How to Break the Communication Barrier Between Marketers and Designers [Q&A]

Rachel Leist
Rachel Leist



kids-playing-tin-can-phoneSometimes, it seems like marketers and designers speak different languages. You have marketers focusing on the timeline, designers focusing on the creation process, and neither of them understanding where the other is coming from.

That's a worst case scenario, and perhaps a common one for you -- but it doesn't have to be that way.

I sat with two members who head up HubSpot's creative & design team (which sits on HubSpot's marketing team) -- Keith Frankel and Jon Smith. I wanted to get their opinions on the best ways people like me can work with designers, and how we can get past some common communication barriers.

Here's what Keith and Jon had to say, including some helpful resources and a list of terms marketers should know about design.

What is the most common misunderstanding between designers and marketers? And how can we address it?

Keith: If there was just one common misunderstanding I could clear up, it's this: Designers are not artists, and to view them as such can hurt both your working relationship, and the quality of the work you receive.

While it's absolutely true that designers are uniquely skilled at taking something from rough concept to beautiful completion, that final deliverable must -- at its most fundamental level -- solve a problem. In a way, design is all about making someone’s life easier. So rather than focusing primarily on form or expression (as is often the case with art), the primary purpose of design is the exact opposite -- to support function. Acknowledging the distinction is vital in ensuring that marketers are able to get the most out of designers.

Jon: I think it’s also important to have clearly defined goals and get on the same page as early as possible. The first interaction between a marketer and a designer is important to set the stage, figure out what the goal of the project is, and set a plan to execute on that project. 

If marketers know a bit more about design and the design process, that can also help. It'll come in handy when there's a conflict in which marketers and designers are trying to decide whether a part of the design is the problem, or something else entirely. It usually makes it easier for designers to synthesize the information they're given from the onset, too, instead of making changes along the way. There’s a lot of time and energy that goes into synthesizing the marketer's ideas and figuring out what will be the most beneficial for them, so understanding that process can help make it go more smoothly. 

Designers should also fully lay out and document what the whole project entails and explain why certain parts of the process take a lot of time and cost a lot of money. They also need to work on being more specific and explain the full process in detail to marketers to help them understand it all. Being clear and expressing exactly what the project entails will help both parties get on the same page from the get-go.

On that note, can you talk about how a designer and marketer should kick off a project together? When a project is requested, what information do marketers and designers need to share?

Keith: There is usually a lot of talk from designers around the importance of requiring marketers to fill out a creative brief. I’ve found this to almost always be unnecessary. If a designer takes the time to sit down and actually speak with a marketer, they will usually be more than able to capture all the information necessary to establish a project plan and start working in the right direction.

For the designer, then, the initial meeting is all about gathering the necessary information -- such as the intended audience, problems that need to be addressed, and general tonal direction -- so they can then determine the concept, project scope, deliverables, and deadlines.

For marketers, it’s more important what they don’t come to the kick-off meeting with -- namely, a closed mind, a set-in-stone concept, and a commitment to any one kind of physical deliverable. Designers should have a substantial amount of influence on the shape and form of the final deliverable, both in terms of concept and execution. Nothing is worse than a marketer coming to a kick-off meeting and telling a designer exactly what they're going to create.

Jon: Designers need to have information on why a marketer is starting a project, their goals and aspirations, their target audience, etc. Think about giving concrete answers, such as, "We're trying to grow advertising revenue," or, "We're trying to take a social approach on our site." It can also be helpful for marketers to bring in examples of things they like and don’t like about other competing brands. That could include things like typography, color, or texture.

Additionally, it's vital to set the stage for who is responsible for what parts of the project. These questions are common ones designers should be asking their marketing counterparts:

  • Who is going to write the content?
  • What keywords are important for SEO?
  • Who is responsible for that research?
  • Is there an established brand identity that designers should stick with?
  • What are you prepared to invest in after the site launches?

Okay, so you've had your kickoff meeting, designers are working, and the first "draft" is in. If a marketer has feedback on that, how should he/she present it? 

Keith: Unfortunately, feedback sessions between marketers and designers are often tense, uncomfortable, and unwelcome events. However, this doesn’t have to be the case -- so long as both parties enter the sessions with a few things in mind.

