Image by Tom Newby via flickr

“Make it Pop” and Other Cliches Designers Hear

Listening and responding to feedback is one of the most important skills any designer needs to develop if they want to make good work and have happy clients. Work as a designer long enough, and you will realize certain themes tend to recur. This is probably because there are common differences between how designers and clients view projects and briefs. For the designer, hearing the same thing endlessly can either be exasperating or a great learning experience, depending on how you choose to look at it.

I have found over time that some of these requests have given me a rare and valuable insight into both how the people I make work for view the design process, and the goals they wish to achieve. Collaboration is essential for design, but when the parties collaborating have a drastically different understanding of the design process, you’ll often end up with commentary and suggestions that don’t necessarily help either side.

If you’re about to embark on a design project, the following are 6 examples of cliche design feedback you may want to avoid:

“Can the logo be bigger?”

This one is a running joke in design circles, to the point that it has inspired numerous parodies from various cheeky/exasperated designers and firms.

The client always wants the logo bigger. No matter what the context. No matter what the goal of the project is. That logo needs to be BIG. Personally, my response to this has often been to make the logo so big you can only see a fraction of it still on the page. It is generally not well-received. Unlike some of the other common pushbacks on designs I’ve encountered in my career, this is one whose root I understand, and can definitely work with.

Clients always want their brand to be present and in the forefront, and rightly so. Where the issue can occur is when a logo is mistaken for a brand. A logo is usually just some semi-random shapes and text that says the company name. A brand (if done right) is a potent message with spirit and personality that attempts to forge a meaningful connection with its audience. The brand should resonate clearly through every piece of work and messaging that the company creates. The Brand should indeed be the biggest message that the audience comes away with. But it’s up to the designer to understand the brand and convey that, so that we can keep the logo itself a tasteful size.

“Make it pop!”

I’ve been a creative professional for over a decade now, and I still have no idea what this means. Sometimes I just make the text a couple points bigger, and then drink coffee until I can seem really excited about it at the next review. The approach has worked more often than I’d care to admit.

“We want to keep it really minimal (but we need to include all these things).”

The contradiction here has always made me chuckle. Especially since the majority of clients I have worked with have requested something along these lines. Often the suggestion is to keep the design as clean and simple as possible, but then the list of necessary elements will slowly but surely grow to a Godzilla-esque scale. And if you saw what Godzilla did to New York, imagine how much damage he would do to a poor little website design. Good design, like good writing, benefits from editing. If you try and say too many things, the key message is lost.

The perception can often be that white space, areas of a design that don’t feature any active content, is space wasted. Particularly when the client is shelling out top dollar for prime advertising placement, why not make use of every inch of it? The answer is, because all that empty space serves to frame and reinforce the message that you really want to push forward. It’s the same reason that art galleries are often huge spaces, with ample space between the artworks. It gives you a place to focus your attention on what really matters.

Imagine if Twitter had a 1000 character limit. I doubt they would have have ever gotten past Beta testing, let alone to a $25 billion valuation when they went public.  One of the biggest lessons that design can take from advertising is in brevity. Keeping messages short and sweet lets you reinforce key ideas with your audience. Does that chart really serve a purpose? You have to work with your client to distill their message to its essence. Does the audience need to know about all the features you offer, or just the one that will help move their business forward?

“Think outside the box.”

What box would that be, exactly? This, along with MBA’s gratuitous use of the term “synergy” from the 2000s, should be outlawed. Moving on.

“I don’t know what it needs, but I’ll know it when I see it.”

This comes up a lot. Clients have many wonderful traits, but often aren’t visual thinkers. If they were, they wouldn’t use designers so much. It is possibly the most vague piece of feedback you can receive. To a designer, it sounds like “show me everything it could possibly be, and then I’ll pick something.” Since design problems are, by nature, ill-defined; having numerous possible solutions, this can—and often does—open a floodgate of frenzied and haphazard revisions.

Iteration—the creation of a multitude of variations on a theme—is an integral part of the process the designer has gone through before pulling out anything to present. If the designer isn’t clear about their process with a client though, they may assume whatever they are being shown is the only thing you’ve come up with. As an example of the iterative process, during our recent rebrand of Hootsuite, the logo/wordmark alone went through 150+ draft concepts, revisions, and iterations. A variety of concepts were explored, refined, and explored again long before key stakeholders even saw a selection of “first” drafts. Even once the final version of the logo was approved, there was still the enormous task of developing it into a strong and cohesive brand identity. And that is a process that never really stops.

Every piece of collateral, whether they are white papers, ads, or the signs in the bathroom, serve to reinforce and develop a company’s brand. Sometimes it can be weeks or months into the launch of a large-scale campaign or rebrand that all the pieces come together so that the whole picture is clear. That’s why in design, forward thinking is so critical. It isn’t enough to just present something in a vacuum. You have to show where it’s going. One of the best approaches for working with a client to envision a project is to give them concrete, visual examples of what their shiny new brand will look like in a variety of settings, from huge exciting billboards to bland everyday stationery. That way, you make the grandiose ideas in your imagination real to them. Hopefully.

“Just have fun with it. “

This is a great bit of feedback to end on, as it’s incredibly common, and is the most likely to accompany a project whose brief that can best be described as “anti-fun”, a unique material that annihilates any fun it happens to encounter on its journey through the design process. An artist given a laundry list of requirements that a painting must fulfill would likely run a hide in a closet.

If, when designing, you need to fit 2000 words of text onto 3 pages, include two diagrams, four logos, and one stock image of smiling executives, it’s just not going to be fun. And that’s okay. If I really wanted to have fun, I’d ride my bike or go invent some new artisanal peanut butter and bacon sandwich.

A lot of our design culture at Hootsuite revolves around having fun. From a design point of view, one of the most refreshing aspects of our new branding has been the ability to keep the fun parts fun, while making sure that anything that needs to straightforward and corporate still looks thoughtful and sharp. My first design teacher, Jane Guerts, told me once, “If you’re going to make it messy, make it really messy. If it’s going to be clean, make it spotless.” Now we get to speak the visual language of our Enterprise-level clients without having to compromise the the playful aesthetic at the core of Hootsuite’s ethos.

For a designer, the only time we want to hear, “Have fun with it!” is when the deadline isn’t 5 minutes ago, and the project brief has a lot of room to breathe. It’s fantastic when the opportunity arises, but it doesn’t have to be every day. And don’t worry, we can be a lot like kids, leave us to it and we’ll make our own fun.

The more you know…

One thing that you can always rely on when it comes to cliches, no one is surprised when they show up. Ever since I started working in this field, I’ve made it a point to try to educate my clients as much about design just as much as they’ve taught me about their diverse fields. Every time I hear one of the aforementioned gems of feedback from someone I’m working with, it gives me a better understanding of how they see the process of creating something together. Going through a large-scale design exercise can be an exciting learning experience for everyone involved. We endeavour to show our clients how to think visually and they give us the solid grounding needed to achieve real measurable results for their businesses. But no, I can’t make the logo any bigger.