers, I added in some padding for anything unexpected that may come up.

The price I came up with was $8,000. It was going to be my biggest project to date. Satisfied with my quote, I submitted the proposal, already designing the project in my head. But a week later, I found out I didn’t win the project.

Reaching out to my contact at the local government office, I asked if she knew how much I was outbid by. But to my surprise, she found out that I hadn’t been outbid. I was, in fact, the lowest quote. The issue was my price was too low.

The government agency had received four bids in total for the project. The other three ranged in price between $12,000 and $14,000. When they saw my $8,000 proposal, they thought it was way too low, which meant I must have misunderstood what was involved with the project. Not willing to take a chance, they discarded my proposal and chose the lowest of the remaining three.

Was my bid too low? Had I misunderstood the RFP? No, my price was accurate. Accurate for me, that is. You see, the other three bids came from design agencies in Toronto. And Toronto is a much more expensive city than where I live. Where my hourly rate at the time was $50, theirs were closer to $200/hr. They also carried way more overhead than me, a solo designer who works from home, and they needed to compensate for it in their bids.

But none of this was transparent to the person or people who reviewed the four submitted bids. All they had to go by was the price. And my much lower price did not give them confidence in my ability to complete the project.

It’s how we’ve been raised.

Since a young age, the world has conditioned us to associate excellent quality with a higher price. It’s the “you get what you pay for” way of thinking. The more you spend, the better the quality. The less you spend, and you’re taking chances.

I know someone who has several eBooks for sale on Amazon. She originally listed her books for $1.99 each. And every month, she sold roughly half a dozen books.

Then she read a report saying that $9.99 eBooks consistently outsell $1.99 ebooks on Amazon. The study determined that pricing it at $1.99 diminished the book’s perceived value no matter how good the content was. People didn’t believe that a $1.99 eBook could help them or was worth their time.

So she decided to raise the price of her books to $9.99. And you know what? Sales immediately went up. Instead of selling only a handful of books per month, he started selling several copies of each book per week.

Are you hungry?

Let’s look at it another way.

You have many options if you are hungry for a hamburger. You can get one at McDonald’s for $2, or you can choose to go to a fancy restaurant and order an $18 hamburger. I guarantee the $18 hamburger will taste better and be more satisfying. Because if that $18 burger tastes like a Mcdonald’s hamburger, you’re going to be mighty upset with your purchase.

That’s what clients think about you if you’re presenting yourself as the “Fancy Restaurant” of the design world.

When they hear you talk or visit your website or see your other marketing material, they will imagine a price range based on the quality of what you present them. That “$18 Hamberger,” if you will.

But if you then present your prices and they’re more in the “$2 hamburger” range, something will not feel right to them, and clients will second guess their decision to work with you. You’re lower prices may be impeding your business.

More proof.

If you’ve been following Resourceful Designer for a while, you know that I started a side business designing for the podcast niche a couple of years ago.

There are many options available for people looking for podcast cover artwork. My site podcastbranding.co is one of the more expensive ones. And yet, I receive new orders every week. And when I ask why they chose me over any other option, they tell me it’s because of the professional look I put forward and how they thought it was worth the higher price.

Does that mean that everybody wants to work with me? Of course not. I know that many people see my prices and immediately leave my site. But it’s not because my prices are too high.

A business coach once told me there’s no such thing as being too expensive. Just that you may be unaffordable to some people. And that’s OK. But to those who can afford you, your prices will be just right.

Don’t fall into that rut where the brand image you’re putting out there says one thing about your business, but your prices say another. All you’ll be doing is confusing your potential clients. And when you confuse, you lose.

Take this time, and review your rates. Are they in line with your brand image? If not, then you should consider raising them.  And you know what? I’m releasing this at the end of November, which means that the new year is just around the corner. And the new year gives you the perfect opportunity to introduce your new pricing.

Make sure your rates don’t conflict with your brand.

Nov 15, 2021

The reason to use checklists.

I first talked about checklists way back in episode 89 of Resourceful Designer. In it, I shared various types of checklists you can use for your business. I even shared my now outdated checklist for starting a new WordPress website.

