Why is visual communication important? (Or, how NOT to sell a hot dog)

24 Jun

During business studies, I ran across a ratio that really spoke to me. It was:

R = Q x A

(This stands for Results equals Quality of Solution multiplied by Acceptance of the Solution). What this means is that, when applied to a communications piece, its success will be dependent on not only the quality of the communications material you produce (information and presentation) but whether it is accepted by those who it is intended to engage with.

In this case, I’m talking about producing design work and will briefly discuss how to apply this to determine whether a design solution may be successful or not.

The importance of design and visual communications is often underestimated. Often, the thought is that it is only “window dressing” or that anyone can do it – after all, look at how many people out there have a “creative flair.” In other words, it has a low value in many people’s minds. However, this is incorrect.

It is only when something important or vital is on the line where what you produce demands people understand and respond to the message that you put out there, that the importance of visual communications begins to be appreciated.

Let’s take for example, a hot dog stand.

Consider that it needs to communicate to buyers that it has hot dogs for sale. So, what else? Let’s produce a sign.

But, what’s on the line for the owner of the hot dog stand is the success or failure of the business.

In the example shown below, I ask why is the message on the left not very compelling? It’s on a bigger sign. It’s a lighter colour – so therefore brighter – don’t brighter signs attract your attention more than dark colours? Plus, the person holding it is actually friendlier than the one on the right.

Well, it’s fairly obvious, but the problem it relates to isn’t usually as easy to identify as what is shown in this example.


Here’s why the sign on the right works better (stating the obvious):

  • It includes an image of the item that the reader can identify.
  • It uses colour.
    • Colour that relates to colours seen in the product (yellow for mustard, red for ketchup and the hot dog wiener, and a tan colour for the bun – so the illustration substantively looks like the product).
    • A strong use of red also attracts the eye immediately.
  • It uses a font that is more “fun” (read: interesting, inviting, friendly, and somewhat imaginative) than the other, and hot dogs are often thought of as a “fun” food because they are available at sporting events, birthday parties, etc.

So, the sign on the right “conveys” the idea of “hot dogs” better than the plain black text on the left. “Conveying” is an important part of communication. It goes beyond the basics of communications where a concept is minimally imparted, to fully evoke a mental picture, or clearer understanding of what is being communicated.

“Okay,” says the man on the left. “I can play that game too.”


Okay, now this is getting silly. Clearly, that fish sandwich is not a hot dog.

But, the illustration is to make a point.

When you see the sign on the left, do you get a sense of detachment from what you are familiar with?

Not only does the “hot dog” look wrong, but, why are the words, “Hot Dogs,” in blue? Blue is a colour that we least associate with food. It just looks wrong altogether.

The point here is: there are many ways to get things wrong when communicating visually (even when it appears that there is a clear intention of using elements previously known to work – but perhaps they are being used incorrectly or just slightly off). After all, the sign on the left uses an image and colour (where it didn’t previously). But, it didn’t improve things. One could say that it made a bad concept more vivid.

Elements to consider:

  • Images: Is an image needed? Is it an honest reflection of the product? Does it “Read” correctly? (For example, improperly lighting for a food product shot could make it look like it is discoloured or spoiled.) How do people react to the image?
  • Fonts: Typography are the clothes that words dress up in to put their best “face” forward (see what I did there?). Either be absolutely clear or use typography in a strategic way so that it supports communication.
  • Colour: Is colour being used effectively, or just in a way that YOU like those colours?

Note: if you don’t have the skills to understand why one image “reads” better than another, or how typography can add personality to your message, or whether the use of colour is being applied strategically, then you would need to work with a skilled graphic designer.

Assess effectiveness

If we go back to the R=QxA equation, how do we rate the two signs? While this is by no means science, let’s rate on a scale of 100 (so that means that both the quality of solution and acceptance are rated out of a maximum of 10 point each). (If the design solution got top marks of 10 points on quality of solution and acceptance, we multiply them to get to a maximum of 100 points or 100%).

On the left we have a very low quality of solution (let’s say 2 points). Multiply it by a very low acceptance rate of 2 (R = 2 x 2) and we get a 4% effective solution as our result (4=2×2). (Anything below 50% would be a fail, by the way). So, not only is this a monumental fail that would hurt hot dog sales, but it may hurt the business’ reputation for other food as well.

