Exceptional Communication? Designers front and center!

As a strategy consultant for higher education, I visit a lot of campuses and talk to many individuals in senior leadership roles. In conversation, campus executives ask for advice about how to strengthen their brand and engage more effectively with key audiences. Usually, the leadership team already recognizes design as an important component of a successful marketing and communications strategy. The execs I meet often ask what they should invest in—they want to know about the secret sauce. Most aren’t surprised when I say: The secret sauce is people! Exceptional communication requires more than a committee. It requires an investment in skilled professionals. Every campus needs people who get up every day and come to work thinking about the best way to tell the distinctive story of their college or university.

When asked more concretely about staffing for communications and marketing teams, I emphasize both the roles of individuals and the importance of the collective team. And, for many campuses, I recommend hiring a designer. This text often finds its way into the strategies I write, “A skilled designer is essential. Nearly everything you’ll want to do to enhance your communication efforts will require visual design. The amount of photography, graphics, iconography, widgets and other visual elements needed for print, websites, email campaigns, and social channels is insatiable.” I also recommend a team of talented people, who collectively contribute to marketing and communication goals. In my view, how the team is organized, and how they work together, is as important as getting the right number of people to do the work.

Let’s explore the role of the 21st century designer on a college or university campus. What does it look like? What are the characteristics of successful individuals in higher ed design positions these days?

Also, where do designers fit within the campus structure? In communications and marketing units? In publications offices? On a web team? As team members within an “in-house agency” model?

Designers as Individuals

A lot is expected from designers on our campuses. Budgets are tight, decisions are made by consensus, and naive perceptions about design as “the way to make things look good” persist. I have five suggestions for designers in higher ed:

Develop a passion for your campus.
Great design comes from a deep understanding of your institution. Regularly involve yourself in the life of your campus, fully understand the mission, and let the ethos and culture of your school seep into your consciousness. That’s where the on-brand, hit the bullseye target design comes from. When you develop a passion for the people and the places of your campus, your best, and most nuanced, creative comes out.

Design for everything.
Most campuses don’t invest in specialists. There is rarely funding to support several full-time positions for specialized design roles. More typical a few years back, a set of individuals in web design positions separate from a different set of individuals in print design positions are being replaced with people who can design for it all. The most successful campus designers evolve their skills—they are adaptable and flexible. I assert this leads to better results. An integrated marketing strategy requires consistent messaging and creative across multiple channels. The designers who can work within all mediums and platforms will continue to be in high demand.

Think about the art and the science of your work.
For me, the art of design is the ability to use creative to make an emotional connection. I am regularly wowed by just the right color palette or paper choice or typeface as a communication tool. But don’t neglect the science for the art. Data driven creative means paying attention to goals, identifying calls to action that work, and thinking about conversions and metrics to support design decisions. Engage your audiences, confirm your design choices with data, and tweak your designs after measuring results.

Educate the people around you.

Design is about solving a problem. It’s about effective and clear communication. You know that, but the people you work with don’t. Help those around you understand you are not designing for flourish or to make things look nice. The people you work with need to know you are designing for effectiveness, to enhance the meaning and impact of a piece—whether a web page, a post card, an HTML email, or something else. Educate others about incredible design; help them understand it is a consistent expression of the brand and always informed by the preferences of target audiences.

Avoid working alone.
Designers are communications professionals and a collaborative approach is best. Now, that doesn’t mean you need individuals standing over your shoulder “helping” you do the design work. While there are usually plenty of volunteers for that, what you need instead is collaboration about content and concept and goals! I realize brainstorming is cliche but it’s still worth doing. Share ideas with others—before, during, and after the design work. Bring others in on the challenge of generating many ways to use design, copy, and photography to achieve what you’re after. Equally important, work with other people on projects that enhance and extend your skills.

Designers as Members of a Team

For designers, and for all of us, work environment makes a difference. An environment of multi-functional, cross-platform thinking is rich with possibilities. When designers, writers, technologists, photographers, videographers, and digital strategists work together, they build on each others’ strengths and the results are exceptional.

Be there for collective thinking about goals and messages.
The most skilled communicators think about goals and message first—determining the tools, platforms, and mediums always comes second. As members of a marketing or communications team, designers should participate fully in early discussions about goals and tools. Contributing to this upfront thinking makes your design work better and allows you to be a part of the planning for an integrated approach where all channels reinforce themes and messages with the target audience.

Contribute to the whole.
You have a role and you have a responsibility. Your role is your day job; the body of work you do most often—design. Your responsibility is to contribute to great work. So spread your ideas and suggestions beyond design, across all areas. Be part of the conversation about the copy, investigate a technology solution, identify patterns on the web, suggest a social campaign, and more. Thinking broadly about what you contribute is the first step towards evolving your skills. The breadth of what you can do increases as you gain understanding about the whole of a project, not just the design aspects.

Advocate for a team without silos.
In recent years, I’ve observed a trend toward setting up “in-house agencies” in higher ed. The bailiwick of the team may vary from campus to campus but the important result is the team thinks differently. The perceived barriers between communication mediums are gone, the silos are no more. All the right people are there when the project (or challenge, or problem, or initiative) is born. The team generates creative solutions enhanced by a blending of capabilities across mediums and platforms. In this multi-functional team:

  • Designers design for print and web and social and video.
  • Writers write for web pages or posters or email campaigns.
  • Technologists make it possible to use steams of social content, and custom URLs for print, and content management systems for easy publishing and consistent visual design.

A diverse team of communicators—designers, writers, social strategists, photographers, videographers, and technologists—should be let loose. This is where the creativity happens! We simply need to move our legacy organizational structures out of the way.

Designers Front and Center

More than any other time in my career, the work of designers is at the forefront. New tactics like “visual content marketing” regularly find their way into our discussions. Time after time, dozens and dozens of college students on campuses across the country tell me their college search was dominated by a need to “see what a campus is like.” As a designer, your part in the compelling and effective communication that happens in higher ed is front and center. Own it!

(This first appeared as a feature in the Winter 2015 edition of UCDA Designer Magazine. “Exceptional Communication? Designers front and center!” was published as Vol. 39, No. 4.)

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