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How To Waste Money on Graphic Design

Investing in graphic design at the wrong time is one of the worst ways to spend your business money.

At one point, my portfolio was a graveyard of design for failed businesses and ideas. This was so frustrating! The power of great design is clear, but it’s also only one factor that determines a project's success. And as a designer, I'm only successful if my clients are successful. Here are three signs that your business money would be better spent elsewhere.

1. You don’t have a crystal clear goal

Working with a graphic designer is kind of like working with a wish-granting genie. Great graphic designers will turn an idea into something real - so be careful what you wish for! As the saying goes, if you aim for nothing, you’re likely to hit it - and this becomes frustrating for everyone.

Here's an example of a bad, unclear goal to share with your graphic designer. "We want to update the look of our packaging because what we have right now is outdated. We don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, but we’ll know it when I see it!"

Here's an example of a good, clear goal to share with your graphic designer. “Our company helps people sleep better so they can be happier while they’re awake. Our pillow mists give the benefit of aromatherapy without the expense and maintenance of an essential oil diffuser. We want to update the look of our packaging so that we can increase sales by 10% - which means we want to sell 3,000 more units of our product over the coming year. The packaging feels a little outdated, and we have the best chance of hitting that sales goal if it appeals more to the 25-35 female demographic. Our product is sold online, so we want to make sure the design leads people to share on social media. Our ideal customers are very into minimalism and an organic lifestyle."

This example of a good goal has way more detail and even goes into the ways that the design will be used most. It starts with what your company helps people do, and why. I underlined the words “so that we can” because that’s the key phrase here - what is this design allowing you to do? Both examples state that the packaging is outdated, but the good goal gives a business reason for the design. It also defines the “update” as appealing to a certain demographic and driving social media sharing. Create an unmistakable target for your graphic designer to hit, and they will hit it! 

2. You don’t understand the expected ROI of the project

Graphic design should not just be an expense for your business - it should be an investment. I’m not saying this to make graphic designers sound fancy. I’m saying that for every $1,000 you pay a graphic designer, you should be expecting to make at least $5,000 over time, from that investment. Otherwise, it’s not an effective use of your business funds or your time. If you spend $1,000 on a graphic designer and only make $1,000 back over time, that’s not breaking even. You’ve spent time and energy on something that is a poor use of your time and money as a business owner. There are three ways to avoid this.

First, only hire a designer for revenue-generating activities. If you’re not a designer, and you know that’s not something you’re good at, this is tough! But if you hire a designer to work on projects that aren’t going to make you any money, you’re kissing your sweet dollar bills goodbye. This is especially true for anything that has a short shelf-life, like social media posts. If you’ll be able to rely on the design for a few years, hire a designer - but if you want a “Happy 4th of July!” social media post, that’s not what you should be hiring a graphic designer for unless you have a good long-term strategy surrounding it. Focus your efforts on work that generates a profit, and don’t be shy about it.

Second, understand the difference between commissioned artwork and graphic design. Commissioned artwork is for things that you want to look good, but you can’t tie to a return. This can still be an investment rather than an expense, but the benefits are indirect. A good example of this is a wall mural in your brick & mortar business. This will influence people’s perception of your brand, which may influence your bottom line. But you can’t say for sure that you’re going to make more money off of that artwork. Perhaps it makes your store more Instagrammable, and over time you see an increase of foot traffic to your store. But those people may only be coming in to take a photo with your mural. Commissioned artwork isn’t a bad way to spend your money, though. See it as a riskier investment, where there’s a chance that you won’t make back any of the money you invest. Assess where your business is at, and don’t spend too much on risky investments if you can’t afford to.

And third, have a business model and proof of demand in your market. I've worked with plenty of people who are just starting out and they want allll the design - website, packaging, you name it. These are, theoretically, revenue-generating projects. But they'll struggle to articulate how they plan to actually make money. Working with a designer makes the business feel “real” to them - that’s why I call designers wish-granting genies. If you want a business that looks real but doesn’t have the substance of being real, that’s exactly what you’ll get. Rather than spending money on a graphic designer at first, develop a lite version of what you want to sell and try to sell it at a small scale. You'll get insight from that experiment that will make all the difference in the creative work when you're ready.

3. You haven’t developed written content first

Design is a verb - and for something to be designed, you have to start with content. The foundation for difference-making design is difference-making words. The written content is an "x-factor" for the potential of your design. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and say it - it’s more important than the design if I have to choose between the two.

Generic writing + great design = you’ll get people’s attention, but your message will not resonate. Great design can’t save bad writing.

Great writing + generic design = people will understand your message, but you won't capture the attention of as many people. Great writing can function with a generic design, it just won't meet its full potential.

Great writing + great design = people will pay attention, feel what you want them to feel, understand your message, and take action. The combination of great writing and great design work is what I refer to as “difference-making work.” It makes purchasing your product or service a no-brainer to your ideal clients and customers. This is how you maximize that return on your investment. If you need help with content development, that's where hiring an Art Director like myself comes in handy. An Art Director is someone who makes sure the content and design come together to resonate with your audience.

By working on these three areas, you will build a foundation for truly great creative work. You'll save money, time, and emotional energy for when it will actually make a difference!

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