Today, I’m not going to share checklist ideas with you. Instead, I want to talk about the importance of using checklists. To emphasize their importance, I want to start by telling you a story.

I heard this story while listening to an audiobook called My Best Mistake, Epic Fails and Silver Linings written by Terry O’Reilly. It’s a great book of stories about failures that led to amazing things. Check it out if you have the chance. One of the stories O’Reilly tells in the book inspired is what inspired what you’re reading here.

It’s estimated that the average American undergoes seven surgeries in a lifetime, and surgeons perform over 50 million surgeries annually. That’s a lot of operations.

In 2009, roughly 150,000 patients died immediately after surgery—3 times the number of fatalities from road accidents. What’s scary about that number is that half of those deaths were completely avoidable. That number caught the attention of Doctor Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon and professor at Harvard Medical School.

It’s the 21st century. How can all these complications happen despite the accumulated knowledge of professionals? Gawande wondered if there was a way to reduce the number of operating room errors that resulted in these deaths. To find an answer, Gawande looked at other fields for ideas.

Back in 1935, The U.S. Army was looking for the next generation of long-range bombers. They held a competition between top airplane manufacturers to come up with a new design. Although the issued tender was fair for all involved. It was a known fact that Boeing’s technology was miles ahead of their rivals Martin and Douglas.

Boeing’s new Model 299 could fly faster than any previous bomber, travel twice as far, and carry five times as many bombs as the Army requested. The Army was prepared to order sixty-five of the aircraft before the competition was even over.

The big brass of the Army Air Corps gathered for the first test flight of the Model 299. The impressive machine took to the sky with its 103-foot wingspan and four gleaming engines (instead of the usual two found on most planes.) It was quite a sight to see.

As the plane took flight, it climbed to three hundred feet, stalled, and crashed in a fiery ball of flames. Two of the crew died that day, including the pilot who was the Army Air Corps’ chief of flight testing.

The Army decided to award the contract to Douglas instead. And Boeing almost went bankrupt.

However, The follow-up investigation revealed that there was nothing mechanically wrong with the plane. And it was determined that the crash was due to pilot error. But how could that be? How could the chief of flight testing, one of their most experienced pilots, make a mistake that would lead to the crash of such a sophisticated plane?

As the investigation showed, the Model 299 required the pilot to monitor the four engines. Each one requiring its own oil-fuel mixture. He also had to attend to the landing gear and wing flaps, adjust the electric trim to maintain stability at different airspeeds and regulate the constant-speed propellers with hydraulic controls. And that was only a few of the things on which the pilot needed to concentrate.

It turns out that while attending to all of these things, the pilot forgot to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls. It was a simple oversight that led to the crash.

Boeing was ready to scrap the plane, but a group of pilots believed the Model 299 was flyable. So they got together to find a solution. When they later approached Boeing, they didn’t request any mechanical changes to the plane. Nor did they think pilots needed to undergo extended training on how to fly it. Instead, they came up with a simple and ingenious solution. They created a pilot’s checklist.

They made a list that was short enough to fit on an index card. It covered all the mundane step-by-step tasks required for takeoff, flight, landing and taxiing. In other words, the checklist covered all the dumb stuff.

With the new checklist, pilots flew the Model 299 over 1.8 million miles without one single accident.

To distance themselves from the previous failure during the test flight, Boeing changed the name of their new plane to the B-17. The Army ordered 13,000 of them, which gave the Air Corps a decisive advantage in WWII. All because of a checklist.

Since the 1960s, nurses have relied on charts, a form of a checklist, to know when to dispense medicine, dress wounds, check pulse, blood pressure, respiration, pain level, etc. And although doctors would look at these charts when visiting a patient, they viewed these checklists as “nurse stuff.”

In the late 90s, a study determined the average hospital patient required 178 individual actions by medical staff per day. Any one of which could pose a risk. The researchers noted that doctors and nurses made errors in only 1% of these actions. But that still adds up to almost two errors per day, per patient.

