Today, quite a few label printers offer design services as part of an effort to provide one-stop shopping. It might not be a full-time occupation, but it serves a needed and profitable purpose. Converters who work with smaller manufacturers tend to employ graphic designers, whether on the staff or as contractors, and such a service can free a client of a major production headache.
Those of us who are engaged in printing and packaging are well aware that the advent of the Internet gave rise to a seemingly infinite number of graphic designers, and for all of them a digital portfolio is a must. That skill offers little or nothing to the packaging and label printer. Gone are the days when every artist worked in high resolution. The print designer today belongs to a minority.
If you have thought about hiring a designer, or retaining one, and are still thinking about it, some preliminary research is of critical assistance. The aforementioned Internet is the place to go. Quite a few articles are available at general business news sites that give useful advice about what to look for and do in the hiring process. Other pieces are written by designers themselves.
Marketing people suggest that you start the search process offline. Ask friends, fellow association members, friendly competitors, your customers, if they know proven packaging designers. Once you exhaust those sources, go online but try not to waste time with giant hiring sites. Some are focused on freelancers and others on graphic designers. Here are some websites to consider: freelancersunion.org, upwork.com, carbonmade.com, and behance.net. The last two feature design portfolios for review.
As with any industry, a professional association will offer focused knowledge. More than 22,000 graphic designers and firms are members of AIGA (the American Institute of Graphic Arts), but that’s in the USA only. All developed countries have similar groups. AIGA offers a PDF titled “The Client’s Guide to Design,” which contains a wealth of information for the company seeking graphic services.
Here are some excerpts about what the designer does:
• A professional designer combines creative criteria with sound problem-solving strategy to create and implement effective communication design.
• Solves communication problems with effective and impactful information architecture.
• Becomes acquainted with the necessary elements of a client’s business and design standards.
• Conducts the necessary research and analysis to create sound communication design with clearly stated goals and objectives.
The AIGA document addresses standards of professional practice, ethics among all parties, compensation, design competitions and spec work, and other relevant topics. Though it focuses on hiring a design firm to work with, the same advice can apply to individual designers. “What’s the design firm like to work with? What is its culture and how does that match up with your company’s? How flexible is it? Does it want lots of direction – or lots of latitude? And how much of either are you prepared to give? Who are its clients, and how did it get them? Does it have a thorough understanding of their businesses? What kind of working relationships does it have with them? And with its vendors – from writers to photographers, printers, web consultants and fabricators? Is it a specialist? Or generalist? Does it have the man-power and technical capabilities to do what you need? How does it arrive at design solutions?”
Ron McDonald, owner and creative director of Step2Branding, in Wexford, PA USA, published a list on LinkedIn of 10 factors to consider while sorting through the field of available talent. They are, in brief:
• Experience: Look for diversity.
• Portfolio: Look for broad variety in a wide range of industries.
• Subject matter expertise: How does the designer think?
• Expectations: How does your company fit into the designer’s business model?
• Proximity: Hire local.
• Billing rates: Experienced designers charge more but need less direction, work efficiently and are more attuned to best practices.
• Value: Research anticipated costs and budget before interviewing.
• The bigger picture: How do they view your needs?
• Remain open to advice: Look for someone who is willing to challenge your thinking.
“Look for the candidate who engages you about your business, market and audience prior to discussing your project,” McDonald says. “They should want to understand your challenges and long-term vision, which will put them in a better position to provide sound recommendations.
“Ask them about their work and experience. Do they simply rattle off a list of projects, or do they discuss responsibilities and results? Look for genuine passion in what they do. Inquire about specific clients or projects you saw on their website and what role they played. Find out whom they work with and what they offer beyond their primary discipline. For example, some designers are also good writers. But, nobody can do it all. They likely work within a network of experts, including developers, printers and photographers.”
From my own experience, I find three skills to be highly useful: reading, comprehension and proofreading. Too many designers (i.e., “artists”) simply drop text into the layout without knowing or caring what it says. Examining the words in detail and understanding them are critical acts of design. Proofreading can mean the difference between winning a label award and getting sued.
Quite a bit of commentary has been shared online about “spec work” and design competitions. Marketers and designers don’t like those. Pamela Wilson, founder of Big Brand System, writes: “For some reason, people seem to think it’s acceptable to ask a designer to work ‘on spec.’ You give them specifications for a project and ask them to provide a solution before you commit to paying them for their work. Or you advertise a competition and vet the entries. Or you run a design competition using one of the crowd-sourcing sites.
“People think that graphic design is ‘fun,’ and they don’t need to pay for the work. No other professional would agree to these conditions.” Would you ask a doctor or lawyer to do some advance work for nothing? Good designers, remember, possess both talent and skill. You are paying for the years they spent in education and practice, just like every other pro.
To a company owner or executive, the designer’s portfolio might be daunting. Wilson offers suggestions: “As you page through designers’ portfolios, you’ll begin to see that each one has a visual style. Some look polished and corporate, others are young and upbeat, while others look kind of hipster, or even grunge. You want to look for designers who already design using a style that’s similar to the one you want to communicate.
“Do their designs show a clear command of color? Are they using typography skillfully? How about white space and visual hierarchy?”
The great hope, of course, is that they know the differences between flexo and offset, and digital and conventional printing. If they understand inks, plates, rollers, embossing, foil application and screen printing, you’re halfway home.
The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.