If at First…

Once in a blue moon, serendipity hits: a brilliant idea surfaces early, the design seems to materialize of its own accord, the client adores the initial sketches, the revisions come easily, and the project concludes seamlessly. Happy client, even happier designer. The dream is that all projects proceed this easily.

But is that really the dream?

Some of my best projects are the result of struggle, missteps, and a tortuous route to a final product that results in… happy client, even happier designer! Those projects remind me that just as our clients are looking to us for our expertise and skill, we look to our clients for guidance. They understand their business, they’ve crafted their message, and they know their audience. It doesn’t matter how good my design is; if it doesn’t communicate to my client’s audience, it’s simply a pointless exercise.

Pink Off illustration montage

The projects I struggle with the most, the ones where I need to take special care to listen to my client and drop what I think I know, are the ones I learn the most from. Often those designs end up being ones I’m the most proud of.

One project that comes to mind is an ad campaign I worked on for a breast cancer awareness event. The event featured live music, free mammograms, food, and most importantly, a survivors’s fashion show. Since the event took place at a park in Florida, I was told that the sponsor really wanted to feature a flamingo in the ad materials. I immediately latched onto the idea of the survivors’ fashion show. The comp I came up with showed models from their waists down. It was a series of fashionable legs – some in high heels and mini skirts, some in skinny jeans, etc. – mixed in with a pair of scrawny, awkward flamingo legs. The image was clever and funny and wry, and immediately recognizable as runway-with-flamingo. Unfortunately, it was also completely wrong.

The client came back to me with a very polite, “We love the idea, but…,”  and explained that really, the event was more family-oriented than fashion-oriented. Think of a large outdoor party on a semi-tropical evening, with children running through the park, music wafting on the air, pink balloons, tables selling food and drinks, and a fashion show as one part of a large celebration. “Think Lily Pulitzer,” my client suggested.

Lily Pulitzer! What I knew of Lily Pulitzer dated back to my college years, when Lily Pulitzer fashions were the choice of a very small, well-heeled contingent of my colleagues. To me, educated in Europe and unfamiliar with preppy fashion, those clothes seemed cheerfully garish and utterly unmistakable. So I reluctantly pulled up the Lily Pulitzer website to see if I could get some inspiration.

What I saw made me realize that the client was exactly right. The dresses and fabrics were a riot of bright colors and tropical patterns. More importantly, they were energetically, unabashedly fun, exactly what a breast cancer fundraiser – a celebration of life – needed.

I went back to my stock image house and culled a series of illustrations, all created with the same loose, playful line. It took a couple hours of searching, and some creative search terms, but I was able to find all the elements I needed created in the same pen-and-ink style: flamingos, a trumpet player, tons of tropical foliage, and even a fashion model. One of the illustrations used soft greens and blues, a perfect complement to flamingo pink, so I applied that color palette across all the elements. Once I had my elements organized, I was able to create lush frames to hold the ad text and event logotype. Since the design was modular, it was easy to reorganize the different elements to create ads of different sizes, or create spot illustrations.

The client was delighted with the design. So was I, but I told her that, in all honesty, she had to take the credit for her brilliant direction. It was her suggestion that put us on the right path. Experiences like this remind me of how much good design depends on a good collaboration between the client and the designer. I’m so grateful for the clients who trust us to go through the process with them.

Rebecca’s headshot is by the amazing Caroline Kessler.

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Rebecca Blake, Design Director