When you multiply that by every hospital worldwide, it means millions of people around the globe are potentially harmed by the very medical staff assigned to help them.

In 2001, a doctor at Johns Hopkins designed a doctor’s checklist for putting in a central line; a tube inserted in a large vein used to administer medication. It’s a standard procedure that just about every doctor is familiar with. It was also a widespread cause of infection in patients.

So this doctor devised a simple checklist listing the five steps involved in carrying out the procedure. He then asked the nurses to observe the doctors for one month and record how often they carried out each step. They found that in over 1/3 of all patients, doctors omitted at least one of the five steps.

The following month, hospital administration instructed the nurses to insist doctors follow each of the steps. The doctors didn’t like being told what to do by the nurses, but the nurses had the backing of hospital administration, so they grudgingly complied. When the new data was later tabulated, they thought maybe a mistake had been made. The infection rate for central lines dropped from 11 percent to zero.

They continued the study for longer, to be sure, but the results were the same. It was estimated that a simple checklist had prevented 43 severe infections and possibly eight deaths in that one hospital, saving $2 million in costs.

And yet, even with this evidence, many doctors refused to grasp the importance of this precaution. They were offended by the very suggestion that they needed a checklist. They already had so much to do that they didn’t want one more sheet of paper to worry about.

To prove his point, the doctor who wrote the checklist introduced it to other hospitals in Michigan. There was pushback, but in just three months, the rate of bloodstream infections dropped by 66 percent. Many of the test hospitals cut their quarterly infection rate to zero. A cost savings of nearly $200 million. All because of a simple little checklist.

All checklists have an essential function. They act as a “mental net” to catch stupid mistakes.

In 2005, the director of surgical administrator in a Columbus, Ohio hospital created a checklist for operating rooms. It contained simple things such as verifying they had the correct patient on the table and the right body area prepared for the surgery. This little addition improved surgical success rates by 89%.

There’s a lot more to this story. In his book, O’Reilly shares stories of how more and more hospitals started implementing checklists for various things, but I’m not going to bore you with them.

Back to the original story. In 2008, after conducting his research, Atul Gawande devised a checklist to be tested by a group of pilot hospitals worldwide. Some operating rooms embraced it, while others protested it as a waste of time.

During a knee replacement surgery to be performed by one of the checklist’s most vocal critics, it was discovered while checking the boxes that the prosthesis on hand was the wrong size. If they had started the surgery, the patient might have lost his leg. That surgeon became an instant checklist evangelist.

In all the hospitals using the checklists, surgical teams began working better together, and the surgical success rates soared. Complications fell by 36 percent, deaths by 47 percent and infections by 50 percent. And patients needing return visits to the operating room fell by 25 percent.

What’s amazing about using checklists is that they dramatically improved an outcome without increasing skill or expenditure. Instead of adding rigidity to their lives, checklists free people by getting the dumb stuff out of the way.

Today, 90 percent of hospitals in North America and 70 percent worldwide use a checklist.

And you want to hear something funny. When Gawande’s original pilot project was completed, doctors were asked to fill out an anonymous survey. Seventy-eight percent said the checklist had prevented errors. But there was still 20 percent who didn’t like the checklist saying it took too long to implement and didn’t think it was worth it. However, when those 20 percents were asked if they had to undergo surgery, would they want the checklist to be used? Ninety-three percent of those who opposed the checklist said yes.

I hope you found these facts as interesting as I did.

Now you may be saying, sure, a checklist in a plane or an operating room makes sense. It can save lives, after all. But I run a graphic design business, so I’m good. I don’t need checklists.

I used to think that way as well. But remember, checklists are freeing because they help get the dumb stuff out of the way, which frees you up for the more important things you do.

I remember a couple of years ago. I was doing routine maintenance on one of my websites I had launched a couple of years prior. While verifying and updating things, I noticed something that almost made my heart stop. The little checkbox next to “Discourage search engines from indexing this site.” was still checked. Meaning, for close to two years, my website was telling search engines, “I’m good. Don’t pay any attention to me. Go look somewhere else.” That’s a stupid mistake that I could have avoided with the use of a pre-launch checklist.