On the right we have a very strong but somewhat stereotyped sign that has a medium-high quality (let’s say it’s a 7) and a high acceptance rate of 9. The result is 63% effective. (R=QxA or 63 = 7 x 9)

You may ask, “That’s still a kind of low-ish score. How would you get a higher score, as in the 90% range?” This is where knowing your audience exactly would come into play because a sign could be developed specifically for the likes, needs, tastes, and interests of one particular group.

For example, typical advertising techniques could include showing a beautifully photographed hot dog, perhaps photos of people enjoying a hot dog, and options for how you may buy and prepare your hot dog (clear pricing, special offers, combo deals, etc.).

Note: Don’t get too hung up on this rating system as it is all subjective, and a score of 100% is probably impossible. But, as a shorthand way of evaluating communications, it’s helpful.

So, back to my original statement: It’s only when you have something on the line (in the example shown, what’s on the line is the success or failure of the business itself) that you begin to appreciate what effective visual communications can do for you.

If your livelihood relies on producing a sign that will convince people to buy hot dogs from you, you will want that communication to be as effective as possible, and take steps to ensure it works.

Customer-Centric Design

12 Jul

Customer-Centric Design

A recent graphics project brought up the subject of being “customer-centric” when developing visual communication work. This client was very happy with a visual identity that I had helped to develop for them. It had been created fully with their input and what they valued. The client had mentioned that they had recently been interviewing web designers who just didn’t seem to listen to what they were telling them and appeared to be focusing on their own solution, regardless of the client’s needs.

I thought that was an odd approach for a designer to take, but it didn’t really surprise me. It made me think of the objectives of graphic designers when working for a client.

So, what is being “customer-centric?”

According to Investopedia.com, the definition of “customer-centric” is:

“A specific approach to doing business that focuses on the customer. Client centric businesses ensure that the customer is at the center of a business’s philosophy, operations or ideas. These businesses believe that their clients are the only reason that they exist and use every means at their disposal to keep the client happy and satisfied.”

Investopedia.com. Client base. Retrieved on July 12, 2017 from: http://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/client-centric.asp

There is, of course, a problem with this philosophy, depending on how you understand it. One could, when reading this definition, believe that their job is do everything a client asks of them in order to keep them happy, regardless of whether it is considered the right thing to do, is beneficial or harmful to the client, or has potential pitfalls down the road. The term for doing this, is “selling out.”

I’m not suggesting that you sell out and become a “yes-person” for any whim a client has, because eventually those whims may result in failures and regardless of how whimsical clients may be at the beginning of a project, they may not accept blame for their own failures. The attitude at that point will be that they hired a communications expert and the campaign was a disaster. Why didn’t these so-called “experts” say anything? Yes, it is our job to tell clients that their ideas may not work the way they are thinking, when warranted.

The greatest value we can offer a client is to provide professional objective responses to ideas they convey. Simply doing whatever a client asks for might get you the job and payment, but it may not solve the client’s needs, or get you any follow-up work.

The objective for a graphic designer is to produce work that will ultimately benefit your client because it will help your client communicate more effectively with their audience(s).

You may wonder: how does one become “customer-centric?”

For me, it has always been a natural thing. Design is a solution to a problem. You can’t design until you know what the problem is. The whole focus of designing is to communicate on behalf of your client with your client’s audience.

So, when I did my undergraduate degree in Visual Communications, I learned that you always must learn all you can about your client including not only their products, services, audiences and the particular aspects and priorities that must be communicated, but the overall “style” and “brand” that the client is trying to initiate or reinforce.

Later, when I became involving with marketing, the business needs of communicating a product or service reinforced this same idea.

Similarly, when I did my MBA, the subject of being “customer-centric” was front-and-center. In business, it’s your client that pays your bill and is vital to your success and longevity. So, success or even survival, depends on how well you attend to your customer’s needs.

“So, what’s the problem?” You may ask. “Doesn’t every graphic designer, then follow that same philosophy of being customer-centric?”

“No. Actually.” And the reasons why this isn’t always the case can be one or more of the following:

The graphic designer (or graphic design company) may just never have embraced this concept. They may seriously believe their clients don’t know anything about this what is “good design,” and think it is their job to force their own ideas onto clients.

A new graphic designer may be hungry to create some dazzling portfolio pieces and want to throw everything into their work (trendy styles, cutting-edge ideas, shock-of-the-new) in order to impress other designers or to win graphic design awards.

