Graphic Fundamentals 3 – Selling Your Ideas

by Joe Gillespie — Jul 1, 2003

Being able to sell your designs to clients is a fundamental part of the graphic design business. Having your design work rejected by a client is bad for the ego and for the bank balance. It either means spending more time to come up with an acceptable solution or taking a much reduced fee and losing the business altogether. Obviously, neither situation is satisfactory - from anyone's point of view. I will try to explain why this happens and how you can avoid it happening to you.

In larger design companies and advertising agencies there are people whose job it is to liase with clients, to pick up briefs and present the finished work.

If you work on your own or in a small group, you probably have to do this job yourself. This has its upsides and downsides.

The popular image of a 'designer' is that of an airy-fairy, prima donna with a vocabulary hampered by the use of trendy buzz words and one who throws tantrums at the slightest suggestion of a deviance from his or her 'design'. Yes, I've known a few of those. Thankfully, they aren't the norm but keeping such people well insulated from clients is not such a bad idea.

If we are really truthful, there's a teensy weensy bit of that egotism lurking in all designers. After all, we take a pride in our work; we like to think things through. Why should a job be accepted or rejected on the whim of some fat client who got out of the wrong side of the bed that morning? And what about that agency account executive who is supposed to be on your side but as soon as he smells trouble in a meeting, defects to the client's side? Two-faced git!

The trouble is, we seem to have two opposing sides here - the client and the designer - with the account executive acting as a referee in the middle. In my experience, this situation is pretty common - but fundamentally flawed. Let's examine these roles a little closer.

First, there's the client - the person who's commissioning the design work on behalf of his or her company. They probably know a lot about the business they are in - or they won't be in that business for very long. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that as far as the product or service they represent goes, they are the 'expert'. More importantly, they hold the purse strings.

The client might also have an opinion as to how their wares might be presented and marketed but unless they have a marketing background, they could just be going on personal tastes or hunches. Large companies do employ people trained in marketing; others have a 'marketing department' where the staff has been grafted-on from more nebulous backgrounds.

Then there's the designer. This is someone who has been trained to communicate at a visual level - possibly at an art school but not always. I know some excellent designers who have never had formal art school training but have joined a design company straight from high school and learned the tricks of the trade. I spent a long time at art colleges - seven years full time. It wasn't until I got my first job in an advertising agency that I realised how much I didn't know. The art colleges certainly promoted creativity and taught a little bit of the practical mechanics but there was a large hole in my knowledge that I can sum up with one word... 'Selling.'

Design is not about making things look pretty, it's about making them sell. If they look pretty and that helps in the process of selling, that's fine. If they look pretty and the product doesn't sell, the designer has failed to do his or her job somewhere along the line. The client is ultimately interested in selling his product. The designer is hired to help do that. The concept of 'them' and 'us' is therefore wrong. A designer should work with a client, not for them - there's a huge difference.

Now we come back to this middleman - if there is one - the account executive. Some agencies call them 'reps' because they represent the client's interests within the agency (and the agency's interests to the client). They usually have a degree in marketing of some sort but again, they can end up in marketing because they chose to study a subject that has no practical use outside of academia. As with the unschooled designer, they have to learn on the job.

Anyway, they have to understand the client's particular problems and needs, analyse them and come up with a marketing strategy. As I said earlier, if you don't have a person like this in your company, then you have to do the job yourself. To do it well, you have to be able to take two big steps backwards from your usual 'creative' position and look at the situation from the client's point of view. It's not easy to wear two hats at once but you could try wearing a suit - if only a virtual one - to get into the right frame of mind.

Here's a little scenario that will help bring all this stuff into sharper focus. Let's say that the client manufactures heat-insulated plastic trays. For the past umpteen years, they were sold mainly to couch potatoes to eat TV dinners from. Lately, sales had been in the doldrums so he invited several agencies to do speculative creative pitches. That's how it usually works!

One design agency came up with a couple of dozen designs for fancy patterns that could be silk-screened onto the trays. Some were flowery, some abstract and some had Alpine landscapes or tropical beach scenes. Wonderful!

Another more marketing oriented agency carefully researched the lifestyle of 'Joe Six-pack'. With countless PowerPoint slides and flipcharts showing all the facts and figures, they came to the profound conclusion that the 'target market' loved ball games and soap operas. So, the trays have to be laminated with pictures of football stars and babes from Star Trek. Great!

But the client chose your agency. What swung it was not the suits, slides or the focus groups. It was the fact that you had identified that the trays could also stop laptop computers from burning laps - a whole new market. Why did nobody think of it before? Of course, the best place to sell such an item, according to the marketing guys, is from a Web page.

lapdog logo

From the client's point of view, he was already impressed with the agency because of the original pitch. You have come up with an idea that could considerably boost sales without too much effort on his part. He can go on selling TV dinner trays printed with woodland glades, or whatever, but the laptop tray is the future direction for his business without a doubt.

The first thing to do was to dream-up a catchy name for the new product. Everybody had a good laugh at 'LapDancer', it wasn't a serious suggestion, but 'LapDog' and the cute little stylised puppy logo had the right ring to it - friendly, memorable, indispensable.

As for the 'look' of the tray, very plain and simple - black with a brushed silver trim, or silver with a black trim - with an embossed 'LapDog™' logo. It's perfect for the job! Selling the design of the logo, the packaging and the Web site was easy - it didn't come down to the vagaries of personal taste at all. The client didn't have to choose between one floral pattern and another, or worse still, different colourways of the same design. Nor does he have to pay out huge licensing fees to football teams and TV production companies for reproduction rights.

So, here you see examples of design, marketing and, better still, the synergy of design plus marketing. The first agency's solution was superficial. Prettier trays might have sold a few more than the drab existing ones but the impact would have been superficial too. That's what happens when you design only on the surface. Superficial design is harder to sell, requiring the client and designer to be on exactly the same wavelength - not to mention a whole mess of other unpredictabilities. It's a gamble that you can do without.

Whether the 'aimed-directly-at-the-market' approach would have been any better or not is questionable. Any gains in sales would have been diminished by the expensive overheads. This is an example of logic applied uncreatively.

The divergent thinking of the 'LapDog' shows that a good idea can sidestep personal taste and the need for heavy-handed salesmanship. A concept doesn't need to be decorated and embellished or justified with heaps of facts and figures. In fact, you should be able to explain it with just a phone call - and sell it!

Before you try to sell that next design job to the client, put on your salesman's hat and try to sell it to yourself.

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