It is all about content… but looks kind of matter

17 August 2017
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

At one point or another in their career, most graphic designers have experienced the pressure of having to do a “quick design.” This ask might have come from a manager, a client or an in-house copyeditor. Design is often the last piece of the puzzle. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but what it doesn’t mean is that a designer should be given a few short hours to whack something together (to then potentially get the comment: “it looks a lot like your last design.”)

Most of OTT’s team members wear different hats, which is probably true to most small teams. At OTT, I often wear the designer hat (which, btw, is one of my favourite ones!). We run an almost 100% digital show- and the competition to stand out in the digital world is fierce. We promote, on average, around six to eight initiatives at a given time. These initiatives feed different goals, be it to stay in the debate, to promote our capacity building efforts, to engage new collaborators or to become a reference for think tanks around the world. I am not suggesting that at our young age we have a giant outreach, but we are ambitious and we try our best to keep an ongoing presence and stand out amidst the sea of information on digital platforms.

Good design is not about having lots of bells and whistles- this can dilute the content. Good design is about making your content stand out. Here are some tips, based on what I have learned:

  • Look at what others are doing. If you are starting out with your design-y pieces, look at what other organisations are doing with products similar to what you want to produce. Whether you like them or not, looking at references will help inform your work.
  • When it comes to good design, less is more. I wrote about this in my piece about producing the OTT Annual Report. Remember that it’s all about your content and making it stand out. This doesn’t mean using every resource available. Having your title in a box, with an outline, in bold, underlined, in all caps and highlighted is the equivalent of screaming out your title repeatedly- and it’s ineffective. Design is a vehicle to engage with your audience at first glance. Do it once, and do it right.
  • Be picky. Choose the right images, the right fonts and what information you’ll want to highlight.
  • Be on brand. Dust off that brand book and make sure you follow the brand guidelines for every piece you create. This will help create consistency and improve your brand presence. Also, make sure you always use the high-resolution version of your logo (while you are at it, make sure all your staff has the right version of your logo, fonts and colour palette).
  • Visual breaks. If you are producing a long report, make sure to consider your readers’ comfort. Give them a chance to rest and process the information you are giving them. Include pull quotes, charts, data visualisations and, if applicable, pictures. At OTT we don’t use pictures to illustrate our content, but we try to include references, pull quotes and keep our articles to 1,000 words or less.
  • Allow time for design. Whether you have an in-house designer or if you are hiring an outside designer or agency, make sure to give them enough time to produce a good design piece. Designers need time to create, they each have their own creative process and rushing them through it will only harm the result. If you know you have a report coming up, talk to the designer and ask them how long it would take them to design a report of such length so you can plan to allocate that time within your timeframe.
  • Listen to your designer’s advice. They usually know their stuff. You might approach a designer thinking you need a tri-fold brochure, but they might suggest a set of GIFs for social media, for instance. Let them advise you on what will work best for your content.

Good or bad design can make or break a piece. Whilst a solid communications strategy is the foundation for good communications plans, design is an integral part of your outputs. At its most basic level of achievement, good design will make people pick up a report. Of course it is content which will keep readers (or viewers) engaged, but it is how this content looks that will first lure them to it.

On a more advanced level of achievement, good design will make a loaded report more digestible for readers. And on higher levels of achievement, it will help make content memorable. Design can be more than making something “look pretty”. A good designer will understand that their work serves the content and will know who this content speaks to, and will understand the behaviour of its audience. Do they have 2 hours a day to read, 30 minutes on the tube, 10 minutes during a coffee break? Are they an online presence? Do they go to conferences? What’s their age group? Social demographics?

A well-designed piece will ensure key content reaches its audience through the right channels and formats. As Jeff Knezovich, On Think Tanks editor at large for communications, said:

When it comes to communications, design isn’t the icing on the cake- it’s more like the sugar. It’s integral to the success of the endeavour, and it makes it palatable.

Unit 4 of the long course: Cutting-edge communications for research and policy will focus on the importance of design-led communications. Register today!