There is an old saying among designers regarding the design process: “Good, fast, cheap: pick two.”
In general, it’s an accurate assessment; but no client ever actually enters the process saying “I don’t want good” or “I don’t want cheap.” What clients want is a finished product that’s beautiful, memorable, and effective—and they’re entitled to all three. But the real world being what it is, and resources being limited for everyone, usually compromises have to be made somewhere. A good designer can compensate for problems in the budget, or in available materials, or even in the amount of time available. But if compromises need to be made, Asheville Design Works has always counseled that the most important factor for any project is “effectiveness.”
Of course you want your project to be memorable; but only for the right reasons. And of course you want it to be beautiful. But most of all, you want it to work. For that reason, our advice has always been: in budgetary terms, design comes last. That may seem like a strange statement coming from a design firm, but we’re convinced that it’s true. Budgets are limited. Money spent on marketing materials represents an investment that must give a good return; and for that reason, you should invest first in quality materials. Photography, artwork, and writing should be top-notch, the best you can possibly afford. Working with excellent materials, a good designer can do better in fifteen minutes than he can using poor materials in a month.
But understand that putting design last only makes sense in budgetary terms. In a wider context, design should always come first. The best and most successful designs begin with a strong concept; and everything else—photos, artwork, text, and the frame for the total picture that is usually what people mean when they say “design”—should serve the concept. That’s why it’s a common practice for photographers, artists, and copywriters to be subcontractors, chosen by the designer working as art director for the whole project.
In the real world, small businesses rarely have the luxury of a budget large enough to go this route, and designers usually need to use the materials at hand. And that’s usually fine: a good, imaginative designer will be able to take those pieces and put them together in a way that works. But if budgetary and time constraints allow, clients should always give preference to the quality of raw materials over all other factors.
But what makes a project effective? There are a lot of factors, and of course they differ in every particular case. But there’s one that is too often overlooked: every design project, of whatever type, needs to serve as part of an overall marketing strategy. It’s the strategy that determines what kind of design project is necessary, that determines what market is being targeted, and how best to reach it. Therefore, it’s the strategy that must come first. Without knowing what you want to accomplish, it’s impossible to assess the effectiveness of any design project.
Of course, there are many factors other than design that determine the success or failure of a marketing campaign. And while poor design can wreck a good campaign, great design can’t save a bad one. For that reason, even before investing in a design project, any business needs to develop a coherent plan: one that maximizes its strengths and minimizes its weaknesses, and charts a realistic and achievable path to success on its own terms.
And, once that’s done, contact a good design firm and begin to reap the benefits.