Today, I have several checklists I use regularly. I now have a website pre-launch checklist. A WordPress install checklist. A first client contact checklist. A podcast client checklist. A Resourceful Designer podcast checklist. And many more.

As I said earlier, these checklists help ensure the dumb stuff gets done so that you can concentrate on the more important things without worrying.

If you are not already using checklists in your business, I suggest you start now. And if you think that your checklists are in your head, remember the story about doctors putting in a central line. There are only five steps involved, steps that every doctor knows. And yet, when observed, nurses noted that over 1/3 of all patients, doctors missed at least one of the five steps.

Your memory is failable. A checklist is not.

Nov 8, 2021

Be wary of your reputation.

Let me tell you a story. It is a story that has nothing to do with graphic or web design, but it is relevant to running a business, and I'll tie that into running a design business if you stick around to the end.

We built our house in 2005. Or, more accurately, we had someone build our home in 2005.

If you've ever built your own home or know of someone who has, you know that it's a long and gruelling process. When you buy a pre-built house, you get what's there. Sure, you can renovate it. But until then, what you buy is what you get.

But when you build a home, you're starting with a blank slate. Think of it as opening a new document in Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign, or starting with a fresh installation of WordPress. What you do with it is entirely up to you. Building a home is like that.

When you build a home, you get to choose how many rooms it has and the size of each room. You get to select floorings such as tile, wood, or carpet. You get to choose the light fixtures, the plumbing fixtures, the windows, the door, etc. You decide everything that goes into your house.

My wife and I did that when we started the process for ours. One of the aspects we had to choose was the shingles for the roof. It sounds simple, but there are thousands of varieties and colours of shingles to select from.

My wife and I took many drives around different neighbourhoods, looking at roofs then trying to match those we liked with samples our contractor supplied us. In the end, we chose a nice brown multi-hued asphalt shingle that gave our home character. We loved it.

A couple of years ago, we started to notice these little grain-like substances appearing on our back deck. At first, we thought it was dirt. But we soon realized that it was debris falling from our shingles. There wasn't a lot of it, so we shrugged it off as peculiar.

Then last summer, the debris pieces started getting bigger and fell more often. And when we looked at our roof, we noticed the shingles were starting to turn up at the corners. We weren't happy about this but didn't know what we could do about it. So we let it go as a nuisance.

Well, this spring, when the snow melted, we were shocked to see a layer of dark brown debris on our deck, and our shingles curved and cracked much more than last summer. So I finally decided to take action.

I started by calling the contractor who built our house. When I explained the situation, he immediately knew what I meant. He had dealt with several other people facing the same problem. It turns out the singles on our roof had a defect. A big enough one that there was a class-action lawsuit filed and won against the manufacturer.

Our shingles have a 25-year warranty. According to the settlement, we're entitled to compensation for the unused portion of that warranty. The only specification is we have to replace them with a newer shingle by the same manufacturer.

I'm upset that I hadn't looked into the issue when we first discovered it. I could have received a more considerable compensation. But I'm glad there's something we can do.

Not knowing how to proceed, I asked my contractor for advice. He retired several years ago, but he gave me a name of a contractor he recommended who is familiar with the process. He suggested I contact him for a quote on redoing my roof, which I need for the claim process.

He also recommended I talk to his old foreman, who oversaw most of the homes he built, including mine. I called the foreman for advice. It turns out he's also retired, although more recently. He told me he had handled many of these shingle claims on behalf of other clients. And although he no longer does that, he would help me however he could.

He told me the first step was to get a quote from a qualified professional roofer. And the person he recommended was the same one my contractor had given me. The foreman had worked with him several times and was currently engaging him to build his new house.

Having received the same name from two trusted sources, I called this new contractor and left a message for him to call me back.

While waiting to hear back from him, I looked him up online. I read the Google and other reviews had nothing but good things to say about him, which boosted my confidence. I was eager to get the process started.

But several days passed, and the new contractor didn't return my call. So I called and left another message, and then a few days later another.

