Tips for Designers Working With Non-Creative Types: It Doesn’t Have to be a War Zone

Jonathan Henley / Content Marketing, Design, Marketing Leave a Comment

Health Warning: If you are a marketer with a sensitive disposition, take a deep breath, compose yourself, and get a cup of tea – but do read on. You are about to read some sweeping generalizations – I apologize in advance, but they are there for a reason.

It is a commonplace misconception that marketers use designers. And I use the word use purposely because, from the creative point of view, that is pretty much how it feels.

Management, executives, the “buyers” of creative and design solutions, and indeed the commissioning ranks who demand the finest fresh copy almost all (in my view) treat their design and creative teams like so many tool-wielding mechanics, who from chaff can craft wheat.


Designers and creative teams, rise up and take your creative seat at the strategy table.

Now, I am not a designer. I may be a tad creative. I may have visual insights that work, I may not. But what my lack of skill in the drawing department has forced me to develop is a deep empathy with the teams that do have those skills, so that I can fulfill my objectives of delivering persuasive, engaging, innovative communications.

And I have done this – do this still – through close collaboration and understanding of how to direct the creative team with clear and accurate briefs, not through expecting my marketing optimism and a communications nirvana to be reached through creative guesswork alone.

Collaboration Makes Strategy Come Alive

Years of doing this relatively successfully (there will be letters about that claim) have convinced me that the design and creative teams I have worked with deserve a hell of a lot more credit than management tends to give them. Because, designers, you make strategy come alive. And I want to see more of you developing the confidence to wield that influence in the corridors of power.

So it is my hope in this piece to speak with a design hat on, and try to offer some ideas that will be used by oft-undervalued creative teams to catalyze you into taking your seat at the strategy table.

The following “Designer’s tactic suggestions” – and the marketing typecasts – are really just a conceit I am using to smuggle quite obvious tips through to readers. They are not intended to seem omniscient or clever, just ways of working that have done just fine for me and countless others over the years. Sometimes they just need restating, is all.

First, Understand Your Enemy

Actually, marketing men and women aren’t really your enemy. They sometimes just behave like they are. So to work more effectively with them one needs to understand them, their caste and their creed.

Now for some brutal generalist typecasting, here are some pen profiles of your average design buyer. I have restricted myself to four today. I could go on, and maybe another day I will.

1. The “I’m too busy to work with you, just get on with it” type. It’s almost as if these guys think nobody – nobody dammit – can be as busy as they are. Thus, they throw you a scribbled note, or hover at your desk whilst you’re trying to finish something else and blurt a brief suggestion that is as confused as it is useless. This model of marketer usually thinks that his audience is “everybody” and his ultimate objective is “getting us out there.” (FFS!  No!)

Designer’s tactic suggestion: Get them to a) come back later or b) write it down on the form you have provided, answering the questions as set out on the form. In other words, help them define their brief. And if they can’t, find someone who can. The only way that these guys are going to be happy is if you are in fact a magician. They can be the most difficult to work with, sure, but so often they also come with CEO after their name (sometimes even Chief Marketing bloody Officer, though God only knows how they got there!), so this is a learning experience.

Put simply, the secret is always in the brief. To get the best out of these situations, I recommend drawing others into the briefing process. Swell the ranks of helpers so that the hapless don’t feel quite so helpless.

2. The “My wife is creative, so I understand design and I’ll sit in on your design process” type. Er… no, she isn’t, no you don’t and you definitely bloody won’t, thank you for offering. I have nothing against partners of marketers who dabble in interior design (i.e., painting the kids’ bedrooms) but I do have a problem with marketers who seem to think it has rubbed off on them through marriage.

But the promising news here is that they at least want to try and get involved, and at least might appreciate something that is visually appealing and effective. And if nothing else, it suggests that they recognize their own limitations in knowing what is right.

Designer’s tactic suggestion: As a designer, you are trained, skilled and experienced in your craft – as they are in theirs. Faced with a keen as mustard design-interventionist such as this, I believe you are quite within your rights to ask them to let you have a go at their marketing plan for the next year or have a pop at the budgets because your partner does budgets at home all the time.

Instead, take this as a sign that you are more likely to have the freedom to offer creative options, perhaps ranging from the wildly wacky to the corporately dry, and know that he or she might be open to being persuaded why each works. I would rather see a seed of creative flexibility in a marketing man that can be watered, fed, and nourished into a full blown creative partner than no ounce of creative spark at all.

3. The “Look at my socks, they show I’m creative” type. Funky hosiery does not an insightful, innovative and creative marketer make. But it might suggest that there is a spark of something close to wit and rebellion present – something that can be found in the best marketer. If this is true, then interrogation may produce an ability to draw pictures with words and for the marketer to better describe his vision, his audience, and his objectives.

Designer’s tactic suggestion: For a creative team to harness these guys to their advantage, I would recommend a path of mutual sharing and discovery: What work have you seen elsewhere by competitors or others that smacks of something akin to your ideal? What do your target audiences worry about? How can you assuage these fears?

With this typecast, I believe you can be more adventurous in your examination of his thinking, even asking him to bring in magazine clippings of visuals that ring his bells. Try it; it works.

4. The good guys: marketers with empathy, a creative streak, and multi-channel awareness. These are the people you can really work with. They understand that their audiences are not homogeneous, in their definition or in the way they consume information or make purchasing decisions. They recognize that great content needs to be refined, repurposed and redirected to each type of audience and buyer, probably using a mix of multi-channel messaging.

They recognize that without a great creative concept or execution of that concept, the messages will more than likely miss their mark. And this is where you, creative teams, can really get your juices flowing and stake your claim for ownership of the marketing skills that marketers so often think you lack.

Your tactic? Stick close to these guys because as a team you will be unstoppable. From a great brief showing a thorough knowledge, understanding and empathy with the selected target audiences, and what a positive outcome actually looks like, you can craft a multi-layered, multi-channel campaign of creative verve and communication nous that is today’s perfect outcome.

You can apply your creative thinking to visual messaging and metaphor in a way that speaks directly to one audience not “everybody”; you can turn the pointless “getting us out there” into the measurable metrics of hits, visits, unique views, downloads and sales through application of the right mix of offer, benefit, response and follow-up that is catalyzed by your creative messaging.

In summary, I would venture that I have so broadly brushed these caricatures that I will be roundly criticized. But, hey, leave a message and give feedback – I’m hungry for it. 🙂

All I have tried to do – and it is for you to measure my success – is simply show how marketers can make their own job doubly difficult by poor or patchy understanding of their key partners’ skills and expertise.

The members of the design fraternity – whether copywriters, photographers, graphic or web designers – are the catalyst that makes marketing successes happen. Where would the emerging and informative infographic market be without designers interpreting marketing metrics?

Where would your website, your e-shop window, your whitepaper or your annual review be without a great creative team to distill product and corporate messaging and benefits into an engaging read? Nowhere. Without good creative, and without marketers knowing how to empower these catalysts for great marketing communication, nowhere.