When a Picture's Really Worth a Thousand Words: The Client Pitch Meeting

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I've always been a big fan of collage. Robert Rauschenberg's work is a vivid reminder of the '70s, when a new phase of this art form took hold. He and many other fine art practitioners of collage have always been fascinating to me; their processes, as well as their end products. I love the depth and hand-built texture of collage. The diversity of materials, combined with the juxtaposition of images, give me a sense of space that goes beyond a lot of two-dimensional art.

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With the best collage, the artist takes the viewer on a trip through a given subject matter, or creates an entire world related to the particular idea they want to convey. At its best, I feel transported to that subject and an emotional bond is established. The emotion comes from the story the artist tells--a story usually told without a single word.

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I think that fewer words could be used in the practice of design, or for that matter, any creative endeavor that is visually oriented. The best design is verbally indescribable. You quite literally have to see it, touch it and feel it, in order to appreciate or even understand it. No amount of words can sell a great design idea.

I'll never forget one of our more illustrious client's reactions to the long-winded strategic setup that a former colleague would start in on, when we presented creative work. "SHOW ME THE FUCKING WORK!" our client yelled, after seeing the first three or four slides filled with words, along with the inevitable pie chart. The last thing he wanted was to be told, in effect, how much smarter we were than he was. After all, he knew his brand, his audience, and his business situation a hell of a lot better than we did. Unfortunately, my colleague could never really take the hint and would continue to rattle on, trying to establish his brilliant contribution to the creative solution, every time we presented work. Needless to say, we were not long for this client's world.

These days, many years later, those words ('SMTFW!') still come to mind every time I think we're getting too long-winded in explaining why we did what we're about to show you we did. After all, it's basic human nature to grow impatient about seeing The Big Idea. Get on with it. It's a picture, not a poem.

Years ago, we--namely Dan Olson, one of our creative directors--came up with an idea of what we now refer to as our "visual brief." It is quite literally a collage that paints a picture of the world we'd like to design in. After we've agreed with the client on the written brief that outlines all the goals and parameters, we start bringing it to life, visually. Please note, this is not a so called "mood board," where planners tear out pictures from People magazine to try to evoke an emotional understanding of the target audience. It's rather a piece of art, made up of the scrap we designers collect, shoot, draw and edit, along with our clients, to make sure of two things: 1) We're on the same page before we start designing and 2) we've created a filter through which design decisions on type, layout, color, photo/illustration style, etc., can be considered and evaluated.

I suppose I could save quite a few more words by simply showing you a couple examples. First, the final visual brief for First Reserve beer, beer that was made from a recipe from the Civil War era, in the Southeast U.S., when molasses replaced hops that were in short supply. This got us started and we've continued this creative step on every brand design project since.

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Second, is a more recent visual brief for Herradura Tequila that was created from imagery we collected on an immersion trip to the tequila region of central Mexico.

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The real advantage of developing a visual brief with our clients is that it genuinely involves them deeply in our creative process at the beginning of it, the place where the idea is developed. It's a way for us to interpret the words they've provided--which are always important--and making sure that what we think words like "innovation" and "passion" look like for them, are re-interpreted as visual design principles like "modern" and "bold."

The words and the pictures, together, push us all through levels of interpretation that can bog down the process and kill great creative ideas. Pairing words with pictures helps all involved to understand and agree that, "we mean this (picture), when we say this (word)." Once we're in agreement, we're then allowed to do what we're getting paid to do--design. The collaboration upfront eliminates the element of surprise when we eventually present our design work. Surprise is often the kiss of death, no matter how brilliant we think our solution might be.

This process works for any creative endeavor. We've employed visual briefs as a family when building or redecorating, as well as when we've planned family trips. It gets everyone's ideas out on the table in visual form, so that you can actually begin to see and feel the end result. It also builds excitement and positive anticipation for what's to come. Interior designers and architects have always done it. It takes the guesswork out of collaboration--the key to the right design solution.

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Principal and chairman of Duffy & Partners, Joe Duffy is one of the most respected and sought after creative directors and thought leaders on branding and design in the world. Joe's work includes brand and corporate identity development for some of the world's most admired brands, from Aveda to Coca-Cola to Sony to Jack in the Box to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. His work is regularly featured in leading marketing and design publications and exhibited around the world. In 2004 he founded Duffy & Partners as a new kind of branding and creativity company, partnering with clients and other firms in all communication disciplines. Also in 2004, he received the Medal from the AIGA for a lifetime of achievement in the field of visual communications. His first book--Brand Apart--was released in July 2005 and in 2006, he was recognized as one of the "Fast 50" most influential people in the future of business by Fast Company.

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2 Comments

  • Bruce Turkel

    Thanks, Joe. From packing Roller Blades in order to better see new cities to priming the pump for new business presentations, I always learn from you.