How to Get Great Work from Your Designer

Written for, April 29, 2013

Pretty much anyone involved in publishing—authors, marketing, publicity, sales— is going to be working with a designer at some point. Whether you’re talking book covers, promotional materials or Web sites, eventually words must assume a visual form.

When creatives from two different disciplines converge, there can often be a communication breakdown. I’m a designer who works frequently with authors. Allow me to help demystify this Venus vs. Mars relationship and help you get the best work from your designers—saving you time and money along the way.

Be Prepared
Before your designer starts, make sure she has everything she needs to do the job. And err on the side of abundance. Providing everything (and I do mean everything) required for this job from the get-go will save you both time and money later. I’ve had clients hand off partial content in haste to start a project, only to have the project stall later when additional revisions were needed to integrate the materials that we should have started with in the first place.

Start by including everything you have an opinion about. If you have a color palette preference, clip sample swatches and pass it on. If there is a font that you would love to see used in the design, mention it. You may have a preference of custom photography over stock, abstract over documentary style. Make this known.

Also mention where you need guidance. Be sure to mention where it is you want the designer to take the wheel. This is especially relevant with book projects—specifically cover design. Often, the designer is tasked with communicating the essence of the book with the image and title treatment. Identify the most compelling qualities about the book and ask your designer for help visually representing this.

Corral those technical emails. If you’re building a Web site, you’re going to be amassing a lot of these. At minimum, you’re going to need to know where you registered your hosting and domain name. You should also include the FTP login as well. When you pass this information on, include registration emails, usernames, and passwords. Missing technical information can bring work to a halt—it’s best to track everything down before you even start.

Field Trip
One of the best ways designers can get a feel for your aesthetic preferences is by seeing examples of what you like. When a client shows me a bunch of different designs that resonate with her—and explains what about them what she find appealing—it’s one of the best gauges I use to plan out a project. In my experience, the more time my clients spend on this step, the better the whole process proceeds.

Keep in mind that the sample designs may or may not be within the same family. I’ve had a client show me graffiti on the side of a train as an example of the type of gritty treatment they were interested in seeing from his site design. The important part is identifying what it is about that design that is resonating with your client, so be sure to spend time discussing each example.

In addition to sharing design you admire, it’s helpful to show design that you don’t like as well. For instance, you may show a book cover from your genre that just doesn’t work for you. For instance, if you are a mystery author, perhaps you would show them a cover with a shadowy image hiding in an alley and use this as an example of the kind of clichéd design you want to avoid.

Involve All Stakeholders From Step One
Everyone who has a stake in the design decisions should be involved from the very beginning. That means publicists, editors, mother-in-laws… whomever is a decision maker. Pulling these people midway through is potentially disruptive. Since design is a process, it doesn’t make sense to involve a key decision maker once you are in the final rounds of designs. Depending on the feedback, it may take you back to square one.

Don’t interpret this as an endorsement to invite everyone you know to opine on the design process. I always advocate for a smaller team of people, led by one primary point who communicates with the rest of the team. If you invite a bunch of people to share their opinions, you better believe they will. Design by committee is rarely successful—often you end up with a bland version of the original design in an attempt to please everyone.

Be Crystal Clear
If you can not go a penny over a particular budget, say that up front. If there’s a drop deadline where someone will indeed be dropping dead if it’s missed, make that known. These decisions will drive the project. There’s a saying that I’ve made my mantra: “Fast, cheap, good. Pick two.” If having a sophisticated design with many design explorations is key, you will likely pay for it. If getting something done quickly is the highest priority, quality may suffer. Establish priorities with your clients and this will help you get what you want from your designer.

These are just a few ways that you can make the process easier for everyone. Easier often means cheaper. And easier often means faster. And when these things come together, everyone is (usually) happy.