Finally, a week later, he called and apologized. He said the pandemic had taken a toll on his business. He lost several employees leaving him to juggle more than he usually did. This is understandable. The news is full of companies suffering due to staff shortages these days.

I explained my situation and what I required, and he agreed to stop by the next day to look at my roof. But he never showed up. Two days later, I called him, and once again, he apologized, saying he would be here the next day.

To his credit, he showed up. He spent almost an hour on my roof measuring and taking photos of all the problem areas for me to submit with the claim. Once done, he said he would send me the images and have a quote ready by the end of the week.

My wife and I are also thinking about adding a screened-off area to our back deck next summer, so while he was there, I asked him for a quote on that as well. He said I would have both quotes by Friday. But the end of the week came, and I didn't hear from him.

I waited until Wednesday the following week before calling. Once again, he apologized for the delay and said, once again, I would have the quotes by Friday.

Do you see a pattern here?

Friday came and went. On Monday, I called him, asking where my quotes were. He told me he couldn't send them because he didn't have my email address, which I had already provided him. I gave it to him again, and the following day I received the photos and the quote for my roof. The second quote for the screened-in porch was nowhere to be seen.

With the roof quote and photos of the damaged areas in hand, I filled out all the information required to submit my claim, including the material list the contractor supplied me.

Upon submission, I learned it could take up to 120 days before I get a response. In the meantime, no work was to be performed on my roof, in case they needed to send someone to inspect it.

I called the contractor, and I told him we couldn't move forward for possibly up to 120 days. But I would still like to book him for the job when the time comes. He told me it was not a problem. He could pencil me onto his schedule for the fall. All I had to do was let him know when we could proceed.

I also reminded him that he owed me another quote, to which he replied I would see it soon.

Now you may be thinking. This guy doesn't seem too reliable. Why not get someone else? Well, during the process, I did get two other quotes from other roofers. One I found online, and the other I remembered seeing when a neighbour had his roof done. Both were more expensive, and their online reviews were not as good as the contractor I was already dealing with. My neighbour even told me he wouldn't hire the same guy again. Plus, given the time frame of a 120-day wait, neither of them would guarantee they could repair my roof before winter.

Now true to form, it took exactly 120 days before I heard back that my claim was approved and I could move forward with the roof repair. I immediately called the contractor and left him a message saying we were good to go. And then I waited. Three days later, I called and left another message and waited some more.

Now I'm starting to get worried. Winter is fast approaching Eastern Ontario, and no roofing will be done once the snow starts falling. And my roof has deteriorated significantly over the summer to the point where I don't think we could last the winter without possible water damage.

Finally, a few days later, I heard from the contractor. He told me not to worry, he still has me on his schedule, and my roof will get done before winter. The next step is to choose what new shingles we want. He said he would drop off samples that afternoon. He never showed up. That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday, I called him. He apologized and said he would drop them off on Thursday morning before heading to his current project. He never showed up.

Today is Friday. I still don't have the shingle samples. And I no idea if or when he'll do my roof, even though he says not to worry, it'll be done before winter.

At this point, there's nobody else I can call. I have no choice but to rely on this person that I've lost all faith in. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that my roof gets repaired before snowfall.

So why did I share this with you? A story about my roof that has nothing to do with graphic or web design. It's because I wanted to share with you how NOT to run a business.

I had two people I trust recommend this guy. And his online reviews were great. So I had no reason to suspect the frustrations I would experience dealing with him.

But at this point, he could do the most fantastic job on my roof, and even if he offered me a discount because of the troubles, I would still never recommend him to anyone. His reputation is tarnished beyond repair.

That's the message I want you to take away from this story. It doesn't matter what sort of work you do for your clients. What matters is how you treat them. You may be a great designer, an amazing designer, in fact. But never forget that you're not the only designer around.

When a client calls or emails you, make sure you reply promptly. Even if it's only to say "thank you for the message." so they know you received it. That simple acknowledgement can go a long way in building trust.

If a client asks you to do something or send them something, make sure you follow through. If you're afraid you might forget, set a reminder on your phone or add it to your calendar. You can even stick a Post-It note to your monitor.

