Let’s face it, designing for yourself is hard. Everyone struggles with it. I don’t think I know of one designer who creates something for themselves and instantly loves it, never having any doubts. So if this is true, why are we so quick to judge when the shoe is on the other foot? On a handful of occasions I’ve had a client request something very specific of me. Initially, after fulfilling their request, all is well. Client is happy, designer is happy – the world is at peace. Then something happens: You receive the, what feels like random, email from the client asking you to take the project in a completely different direction…
Now the frustration sets in. But why? You’d think we, as designers, would understand this sudden change of heart more than anyone. Though I don’t necessarily condone the sudden mystery changes that we experience, I do think it’s important to be respectful and understanding of them. Whether they’re due to a change of strategy, budget, or pure anxiety, there might just be a good reason for them. At the end of the day, it’s probably one of the same reasons that we are constantly refining and agonizing over our personal work. Apparently we’re more like our clients than we think.
Say Hello to BestPass
I’ve recently encountered this very situation (give or take). The company I work for was approached by a client who needed an entire overhaul. Not just a site redesign, but the whole nine yards; branding, copywriting, brochures, trade-show booths and of course, a shiny new website. Awesome! I love seeing a brand that I’ve created come to fruition through a variety of materials. On top of that the client was very trusting with our suggestions and was looking for something fun and exciting. So off I went with an optimistic head on my soldiers.
The companies service seems complicated from an outside perspective, but is actually quite simple. They help truckers or any other type of transport companies save money on tolls. It was our job to communicate this message as simply and clearly as we could. So we started with the most logical first step; the logo. The logo would set the tone for the rest of the materials so it really had to be strong. Since the client was interested in turning a seemingly dry service into something fun and exciting I quickly determined that some sort of an illustrated icon would be a good direction to head.
After a few rounds of sketching I came up with a concept that I thought was not only playful but also clear and concise. The concept was to illustrate a tire with wings while pairing it with some fun typography. I opted to use a simple tire in order to generically say “transport”. I didn’t want to specifically allude to trucks, or vans, or cars – just “transport”. So a simple yet generic tire seemed to fit the bill. The idea to fashion on a pair of wings was supposed to cleverly imply that the service would help your transport company commute efficiently. All in all it seemed simple, effective and fun; three marks I wanted to hit.
All my peers seemed to like what I had come up with. Then I presented it to the client. At first glance, he seemed to like it too. However, as the presentation progressed, I could sense some uncertainty in his voice.
After a few days passed I got the dreaded phone call. The client wanted to take things in a much more conservative direction. Bummer. After a few rounds of creating alternate logos the client finally requested that we simply make a variation of their current logo, and call it a day.
I wasn’t really sure of where this sudden change in direction came from. As I mentioned above, I was explicitly told to take the brand in a fun and exciting direction. Perhaps after seeing what “fun & exciting” really looked like, the client got cold feet. Either way, I still had hope for the project (despite some initial frustration, of course).
Through further discussion we concluded that a better approach for this particular client would be to put the fun and exciting concept into the copy rather than the graphics. After all, there was a lot of technical jargon that had to be included, so we might as well gussy it up a bit for the sake of the reader.
Carrying out the brand
So the project progressed, but in much more of a modest direction. The next piece of the puzzle that had to be completed were a few trade-show banners. They were sort of a last minute addition to my project list, but it was nice to have some brand application/experimentation time before I went after the crown jewel; their website.
The brand (and I use that word loosely) that I started to carry out with the trade-show banners focused itself largely around text and a monochromatic color palette. In-fact, there were no images included at all besides an illustrated map I had created. Though this was a last minute, somewhat rushed addition, I really liked the way it turned out. In-fact, I liked it so much that I figured I could use it as a pretty strong foundation for the site design.
With two parts of the entire project under my belt and a straight path cleared for the remainder of the work, I was now ready to start the site design. At this point, I took a step back and looked into my bag of ammo. Here’s what was there:
- A fairly conservative logo
- The opportunity for some really creative & fun copy
- A monochromatic (blue) palate of color
- A straight-forward sitemap
Not a bad start. There’s one problem though. The lingering question of how to communicate such a simple/yet complex message remained. In a typical scenario I’d default to what I call the “picture is worth a thousand words” solution. However, every photo idea I’d come up with was in some way a contradiction of another angle behind the service. It was quite the catch-22. Then it dawned on me: If a photo leaves room for suggestion, why chance it? Why not just “tell” the user about the service in our own words; leaving no room for miscommunication. Genius, right? Next problem, how do you sell a web design to a client that includes absolutely no photographs? Easy, two words: irresistible typography!
So that was my plan of attack. Tag-team the design with super awesome typography and stellar copywriting to boot. I came up with a structure for the site that I thought would walk the user effectively through the who, what, where, when and why. Then I worked closely with our teams copywriter to slightly tweak his already amazing copy so it would do what I needed it to; fit properly.
After I had put the rough elements (bodies of text) in place, I was feeling like the composition was a bit dry. My spirit must have been weak, because I started to give-in to the temptation of using photography again. After a few hours of contemplation I was finally able to reach deep down inside myself and come up with a solution that would satisfy both the aesthetic needs, as well as the overall informational aspect of the site. Icons! I’d make a group of icons that would each represent the types of transporters who could benefit form the service. Four illustrations later, I had my set of icons. They certainly helped, but the design still wasn’t done yet. I felt like it was still missing something. So I met again with the great temptress named photography. I really didn’t want to surrender to her though. I had already concluded that photos would do more harm than good, so I was determined to do without them. Despite many close-calls, I’m proud to say that I stood firm in my decision and did not conform. I came up with a solution that really helped bring the design home. It was a global / sticky savings calculator that allowed the user to enter their average toll cost, then see their savings clear as day. This was it, the coup de grâce! Now the user had everything they could possibly need right at their finger tips, and it didn’t even require one photo.
Once the homepage was complete, the rest of the site fell right into place. The savings calculator was pulling it’s weight globally, and the three column structure set up a very organized template for the remainder of the pages.
Outside the Comfort Zone
I’m really proud of this site/project. It forced me to move outside of my comfort zone; something I think we should all do every once in a while. It also taught me a few valuable lessons:
- Trust your gut. Once you’ve concluded that something won’t benefit a client, honor it. Don’t be suckered into resorting to old trends, simply because your new concept creates an obstacle for you.
- Give your client the benefit of the doubt. If they mysteriously decide to change the direction of the project, do some investigation work before you throw your hands up with disgust. You just might find that they have a logical and rationale explanation. Even if they don’t, remember, they’re human too (just like you and me).
There’s no ‘I’ in Team (but there is a ‘me’)
This project was, without a doubt, a team effort. And what kind of guy would I be if I didn’t mention those key players who helped everything come together so well? All that fancy tongue-in-cheek sarcasm was written by Joe Schaefer. Nick Hansen helped polish off the interior pages and interactive flash map, while Jonathan Christopher matched every pixel perfectly when developing the site.
Oh yeah, the rest of the materials included in the project came out great too. Just like the interior pages of the site, all the initial planning really paid off. I was able to pull the remainder of the materials together quickly and efficiently from utilizing the previously established brand guides. So I suppose there is one last moral to this story: Plan well in the beginning, it will pay off tremendously in the end.