Working with designers – ft. GradLab preview

So, you want to start working with designers? Awesome! Being able to communicate using clear, well-curated visuals is crucial to the success of your marketing, outreach, pitches, funding proposals, and much more!

Having a creative counterpart to help you communicate your research or innovation is an invaluable tool. But embarking on finding the right person for the job can be a rocky journey. Notably, there are all kinds of designers out there, each with their own skill sets, and it may take a few tries to find the right creative fit for your needs – it’s a bit like dating!

To continue that analogy, just like dating, there are a few do’s and don’ts when it comes to working with designers that will help you get off to a good start to your new creative relationship.

The following pointers are an excerpt from The GradLab Handbook: a guide to designing great visuals for boosting research impact. The GradLab Co is a new e-learning platform created specifically for PhD students and early career researchers to learn fundamental design skills. In addition, these skills go beyond nices drawings beyond nice drawings. The courses have been carefully structured to ensure the skills learned will help students communicate their work, attract new opportunities and progress their careers. Currently, the courses are being written and produced by Studio founder Molly Patton. The start-up is scheduled to launch later this year. 

A mockup of The GradLab Co's Design Handbook. It's borght orange with bold white and black text against and orange background.

The following pointers are an excerpt from soon-to-launch start-up “The GradLab Co.” We hope you enjoy it 🙂

Engage us early

Good design doesn’t just happen. It takes time to come up with ideas, test them and then refine the best ones ready to present to you. If you place designers under time pressure, they can’t guarantee their work will be the best it could be. Furthermore, some designers may even charge a rush fee if they have to shuffle other clients around to accommodate an urgent request.

The best thing to do when working with designers is to think ahead and send a courtesy email to let them know that you might have something coming up. That way, they’re ready to go when you are.

Two designers brainstorming website design ideas on a whiteboard.
Expect to pay

It may look effortless, but designers dedicate many years learning and perfecting their craft and they have every right to be paid what they’re worth. Most will try to accommodate your needs as best they can. If a designer knows there is a limiting factor, whether it is time or budget, there are often ways they can adjust their initial ideas to account for that. The important thing is to be upfront about it straight away! Otherwise, precious time (and funds) will be wasted back-pedalling as new information comes to light.

Come prepared

Seeing your ideas and your vision helps designers orient themselves at the beginning of a project. Don’t be afraid to present a sketch, mock-up or collection of images (also known as a mood board) that you feel could help convey what you envision. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece, what’s important is having a visual reference point for your design counterpart to build upon.

At the same time, it’s important to keep an open mind. Designers are very experienced and if they think an alternative is more appropriate for what you want to achieve, then they have a professional responsibility to put that idea to you.

Scattered sheets of paper, each with a single sketch on it. The sketches are small, and look like they depict part of a staircase design.
Prioritise communications

Communication hold-ups are the biggest killers of productivity. Designers only try to help you as best they can, so if they ask you a question, it’s in your best interest to get back to them as soon as possible. If there is a hold up, just let them know so they can shuffle other projects around to accommodate you. And likewise, it’s perfectly ok for you to set the expectation of when and how often you’d like an update on your project.

Good design doesn’t just happen. Much like exploring a research topic, it takes time to foster ideas, test them, refine them, and prepare the best ones to present to you. 

Think BIG
Think BIG

When working with designers, try to envisage every scenario in which you could possibly use your design. It might be for a research paper initially, but where else could you use it? A poster? Social media? A website or blog? Will you need to print it? Would you consider animating it later on? All these things influence how a designer creates your design and what kind of files they deliver to you at the end.

Typically, a designer will be happy to accommodate your needs. However, if they don’t have this information at the beginning, it can quickly turn into a big (and costly) problem to go back and make those changes – in some cases it is easier to start over! It’s best to avoid this situation altogether and opt to create the most diverse design possible.

It’s ok to ask questions

Even if you don’t engage their services, most designers are generally happy to share their expertise or provide some quick pointers, (especially if you buy them coffee). It never hurts to ask. In a 10 minute conversation, you’ll not only receive a lot of valuable feedback, if it so happens that they don’t know the answer, you can bet that coffee that they know someone who does and can introduce you to them – then you’ll know two designers!

Sketched wireframes of a website design. THe wireframs have been painted blue, purple and green using vibrant watercolours.
It should be a great experience!

Collaborating across different industries should be a fun learning experience and as you interact more with designers, you’ll get a feel for how they operate. Like anything, the more you work with designers, the more comfortable you’ll feel, and the more you’ll come to understand what information you need to convey and what you can leave to the designer’s creative expertise.

And remember…

Whether you’re working with a studio, agency, or a freelancer, everyone works a little bit differently. Sometimes designers become stuck on autopilot and forget that you might not understand exactly how they work. If you’re a little unsure, just say so, and they’ll be happy take you through the process and what you can expect.

After all, it’s your research they’re showcasing, and they will want you to feel comfortable with them creating visuals to represent your work. As with most good relationships, it’s all about great communication!

That's it!

We hope you enjoyed the little preview of The GradLab Co Handbook on working with designers. If you know someone you feel would find this article useful or might be interested in The GradLab Co, please pass this article along.

Learn more about what it’s like to work with us in our previous post: What’s it like to work with a designer? And, if you’re interested in us becoming your forever creative collaborator, feel free to book a free 30 minute consult with our head creative to help you get the ball rolling on your next project – we can’t wait to work with you!

A sheet of paper depicting part of an architectural design that looks like a floor layout for a new building. The drawing is sitting on top of a worn wooden desk and there is a tub of coloured markers sitting being it.


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