You want to build lasting relationships with your clients so they come back to you over and over again in the future. You'll never be able to do that if your reputation is tarnished. Because once you lose their trust. It's almost impossible to gain it back.

---

You won't believe this. As I was wrapping this up, the contractor showed up at my door with the shingle samples. He didn't even apologize for being late this time. He did, however, assure me that he would do my roof in three weeks. It's on his schedule, and I shouldn't worry. But you know I'll worry anyway, at least until the work is complete.

As for the quote for the screened porch for the deck? I still haven't seen it. But at this point, I don't care anymore. Once he's finished my roof, I never plan on hiring this guy again.

I hope none of your clients ever feel that way about you.

Nov 1, 2021

Do you know how to give a good critique?

One of my professors made us critique our classmates’ projects at the end of every college assignment. Once we completed a design project, he would place everyone’s design at the front of the class, and one by one, he would select students and ask them to critique one of the projects.

The reason he did this was twofold. He wanted us to develop an eye towards examining other designs to both learn from them, which makes us better designers and seek aspects of the designs we would have done differently.

The other reason he held these critiques was to thicken our skin. As designers, we have to learn to take criticism of the works we create. If you are easily offended or don’t take well to people critically evaluating your creations this way, then maybe being a designer is not for you. Besides, what better way to learn than by hearing our fellow students dissect our works.

I can tell you that I learned a lot from hearing my classmates tear apart my work. But this exercise we conducted at the end of each project had another effect. You see, the professor wasn’t only evaluating our design work. He was also evaluating our critiques. He would point out when our comments were not helpful or ask us to expand on our observations to convey better what we were saying.

Even though every student dreaded these critiquing sessions, looking back, I’m grateful for them. It made me look at design through a different lens. It taught me the difference between giving a critique and offering constructive criticism. And that’s what I want to discuss with you today.

As you may be aware, there’s a Resourceful Designer Facebook group. In this group, or any other design group for that matter, including the Resourceful Designer Community. Designers often post their designs “for review.” Sometimes they are looking for advice. Sometimes it’s for validation. And sometimes, they’re looking for nothing more than an ego grab.

Regardless of their reasoning for posting their work, I can’t help but shake my head at some of the comments they receive. Comments which supposedly come from experienced designers, and yet, they’re of no value to the person posting their design.

So I want to talk to you about my method of critiquing. Is my method the proper right way of offering critiques? Of course not. I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong, and you should do it my way. I’m hoping that after hearing what I have to say, you may take an extra moment to contemplate your response the next time someone asks you to critique their work.

When to ask for critiques.

Let’s start with when you should be asking for critiques. In my opinion, there are four stages of a design project when you should ask for critiques.

  1. During the initial concept stage.
  2. If you hit a roadblock.
  3. Before presenting your design to the client.
  4. Before sending the design to print or launching it.

Let’s break those down.

1. Ask for critiques during the initial concept stage.

The beginning of a design project is when the work is most fluid. It’s the point when the design could take off in any direction. If you are working on a logo project, you may sketch out dozens or hundreds of concepts before narrowing it down to the ones you want to develop further.

During this stage, it’s not uncommon to show your favourite concepts to someone to get another opinion. You’re not asking for critiques of the actual designs, but more of the overall direction you are taking. It’s a great way to validate that you are starting on the right path before getting too far down the road.

Another set of eyes can help spot the stronger designs and weed out the weaker ones. It is beneficial for someone who has been staring at them for a long time which diminishes your objectivity.

So asking for critiques during the initial concept stage can quickly help you determine what direction the rest of the design project will take.

2. Ask for critiques when you hit a roadblock.

We’ve all been there, you’re designing away on something you initially thought was great, but all of a sudden, you doubt yourself. Something about the design isn’t sitting right with you, but you can’t figure out what. This is the perfect opportunity to get another set of eyes on it.

Sometimes, another uninvested designer can look at a design and spot the flaws that you’ve become blind to. So any time you hit a roadblock or start to doubt something about your work, ask someone to critique it.