A graphic designer may (for lack of a better word) just be lazy. That’s right. Lazy. It takes time, thought and work to come up with a number of options that may work for a client. It may be that the designer just wants to pull out something that’s worked before and get the job done in order to get paid.

On the subject of graphic design awards, I understand that for many, winning awards is important and awards may further a designer’s or a company’s future. Clients do take notice of awards, but not always.

Frankly, I’ve won a number of awards in the past, but I don’t spend a lot of time entering competitions now because the awards business is, well, a business. They charge entry fees for all submissions which, in some cases, are quite substantial. As well, winning awards just isn’t a pathway to creating work that serves your client (back to that customer-centric thing). The success of your design work, in terms of what it did to improve your customer’s objectives, isn’t even a field in a design competition submission form. The customer, who should be the most important part of the whole process, is left out. Therefore, I would make my case that you can have award-winning designers who fail at communicating a customer’s message.

And isn’t that really what it’s all about?

My last point is on the perception that if you listen to your client’s likes, dislikes, needs, views, and observations that it would curtail a designer from doing what they are most talented at.

The fact is: even once you’ve identified all of the requirements and criteria for developing design work, there remains an infinite amount of creative options. Yes, you become limited in some of the solutions that would be acceptable or not, but without some parameters, how will you know if your work is effective? I take that back, many designers would say because their designer friends said it was. Not so. Your client, and their success should be your barometer.

The combination of a graphic designer’s skills and a client’s knowledge about the business, organization, audiences and trends is what will make your work truly “customer-centric.”

Signage: A few pointers for designers

23 Feb

Signage, the kind that informs the reader in an easily understood, elegant manner through graphics that not only compliments its environment but even adds to it, is an under appreciated art form.

That’s a  pretty loft statement, to be sure, but one that I think is very true.

Let me give you a couple of scenarios to see if they sound familiar to you. This is all in the noble quest of understanding this interesting aspect of graphic design.

Architectural Signage

You are asked to work with an architect for a new building, area or a series of spaces. You find out very quickly that the architect has very set views on what the signage should be. Above all, architects want signage that blends in with the architecture utilizing the same character, colours, shapes and visual toolbox as the constructed environment. Fine. You think, that’s what graphics is all about as well. But hold on. Blend in with the architecture? How much so? Well, often architects think that signage should blend in so well that it’s almost hidden because if it’s too dominant, then it detracts from the architecture. But… (you start trying to figure this out), signage has to be noticeable. It has to be visible so that when people are at key, decision points—junctions or locations where they choose which direction to travel, they need to actually notice the signage in order to obtain that information.

The answer to this, of course, is that both you and the architect are correct. Signage should be compatible and sympathetic with the architecture AND it should be noticeable enough to be easily located for when travellers need to find the information it contains. This is where the art of signage design comes in.

And now for the complete reverse of that last statement…

You’re working with another graphic designer or, say, an industrial designer and the issue is now all about what the signage should look like. (You just finished the aforementioned battle to create signage that people will actually see, so you know how to argue against signage that blends in too much). The  issue now is not just what colour the panels, fonts, backgrounds, arrows and other identifiers are, but also:

  • What is the shape of the signage? Square, rectangular, rounded corners, or some other shape?
  • How large is the text? How far back does it need to be read from? (Just to mention, I’ve developed readability studies and formulas for figuring this out, however, that’s my “secret sauce” that is, as they say, “proprietary”).
  • What does the signage structure look like and what is it made from (materials, hardware, etc.)?
  • How long will the signage hold up before it needs maintenance or replacing?

So, the problem might now be working with another designer who wants to place too much attention on the signage, so much so that it may not fit the environment any more. An example would be a structure that is overly complicated, or is made from materials or colours that aren’t appropriate for where the signage will go. Now, oddly enough, you’ve taken the architect’s position from earlier and you have to argue that signage has to be a part of the surroundings and not stand out overtly. The “character” of the signage has to communicate with the user so that it speaks in the same language as the architecture or the environment.

