Helen Gynell.com

  graphic design blog


Everything Everywhere
Building your "visual vocabulary" can help your creative juices flow. Your visual vocabulary is all the images you have seen, plus the associations that go along with them. Designers need inspiration and often 'borrow' from various sources. I once heard "nothing is new, it's only new to you". That's carte blanche for stealing ;) if I've ever heard it!  To keep current, graphic designers have to be looking at everything everywhere, otherwise, we will not be aware of the associations being created in popular culture—especially those being created in the minds of future clients—and we will miss out on important new sources of inspiration and communication.  

The Creative Spark
For example, if you have an upscale client, it's a good idea to look at the websites and latest marketing campaigns of various high-end brands (such as Hermes, above, or Louis Vuitton, below) to see what they have in common, and to see where your client is already looking. Often, because you have an existing logo plus the client's requirements in your mind as you look, something clicks. The creative spark is there. It can be as simple as seeing something someone else created, and knowing you can adapt that and it will be perfect precisely because of the association that comes along with it, or, you can get a totally new idea that fits your criteria. 

When it's Good, it's Good
Working with a client is easier when you have similar tastes, but if you don't, you need to understand what the client is looking for, and intentionally use enough of your shared associations so that they make the connection. If you find yourself having to explain the associations you think people will make with what you've designed because your client doesn't get it, that's proof it won't work. If your client doesn't get it, they will expect nobody else will either. However, when you get it right, everyone will already make the connection, and then you'll know it's good.

When it's Bad, You Know
My favorite associations are those made with color. We all make these connections. For example, no one would (should) wear red to a funeral. There is a fine line between bold and creative, and wrong and out of place. Where is it okay to use a fluorescent green, and where would it make you think, "Eew, no"! In other words, you have to know when to stay inside the box, and when you have to break out and say "No, you can't make the background of your website such a bright green. It's been featured on 'Websites That Suck'."


Bless The Box
It's a rare delight to have a client trust you completely. Most of the time, you have to work within the box of what the client wants. Part of what your expertise should be, and what you get paid for is, understanding what is right for the client when they are unable to communicate it specifically. Sometimes, you might be thinking to yourself that you disagree with their choices, but you still have to give them what they want. "The Box" is everything the client tells you they must have. How you satisfy that gives you some flexibility.

The Customer is Always Right
It's a really difficult thing to talk someone out of something because of a negative visual association they were unaware of (like the indelible Marlboro Man), but you have to protect their image.  Also, don't forget your work represents your image as well as theirs. Don't stay inside the box when you feel it's the weaker choice, but you should always give them what they want first. You'll look good for pleasing them, especially if you get it 'right'. If trying what they want just demonstrates how 'wrong' it is, then they will be able to see that it's wrong because you will have something  (like the blinding green mock-up above)  to show them how and why it doesn't work. That way it won't seem like you just didn't want to take the time to try what they wanted. A little humility goes a long way in establishing your credibility. So how do you proceed when you don't think what they want is right for them?

Until He's Wrong
It's a graphic design occupational hazard that everyone's a designer.
Most times when the client feels strongly that they know what they want, it's been my experience they really don't, until they see it. Sometimes it's like a puzzle. They have a few pieces but can't see the bigger picture, or those pieces belong to a completely different puzzle. Use those pieces to take them to the picture you want them to see. Although taste is subjective, there can be some truly 'wrong' choices. Sometimes you may feel the client has 'bad' taste, or they might insist on something you  know will be inappropriate, or maybe just less effective. Sometimes the two of you are just not a match.  Bottom Line: Just be sure you do something you are proud of, or don't do it. If you're really good, in addition to giving them what they want, you can make them want what you give them. Working inside the box can be as liberating as going outside. Like that infamous definition "I know it when I see it", you also have to know when the solution can only be found outside the box of what the client can communicate.

Breaking The Box
When your client tells you what they want, and you understand the associations they think will be made with their suggestion, this gives you a head start to wow-ing them. If I can see right away that what they want won't work, but that I can use it in an outside-the-box way, I do exactly what they want just to compare it to what I think they will like better. This almost always works!  When it doesn't, just give up (I'm kidding).  If you remember the client is always right and present the outside-the-box version as being inspired by them, they might be more receptive than if it seems like "Here's what you wanted, but here's what I did to make it better."  It can't be presented that way. I believe strongly that if it's better, it's obvious, and if it's not better, keep working. If the client is design-minded, you have to respect (not resent) that, and use it to both your advantages.

Beyond The Box
It might be an intuitive thing. I had a client tell me their first instinct for an accent color on their website was bright lime green but when they got together with their group of advisors, they ruled that color out. I heard what was said, but what was between the lines was that what they wanted first was lime green. They even went so far as to tell me not to bother trying the green.

I did several versions of a website mockup for them and when I was done, I made one more version (off the clock) in that bright green. When I made my presentation and was done showing them the other colors, I pulled out the bright green last, and it clicked. It was really what they wanted all along but they over-thought it, and got away from their original inspiration. Whatever their reasons for not feeling confident in that color choice, I was able to dispel by showing them not only their mock up in that green, but that same green in several other high-end websites that appealed to them. The site is still live and the accents are still green.

It's a great feeling making your client happy.  Keep building your visual vocabulary so you can elevate their choices, and exceed their expectations. The more you see, the more tools you will have to use. 


If all else fails . . .

The easiest association and probably one of the most common is Celebrity.


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