3. Ask for critiques before showing your work to the client.

You’ve completed your design. You’ve polished it up and are ready to present it to your client. Now is the perfect time to show it to others first, just in case there’s something you’re not seeing.

It’s not a good feeling to tell a client after presenting something to them that you need to make a change. It tarnishes the mantle of “expert” they’ve placed over you. It’s even worst if the client points out any flaws to you.

To prevent this, it’s a good idea to ask for critiques before presenting your work to the client.

4. Ask for critiques before sending a design to print or launching it.

There is potentially a lot of money involved in a print run. You do not want to find out after the fact that there was an issue with your design.

If you’re a solo designer, I highly suggest you find someone or a group of people like in the Resourceful Designer Community that can review your work before you hand it off to the printer.

Digital work isn’t as critical since it can always be corrected after the fact. But it still reflects poorly on you if you published something with errors or flaws. To prevent this from happening, ask for critiques before sending a project to print or launch.

Those are the four times when you should be asking for critiques of your work. That doesn’t mean you should limit it to those times. At any point during a project, you can ask someone to look over what you’ve done. But even if you’re confident in what you are doing, these four critique points should not be ignored.

How to ask for critiques.

Let’s look at how to ask for critiques. Posting a design and asking “What do you think?” is not the right way. Without any context, you’re just opening yourself up to a bevy of unhelpful answers.

  • What do you think? I think you can do better.
  • What do you think? I think it should be blue instead of green.
  • What do you think? I’m not crazy about the font.
  • What do you think? I don’t like it.

Not useful answers.

What you want to do is make it easy for the person to critique your work. After all, you are asking them to devote a bit of their precious time to help you. The least you can do is make it easier for them to offer their assistance by giving you the advice you can use. A tiny bit of effort on your part will benefit both you and the person critiquing your work.

The proper way to ask for critiques involves three key elements.

  1. A short brief of the project.
  2. The parameters you faced in the design.
  3. What you are looking for in the critique.

Let’s look at each of those.

1. Give a short brief of the project.

If you are asking me to critique a logo, it would be nice to know, at minimum, in what industry the client works. Is “Bluebird” the name of a restaurant? Is it a bus line? A band? A children’s clothing line? Without this context, how am I supposed to give you a proper critique of your design?

You don’t have to provide an in-depth project brief. But a short description of who the client is, their location, what services or products they are offering and who their target market is will help me greatly when offering my opinion on your design.

2. Mention the parameters you faced in the design.

Was there anything that limited what you can or cannot do with the design you’re creating? Did the client insist you use a sans serif font? Were you limited to specific corporate colours? Was there a particular element you needed to incorporate into the design?

Knowing these things will help people form their critique. If I know you were limited to sans serif fonts, I won’t recommend a serif font. I won’t comment on the colours if I know you had no choice but to use the ones you did. And if I know the client wants a nautical theme; I won’t recommend you use a train in your design.

Knowing what parameters you face will help people give you a better critique.

3. Mention what you are looking for in a critique.

Finally, if you want an overall opinion of the design, great, say so. But if you want to know about a particular aspect of it, let people know.

If all you’re interested in is whether or not the size of the icon is appropriate to the size of the logotype, then say that’s what you are looking for. There’s no sense in someone dissecting the rest of the design if that’s all you want to know.

Suppose you are designing a poster and want to know if the visual hierarchy is working. Ask people to list in order what they think are the most critical areas of the sign.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a critique of an overall design. But if all you need is for someone to verify one aspect of your project, then save both of us some time by saying so up front.

Giving Critiques

And now the good part, giving critiques.

Critiques are a learning experience for both you and the person you are critiquing. It helps hone your design skills by spotting ways you think a design can be improved. It may also show you things you may not have considered before. And it helps the person receiving the critique by offering them a different approach to their design.

Design is subjective. No two designers think the same way. Just because it’s not how you would design it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong or doesn’t work. It just means that you would have done it differently.

As the title of this episode states. A good critique should offer constructive criticism: meaning, the suggestions you make. And keep in mind, a critique is just that, suggestions. The suggestions you offer should have a reason behind them.