You may have seen signage that is just simply overdone. Colours, textures, materials, structural components, ornamental touches, everything is just too much, too loud, (and I really hate to say this, but…) just too amateurish. There, I’ve said it. Nothing says “I’m new at graphic design and I really want to create something that will pronounce me ‘Designer of the Century” more than designs that attempt to make an artistic statement that have more to do with being noticed as a graphic designer than trying to help your client provide clear, elegant way-finding. (Sorry if this sounds elitist, but to be honest, I’ve done this in some ways early on in my career, so I’ve been just as guilty. It’s now that I can look back on a career full of dozens of solutions and be a bit more critical).

The answer to the question of how much to put into signage should be rather self-evident by this point. Signage is information. People who use signage only need enough information for what they are seeking. The vocabulary of the panels, fonts, colours, structures, etc., should be just enough to communicate the messages in a manner that is in keeping with the rest of the environment. Anything more than that is just fanciful ornamentation. Are there times when signage might need to stand out and become a bit of an attraction on its own? Absolutely. I can think of many examples where signage was intended to  make a stand-out, visual statement to make it clear to the user that they had arrived at some important destination. Totally fair, but one shouldn’t confuse way-finding signage with destination signage. If you have the challenge to create a destination sign for Disney’s Tomorrowland, you can be forgiven for getting a bit more fanciful than directional signage, say, for a hospital.

Human label-maker

Then, there’s one more example. This one involves clients (hopefully you haven’t run into this type of client). (All you clients out there, please skip to the ending, I’d hate to have you see yourself reflected here). This type of client believes that signage is what you buy at the dollar store (but for some reason one can never find the sign that says exactly what’s needed). This client will be identified by a lot of dismissive hand-waving while saying things like “just make a sign over there that tells people where to go.” The attitude is that you have some magic machine and can start pumping out signage in the “standard,” “default” setting, like you are a human label-maker. Absolutely be wary of this situation because there’s a great possibility that without understanding what’s involved, this type of client will be the one that will wait until you’ve manufactured and installed a number of signs before asking for changes in information, size, colour, etc. Education is the key. Information. Education. Raising awareness. (Make them notice!). Make sure this client understands all aspects of the contract and approves some full-size mockup signs. Also, make sure the client is fully informed about the costs of signage development, fabrication and installation.

Sorry for describing this type of client as a bit of a problem, but when you encounter this person, believe me, your work will be cut out for you. In order to successfully develop signage that will work even at the most basic level (not to mention actually getting paid for the amount of work it really takes), you’ll have to spend time substantial time educating your client. And, when I say “educating” what I mean is bringing them up to speed on the fact that way-finding development requires someone who has the training, skill and talent; the final product has to be clear and understandable; materials have to be robust to hold up to everyday use such as cleansers, rogue vacuum cleaners and casual (and intentional) vandalism; structural systems have to be sturdy and easily installable; all information has to be planned, locations and messages have to be scheduled and approved; and other considerations such as safety have to be incorporated. Amazingly, it’s a bit of a surprise to some clients that it actually is someone’s job to think of all that. Oh yes, it’s usually a revelation that most signage is custom, one-of-a-kind design work, and can’t be found “off the rack.”

Okay, that’s the end of this rant. And here I didn’t even get to my pun about the title of this blog—”pointers”—because my original intention was to talk about where arrows go on signage. Left side of the signs? Right side? A bit of both? That’ll be the topic of a future blog.

“Signs, Signs, Everywhere there’s signs.
Blocking out the scenery. Breaking my mind.
Do this! Don’t do that! Can’t you read the signs?”
— Five Man Electrical Band, “Signs”

A couple of thoughts on logo design

12 Nov


(Note: that I use the terms “logo” and “visual identity” interchangeably here. While some would argue that a visual identity is a whole suite of visual solutions of which a logo is only one component, most clients begin with the term “logo” and are usually thinking only of a word mark, symbol, or word mark/symbol combination. It’s usually up to designers to broaden their client’s  scope to understand what is fully involved. But to stay with the vernacular, “logo” will do it.)

I had a former client contact me recently. The client was scheduled to be interviewed for a publication and her new logo would be the focus for discussion. She asked if I could provide some information on the thinking that went into the visual identity I had designed for her and which concepts and elements I considered most important in that development.


