My varied experience has taken me from ad agencies and PR firms, to corporate communications and start-up marketing, to running my own branding and design business. It’s been a long haul with twists and turns … some unforeseen, others initiated by my own needs. I’ve been sold a bill of goods. I was even once part of a bill of goods sold to a prospective client. I’ve been both heralded and marginalized.
Throughout all of these years, I cannot seem to escape the trivialization of marketing communications and, in particular, graphic design. Look, I get it. Everyone has their likes and dislikes. But, personal preferences often conflict with strategic objectives. My years as a designer have enabled me to maintain objectivity in what I do. That doesn’t mean my own taste doesn’t occasionally come into play. But, I usually know how to make it fit the plan or just let it go.
Personal Preference or Strategic Objective?
I once did a project for the owner of a prominent Pittsburgh design firm. (No, not that one.) The boss had me working on a corporate identity project for one of our larger clients. My first round of designs, while not great, had some merit … or so I thought. That was until he looked at the presentation and, within a nanosecond, blurted out, “Jane doesn’t like red.” Jane? Who’s Jane? The client was a man. The account manager was not named Jane. It turned out that Jane was the boss’ wife. Oh, that Jane. I liked Jane. She was pleasant enough and quite intelligent. But, Jane didn’t have a creative bone in her body. I felt strongly that red was the right color and proposed using a different red. “Jane doesn’t like red.”
Jane’s personal preference and company politics took precedent over strategic objective. And that was before the client had a chance to see any of the work. How does that align with their best interests?
Corporate Communications Is Not a Democracy
Years later, I left the agency arena and jumped over to “the client side” and into corporate communications. While there, I found myself continually subjected to The Vote. You know the routine. You get an assignment. You do all the industry and competitive research. You study the target audience personas. And you determine what’s needed to cut through the competitive noise. From there, I determined what design approach fit the strategy. I decided what colors, fonts and design orientation to propose. Moreover, I made sure I had answers for my choices. (The last thing I wanted was for someone to ask, “Why did you choose that font?” and not have an answer for them.) I felt really good about my effort going in. I felt very frustrated coming out. You see, we had decision makers who couldn’t put a stake in the ground for the sake of the company. They were worried about the feelings of others not being involved.
“Let’s put it to a vote and give everyone a say.”
If there’s one thing I learned throughout my career, it’s that marketing communications is not a democracy. It’s purely strategic. It’s based on research, data and even philosophy. It relies on experience, best practices and, oh yeah, talent. It is not something to be trivialized by giving everyone equal say. That includes the top brass. Sure, they have to buy into it. But, let the marketing team make their case. If they cannot be sold on it, then Marketing hasn’t performed their due diligence of research and self-critique.
A Typical Example of Too Much Meddling
The only thing worse than The Vote, is when the CEO takes over and declares his or herself a designer. Yep, give them access to the software and they are now a graphic designer! Talent and experience clearly play no role in their minds. They’re the boss. They know better than a seasoned marketer and, especially, a lowly graphic designer.
This is precisely what happened a few years ago when Yahoo! reworked their logo. The ensuing fallout provided a great example of how not to update an identity and how to disenfranchise your corporate communications team.
After a month-long roll-out depicting a different and, apparently, disqualified design each day, Yahoo! Introduced a logo completely devoid of originality, attitude and personality. It spoke to nobody but CEO Marissa Mayer, who meddled far too much and, evidently, rolled up her sleeves and had a go with it herself:
On a personal level, I love brands, logos, color, design, and, most of all, Adobe Illustrator. I think it’s one of the most incredible software packages ever made. I’m not a pro, but I know enough to be dangerous. … We spent the majority of Saturday and Sunday designing the logo from start to finish, and we had a ton of fun weighing every minute detail.
Dangerous, indeed. An entire weekend? It really showed.
This is what we call “plain vanilla.”
It seems that the new design also had an abundance of cooks:
Prior to the weekend, we had also polled our employees on the changes they wanted to see. Interestingly, 87% of our employees wanted some type of change in the logo (either iterative or radical).
Mayer’s defense was far too embarrassing to post in its entirety here. Let’s just say, she rationalized with nonsensical guidelines, bogus criteria and NO FOCUS ON THE AUDIENCE.
If you wish to subject yourself to it, it’s still online HERE in all its glory.
Wow, just wow.
Graphic Design is Serious Business.
Graphic design, and logo design, in particular, is not a novelty. If the new Yahoo! logo and similar corporate debacles accomplish anything, they befittingly render the grand spectacle of the micro-management and megalomania that stifles too much of our corporate world. I assure you that those of us who have worked in corporate communications are sharing an exasperating chuckle and all-too-knowing eye-roll.
In full disclosure, this rant is not to suggest that I am never wrong. I’ve made more than my share of mistakes along the way. Hell, it even took me more than 20 years as a graphic designer to finally concede that words come first. And, I’m pretty sure I pissed off a few execs over the years.
When it comes to growing your business, stick to running it and leave the marketing work to the pros. Yes, your insights have great worth. And, you could very well know your market better than most. But, dictating design is rarely productive. And, in business, democracy always leads to plain vanilla. If your team is wise, they’ll keep you involved so you never lose ownership. If they’re smart, they’ll understand that your insights are invaluable and must be taken into account. But, true leadership is in knowing when to follow. You’ll end up with greater results. You’ll be empowering your team. Everyone will be better for it. And, you might even learn a thing or two.
For the sake of your business, keep your hand off of that mouse, no matter how tempting it might seem.
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While I was enjoying a great pastime, I was also learning about the power of human potential. I discovered how greatness can be achieved through sheer will or by overcoming the challenges of unforeseen circumstances.