Here are four key ingredients to a good critique.

  1. Identify what you believe can use improvement.
  2. Explain why you believe the current way is lacking.
  3. Offer suggestions on how you would do it differently.
  4. State why you believe making your suggested changes will improve the design.

That’s it. If you can offer these four things when giving a critique, you provide helpful advice to the person asking. Let’s look at each one.

1. Identify what you believe can use improvement.

It’s tough to offer a good critique of an overall design. Most likely, whatever you have to say pertains to a particular part of the design. Therefore, the first thing you should do is identify what part of the design you refer to.

Say you think the website header, or logo icon, or newsletter masthead needs something. Pinpointing areas of a design allows you to break up your critique into actionable sections.

  • This is what I think of the icon
  • This is what I think of the logotype
  • This is what I think of the sizing
  • This is what I think of the colours.

Critique individual elements, not the design as a whole.

2. Explain why you believe the current way is lacking.

It’s much easier to convince someone to change something if you can explain what you believe is wrong with the way it is now.

For example: Explaining how the connecting letters in a script font are hard to make out and could be interpreted in the wrong way will go a long way in helping you convince them to change the font in their design.

Or pointing out that the colours of the font and the background it’s on are too similar in hue and may cause legibility issues for visually impaired people. It helps strengthen your argument towards changing the colours in the design.

So whenever possible, please explain why you believe the current way is lacking before you offer suggestions on how to change it.

3. Offer suggestions on how you would do it differently.

Remember how I said that no two designers are the same? That means that what you think is the right way may not be what the next designer thinks is right.

Sure there are some things on which most of us agree. But innovative designers have successfully challenged tried and true design principles. It’s how design evolves.

Do you know the saying “Blue and green should never be seen except for inside a washing machine”? There was a time when no designer would use blue and green together. And yet, nowadays, it’s a common combination.

So just because you think something doesn’t look right doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. I’m personally not a fan of the street art grunge style of design. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a viable design choice. Just not something I would choose.

Keeping that in mind, form your opinions as suggestions when critiquing someone’s work. Let them know how you would do it differently. Then let them decide if it’s something they want to pursue.

And don’t be offended if they choose not to listen to you. After all, no two designers...

4. State why you believe making your suggested changes will improve the design.

Finally, state why you believe making your suggested changes will improve the design.

The best way to win an argument is by offering your opinion and explaining why it’s so. No designer should change their design without a good reason. And “I think it would look better in red” is not a good reason.

Explaining that red is a more passionate colour that encourages people to make spur-of-the-moment decisions is a convincing argument for why they should change the colour.

You don’t have to get philosophical with your answers. Sometimes the “Why” behind your suggestion is simple. Increasing the space between the text and the underline will make it easier to read when reduced. Simple.

So whenever possible, state why you believe making your suggested changes will improve the design.

Conclusion

Critiques are hard. Both receiving them and giving them. But critiques are also how we improve. If nobody ever critiqued your work, you would never get better at what you do. And if you never take the time to critique another design, you’ll never learn new things.

In fact, I bet you critique other designs all the time. I know I critique every billboard, website, bumper sticker, t-shirt, etc. that I see. I’m always thinking of how I would have done it differently or mentally filing away a good design idea so that I can steal it for a future project. I can’t help it. I’m a designer. You probably do the same.

Critiques. They’re the bane of our existence and the fuel that propels us. We wouldn’t be designers without critiques. But always remember, Critiques are just suggestions.

As I mentioned several times already, no two designers think the same way. So, just because someone says a design element should be changed doesn’t necessarily mean you should change it. You need to weigh what you know about the project, about yourself as a designer, about the client, and what you know about the person whose recommendations you are thinking of following.

The best and most valuable critiques come from people you know and trust. If a stranger says something should be green, however, your trusted design colleague thinks it should be blue. Chances are you’re going to lean towards making it blue. That’s why being a part of a design group like a Facebook group, or even better, the Resourceful Designer Community, can be such a benefit. Listen to and learn from the people you know.

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