Lost In-House Translation: Tips for the Best Design

So you’re an in-house designer … What happens when you get feedback from your in-house colleagues, but you don’t know what they’re saying? Or, you don’t agree with what they’re saying? Ask for clarification. Repeat their feedback. Offer a solution. This helps ensure that the review process is productive, enabling everyone to understand what’s happening, what’s working or not working, and what changes need to happen.

Let’s explore some of the statements we hear most often during feedback.

Make the Logo Bigger

This is a common one, and Pentagram partner Paula Scher even titled her book Make It Bigger, as a nod to how often we hear those words. We often take it at face value and actually make the logo bigger. But it may be everything surrounding the logo that’s the real problem.

In this example, the wordmark “User Theory” is the same size as the tagline underneath. Body copy will go in the gray block.

Making the wordmark larger within the given format poses a layout problem with things getting crammed.

But leaving the wordmark alone, and shrinking the tagline, does the trick. The wordmark is bigger now, in relation to the surrounding text. We have hierarchy, and a more comfortable fit within the format.

Of course, if you have to make the logo a certain size, then you may need to make it bigger. Brand standards do supersede design preferences.

Let’s Use a Different Font

Some words won’t set well in an “old fashioned” font, even though you may have the best of intentions.

Typography can be tricky, and it may be one of the most difficult elements to get to the bottom of. Each of us brings a set of perceptions to the table, insomuch as how typography works or doesn’t work, as well as what we like or don’t like. Make sure everyone realizes that it’s less about personal preferences and likes, and more about function.

  • It looks too old fashioned. Oftentimes, this is how people will see serif typography. Calligraphy, script or blackletter might also fall into this category for them. If it looks like something that may have been used centuries ago, your colleagues will see it as old fashioned. I’ve even heard people say that Times New Roman looks old fashioned; and, well, it is.
  • It looks too plain. Helvetica, Univers, and other sans serif favorites we have in our toolbox may get the “plain” label from time to time. But a bold, sans serif headline may be necessary to drive the viewer into the layout. Or, if you have some energetic photography and illustration in the layout, then the “plain” typography won’t compete with it, letting the energized imagery do what it’s supposed to without interference.
  • I can’t read it. There’s illegibility and then there’s readability. If the typography is illegible, it’s going to be hard for people to determine one letter from another, or to make out the words on the page. Then there’s readability. If the typography is too small it’s going to be harder to read, making you work extra hard to digest the words and sentences. In terms of space, typography set in a wide column will tire the eyes out quicker, since we’ll take longer to scan from left to right, and then back down to the next line.

If there’s a good reason for using the font you’ve chosen, be sure to back up your design decisions – especially if it has conceptual relevance. In terms of function, have your colleagues read through things (even reading aloud), and observe what happens, or ask them what they’re experiencing. The goal is to get to the bottom of what’s not working, propose a solution, and get everyone on the same page about the revised design that you’ll show at the next review.

Combine These

“Sometimes, two very different things do belong together.”

Another common critique we hear. It’s one that we as designers often don’t appreciate, since we’ve put in good effort to have each design hold up on its own. Before you cave, and combine two totally different concepts into one for a Frankensteined result, get to “how” and “why.”

  • What do you like about this design, and that one? If you can find out why one design is working and another design is working, then you’ll have a better sense of what to keep for the combination approach.
  • What isn’t working here, and here? Combining designs doesn’t have to mean, nor should it mean, putting everything together into one big pile. You may lack the space to do so, moreover, combining everything might be entirely off the mark. Get to the bottom of what isn’t working, so it can be removed.

Show Me Some Other Ideas

If you hear this right off the bat, either before or after you’ve shown the work, it can be an enthusiasm killer. But before closing the lid on your MacBook, and heading back to your studio, get feedback: “It sounds like none of these are doing the job. Let’s go over each of them, one by one, so I can make sure to improve concepts the next round.”

It could be that one or more of your concepts may have a bad color combination, or you chose typography that isn’t working. Find out what big problems exist. Or, there may be some smaller issues, in which case, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Even if you mildly change some of the pitches because that’s all they need, do something else that’s totally different. That way, at the next review, you can give them something that’s a 180 from what they saw the last time, showing your team that you took their suggestions seriously.

An Atmosphere of Collaboration and Respect

In an interview with NPR, comedian, actor, writer and producer John Cleese discussed how collaboration played into the movie A Fish Called Wanda. Cleese got input on lines from the performers themselves, including both Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis. And while both John Cleese and Charles Crichton might have gotten credit for the story itself, in his NPR interview, Cleese suggested that “13 different people had contributed lines to the script because that’s the way I like to work.”

Like most creative endeavors, including movies, teamwork has to happen for a design to get produced, whether it’s in-house or at an agency. But in-house, you’re working with the same people, day in and day out, all of whom know the brand, the audience and the content. Whether you collaborate with two or three people, or as many as 13, do it to get the best design, the best end product. Good communication can help make that happen.

With good communication comes good collaboration, which helps create an atmosphere of respect. By inviting others to participate in the creative process, you’re saying, “I have confidence in your abilities to help me see this through.” When receiving input from colleagues, don’t shrug it off. Get to the bottom of it, and remember that they want the same thing you do: the best design.