Dear Branding Agencies,
Bravo. You’ve crafted the “big picture” view. The client loves the new branding direction; they can practically smell the future you’ve unveiled for them. Now it’s time to get to work.
That means you likely have a bazillion different projects in play to bring this new brand to life: identity packages, brochures of all shapes and sizes, tickets, annual reports, bus wraps, on-site signage, and, yes, the website.
(Time to break the ice.)
Hello, it’s really nice to meet you! We’re the web design agency the client hired to bring the branding direction to the web. So, we’re over here and you’re over there, and our client is in the middle. Yes, we know you weren’t awarded the website portion of the RFP. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t be partners with our client’s best intentions in mind. No need to be nervous, we are considerate teammates. We hope you know why we are here, and that you are curious about what we do really well. Not sure? Read on, new friend.
How do we set our client up for success beyond just the initial launch of a new website?
Online experiences are more than just vessels for logos and photography; they are living, breathing manifestations of an organization. Real people maintain the site. Real people ensure that this part of the brand experience is alive and functioning properly. Multiple authors share duties of bringing new content to life. In-house graphic designers partner with marketing teams to bring new offers, deals, and promotions to the site in a timely manner. There are many moving parts, and each part brings an internal approval process. We know this, so we plan for this. We listen to our clients, understand their internal processes, and get to know our clients in order to build a site for them that they can sustain. Our recommendations for maintaining a new website must match up with the resources that our client has available to maintain it. If our client can’t maintain a site beyond launch, then it was a flawed concept from the start.
Does the client have a limited photography budget or lack a professional photographer resource?
Not every organization has deep coffers of cash to ensure top-notch-photography is always available. If the need arises, we brainstorm compelling ways to get by on free stock or completely avoid a design that relies heavily on custom images. How about the client team’s Photoshop skills? A year from now, when the primary marketing messaging has changed and a new crop of events has launched, will the site design still hold up without the perfect images that our designer selected for launch? An appropriately planned “system” that drives the graphic design of the site has to alleviate some of that stress from internal teams. Looking for opportunities to educate our clients about the design intentions is as important as the actual execution. If necessary, we provide them with template Photoshop documents or photography usage guidelines to help them make smarter selections once our involvement in the project has long since ended.
What about selecting typefaces for online usage?
Even though webfonts have exploded in use, there are still gaps in quality. Just because the font is available for the web, it doesn’t mean it’s been properly prepared and tested. Need some evidence? As the web-partner on a recent project, we raised a red flag to our client recommending that their branding agency revisit a typeface choice. When considered for print and identity work, there was nothing wrong with this specific typeface. Hell, there was even an @font-face licensing agreement that came with it. But, when it came to actually implementing the font, it was obvious that this face wasn’t ready for prime time. The x-height was much smaller when rendered in a browser, making it hard to discern the characters. And let us not forget Windows. In IE, it was downright ug-ly. Here’s a tip: if you haven’t been exposed to what “font hinting” is yet, I suggest you get friendly with your favorite type foundry and ask them how they prepare their faces for the web. At the very least, test, test, test that typeface before purchasing. We are happy to help you out when scrutinizing typeface choices.
When it works, it’s a thing of beauty.
“One must know the rules to break ‘em” is a well-trodden graphic design axiom. We think this also applies to brands. In 2010, I learned this firsthand due to my involvement in the redesign of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Prior to starting the graphic design of the site, lead designer of the brand, Pentagram’s Paula Scher led a workshop for USHMM and Happy Cog designers. Wanting to get it right, we were hungry to learn how we should best “web-ize” the brand.
Her answer was surprising: respect the intentions but drop the dogma. Instead of never deviating from the Pentagram guidelines, she told us to adapt those decisions to fit the evolving needs of the brand. We (the designers, the people who have to live with the brand day-in-and-day-out) are the real experts. Ownership isn’t exclusive to the creator. Whether or not “it works” is decided by the designers who have the most experience with the brand in practice. Empower those folks to make the best decisions.
Best Friends Forever
I’ll be frank: we like to think there are oodles of other opportunities to which we can contribute. Yet, we aren’t out to obfuscate your work. Instead, we want to learn the “how” and “why” of this brand’s evolution. Share with us. Provide us the research and the insights you’ve learned. Treat us like an equal partner and we will provide the same respect back to you. Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. So, let’s get to know each other.
At the end of the day, our value can be summed up with this statement: we bring brands to life appropriately for the web (even if our client’s audience is experiencing this brand at 3:00 a.m. in their underwear). Please, don’t be nervous. I think this is the start of a beautiful relationship.
Hugs and pixels,
Originally published on Happy Cog’s Cognition blog on March 1st, 2012