First off, for companies with internal creative teams that are large or sophisticated enough to necessitate a Creative Director or Creative Lead, feedback should almost always occur between this individual and the marketer. It’s typically not ideal for a marketer to bypass the lead and go directly to the assigned designer, unless that designer is pretty seasoned.

Many companies don’t employ this position, though, so it’s important for marketers to understand what designers are looking for in feedback. It’s not the case that designers are completely averse to input -- in fact, if your company is employing a designer who feels above feedback, they should be let go sooner rather than later. Instead, designers are looking for a specific type of feedback.

For marketers, the best advice is to remember that it’s not your job to give pixel-level feedback on aesthetic elements such as typefaces or colors -- that's the Creative Lead's job. In other words, feedback along the lines of, "move it over three pixels" is something marketers don't need to focus on.

It’s also generally a bad idea to give ambiguous or presumptive feedback such as "make it pop" or "I’ll know it when I see it." These aren’t informative. Rather, marketers can focus on higher-level feedback that calls into question the design’s success at solving for factors such as proper brand alignment, general tone in light of the intended audience, visual presentation of the content in the correct order of importance, etc. It’s the designer’s job to sift through this higher-level feedback and come up with a pixel-level solution.

Finally, if you’re unsure about certain elements but aren’t positive how to approach them, just start by asking questions. Good designers understand that they need to make justifiable and defensible decisions. Chatting with a designer about their intent in handling a design in a particular way can often shed light on what seems like a tension point.

By talking through the reasoning behind the design, chances are the designer and marketer will come up with revisions together.

How many versions should be presented?

Keith: "Could you send me a few different versions?" is one of the most frustrating requests a designer can receive. Remember, a designer’s first job is to solve problems. Any designer worth their weight, when being tasked with responding to some need, will have invested their most thoughtful work into the first idea. It’s like responding to a doctor who has just recommended diet and exercise as your best chance for losing weight with: "What else ya got?"

Now, this isn't to say that designers will "nail it" the first time every time or that a designer’s work can’t be improved with thoughtful review and feedback. Feedback is absolutely necessary, and no good designer thinks they're above it.

However, in order to ensure that you get the most successful design out of your designers, don’t start by asking them to create multiple versions of the same deliverable. Instead, work more closely with them upfront by providing them with all of the necessary information they will need to knock the first version out of the park.

When it comes time to review later, you'll thank yourself.

How do you think a designer’s success should be measured?

Keith: Unfortunately, there is a terrible misconception that good design is flashy or "eye-catching." This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The most successful designs satisfy presenting and highlighting the intended information without calling attention to the highlight itself. Good design isn’t necessarily loud or ornate. In fact, it's often completely invisible.

Having said that, it’s important to keep in mind that the goal of design is, first and foremost, to support function by providing thoughtful solutions to a marketer’s problems. In the same way, designers are also responsible for improving the overall quality of a consumer’s experience with the created deliverable. To that end, designers should be graded based on their success or failure in addressing both the users' and marketers' problems, as provided by the marketer and laid out in the initial planning meeting.

Designers are ultimately here to help marketers create the most successful -- not necessarily the prettiest -- solutions to their needs.

What are some industry terms that designers use that would be helpful for marketers to know?

Jon: If I had to come up with a core list of terms marketers should know, I'd say these are the core ones that will help to start:

  • Sitemap -- A document that lists the pages of a website in hierarchical order
  • Wireframe -- A visual guide that shows the layout of a website
  • Information architecture -- Organizing content on a website in a user-friendly manner
  • Low-fidelity mock-ups -- A rough sketch or mock-up that doesn't have too much detail
  • High-fidelity mock-ups -- A design that is pretty close to the completed product
  • Fully developed site front-end and back-end -- A completely developed website

It's also important for marketers to understand that the process of website redesign is broken up into these different parts. Some huge sites may require designers to spend months on just one of the stages listed above.

(Note: You can find a more comprehensive list of major design terms in this blog post.)

How can marketers stay up-to-date on design trends so they're more current when talking with designers?

Jon: There are tons of websites that provide detailed information about different design trends. Some of the best ones, in my opinion, include:

Marketers who follow these blogs can get a great idea of what's going on in the world of design and help build some rapport with the designers they're working with.

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