A visual identity has to be, above all, readable. Why above all? Well, if a viewer can’t read it, all other considerations for its design are meaningless. I have to admit that I’m “old-school” here as I had a thorough exposure and training to Swiss graphic design while studying visual communications for my undergraduate degree in university. Various designers may begin by throwing in all of the latest graphic styles and trends, colour and illustration use and technical virtuosity right at the beginning in order to impress the client and then deal with the necessities of production for actual implementation later. I, on the other hand, will usually work only in black and white to start and immediately begin testing any concepts at a very small size. If a visual identity can work at a small size (I’m talking about a 1/2 inch here at the widest dimension), it can always be embellished for use in larger sizes. However, the opposite is often not possible.

Personality of the company, business, individual, product or organization

The visual design for a symbol and the selection and use of typography have to present the personality or “brand” of who displays it. Now, of course, a brand is a lot more than a logo, but often a logo is the first thing seen that represents your business, long before clients get a chance to judge your product, service, professionalism, etc. Consider how a logo can become a dominant part of a brand such as BMW’s building headquarters in Munich.

To start, you must ask yourself a few questions to try to identify how a logo might present personality. Is the visual identity you have chosen traditional or modern, wild or conservative, systematic or carefree, rough or sharp, fun or serious, or reserved or bold? Many other questions of this type should be running through the designer’s mind when trying to evaluate a solution for a visual identity.

The visual identity that is successful will be like making a custom suit for your client, and like a suit, it should meet certain criteria. It should fit really well; it should make a statement to those who see it; and the client should feel good and professional each time they are seen with it. Not only is the product good because the creator of it thinks it is, but because it “suits” the client perfectly (see what I did there?) and is based on the client’s needs. The reverse of course is true. A poor logo won’t fit the client well; the client won’t feel very good every time they use it; those who see it won’t understand what statement is being made; and the whole thing may only have been produced to satisfy the creator of it, not the client.

I think a lot of designers would do well to ask themselves often: just who are you working for? Are you only furthering your own interests, or those of  your client?


Finally, the use of a logo (in order for it to become an actual visual identity) has to be consistent. When used in all applications, it should still look like it’s from the same individual, product, business or organization. So the original design work and all of the applications of it on various items have to be well thought out.

Consistency is also important in that the logo should be maintained in its original form so as not to confuse the viewer. I think we’re probably all familiar with companies who “get bored” of their logo fairly quickly and start to tinker with it. Colours change. Maybe shapes change. Text might change formats or font styles. We had a logo that had a human figure in it and the client thought that they’d “dress it up” for the Christmas season by giving it a scarf. Cute, but doesn’t bode well for consistency in most cases (unless your brand is substantially engrained in the public’s consciousness).

It should be considered that while employees of the company see the same logo day-in and day-out and begin to think that there is a need to change it, the fact is, the public may only see it very few times. If a potential customer of yours only sees your logo twice, there’s little chance they will remember it. The magic number here is seven (this comes from advertising circles where this is the working rule for advertisements). It’s only after seeing your logo seven times that the public will start to put it to memory or choose to act upon it. (Keep in mind that “putting it to memory” isn’t always a positive thing, and the choice to act upon it may be to disregard it, confirm that they hate it, or just say “no” to it—in the case of it being a product for sale).

Keep your logo intact and present it consistently. If you change it occasionally, you’re missing the advantage of building up recognizability with your audience. If you find you do need to change your logo for legitimate reasons, please work with a professional designer (I would also recommend starting with the designer who produced the original work). You’ll have a much better chance of getting something that will maintain the professional image that you’ve attempted to reinforce.

Two cents

So, there’s my two cents on this. Believe me, I could go on with nuances on individual aspects of visual identity design, but I think this covers my original answer to the question of what I consider important. Readability. Personality. Consistency.

Finally, I’d like to reiterate my analogy of a logo being like a custom suit and, we, as designers, are like tailors. If we create something for someone else that only satisfies our own needs, we are doing a disservice to our customer and industry. If we work at being customer-centric and truly listen to our customers so that what we create is that magical combination of meeting their needs through the contributions of our talent, skill and experience, we are doing everything we can to provide a valuable service to others, and then design works.

“Blog” is such an ugly word

18 Sep

Let’s just call it small talk amongst friends.

Welcome to Alberta Graphics on WordPress.com! Okay, not much to say to begin with. I’ll be using this blog site to present information as it comes up in the wild world of graphic design in Edmonton, Alberta.

(By the way, just because we’re in Edmonton and have the word “Alberta” in our name, it doesn’t mean we don’t work for clients in other cities or provinces!).

For more information on Alberta Graphics, please go to: