Strong visual communication is paramount in a healthy organization, yet it continues to be a hurdle. We all know the dangers of bad communication, which can sap time, energy, and resources—even cause PR disasters that damage your credibility and bottom line.
But poor design is a subtle plague, much more widespread in organizations today than we sometimes notice. When key data is overlooked in a dull report or when an important message is lost in a cluttered presentation, problems persist and opportunities are missed.
Picture the last PowerPoint deck you or someone on your team sent to a key customer. Was it effective? Did it strengthen your relationship, or was it just another task to check off on a to-do list? In the worst cases, the professional communication that is sent is downright embarrassing and reflects poorly on your brand.
So, when it comes to getting your message across, how do you ensure you’re at least doing most of it well? It starts with defining good design in your business context by creating a shared visual language as an extension of your current brand guidelines, and instilling its importance at all levels of your organization. Essentially, a visual language is a shared set of best practices for communicating information. Once established, you must give everyone a way to stay within the guard rails, so that the right content creation tools form a critical support structure.
Like any type of communication, it’s not just what you say but how you say it. Well-designed visual communication isn’t just about being pretty. Good design stimulates viewers’ brains, enhancing the efficacy and impact of information in a cohesive visual experience by increasing:
Appeal: Elements such as shape and color stimulate the visual cortex. This is a pre-wired response that attracts viewers to visual cues. A study by neuroscientists at MIT found that visual information is processed in as few as 13 milliseconds.
Comprehension: As visual creatures, we benefit from seeing the big picture. Visualizing relationships, values or sequences can increase and expedite comprehension exponentially.
Retention: Good information design helps readers recall information later. A University of Saskatchewan study found that including illustration made chart data more memorable.
The strategic application of design boosts the impact of everything from client reports to blog posts, increasing the value of the content you create. Recent research by Design Management Institute shows that design-driven companies such as Apple and Coca-Cola have outperformed the S&P 500 by 228% over the past 10 years.
How to incorporate good design into your communication
As my co-founder Ross Crooks says, good design is more often hyped than addressed. Organizations tend to focus design efforts on a small handful of external-facing projects due to time and budget constraints, which results in huge missed opportunities. These tips can help you identify communication challenges and apply design solutions to communication at every level.
1. Assess your current efforts. Ask yourself the following questions to identify the highest impact areas for improvement.
- Why do we create communication the way we do currently throughout our organization?
- What is the most important content we produce for both external and internal audiences?
- What vital message do we need to deliver more effectively?
- What are the use-cases that can benefit most from better visual communication?
- What are the most painful and redundant reports and presentations we create?
- What are the communication contexts in which people are forced to fend for themselves in Powerpoint, Keynote, and other tools, and how can we empower them to best represent our brand?
- Is there a person or department we are missing from the team (e.g., we need a creative services department to serve all departments)?
2. Identify areas of focus. There are key areas of an organization’s communication that can benefit from being made more visual. Consider how you may incorporate design thinking into each, along with any other important communication contexts.
Customer reporting: Showing the results of your work to customers and clients is the fastest way to grow a relationship. The goal here is to show your customers you love them (or at least value them), and giving attention to the design of this information will have an immediate and lasting impact.
Content marketing: When speaking to the masses, you are competing for both time and attention. Ensuring that your content is both engaging and delivers real value is vital. Design plays a key role in achieving both objectives. This is an area where you can benefit from custom, artistic variation to match the editorial subject while still preserving consistency (in placement, sizing, and captions, for example).
Internal communication: Winning over internal audiences can be as important to business progress as any external communication. Make sure you are not overlooking good, consistent design in these materials.
3. Establish a visual language. You likely won’t be able to solve this all at once, but start somewhere to get the ball rolling. Don’t forget to include rules for information visualization, as this is often a weak spot in presenting information. This will help your brand maintain consistency at all touch points in the organization. Keep in mind that the value of consistency isn’t simply for the purpose of being homogenous, but rather to eliminate weak links across all touch points and strengthen perceptions of your entire team. Rather than simply serving as an inflexible set of laws, your visual language (once properly implemented and supported) provides a structure and support for any communication effort.
4. Educate your team. You don’t necessarily need a huge internal design team. Refresher tutorials in presentation software or basic design principles can help your team produce more effective content all around. From executive assistants creating quick turnaround proposals to an HR director sharing employee satisfaction survey results, there are important team members collectively shaping the sum total of experiences that define your actual brand. Your brand is, as Seth Godin says, “a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes.”
5. Identify tools for everyone. Embedding good design in your organization isn’t simply about having an asset library of existing materials for people to pull from. It’s about empowering people to create their own messages in other important contexts without developing disjointed materials. Some large brands spend exorbitant sums to create a strong identity—but lack the tools to support the broader team to execute this in their brand materials. We have heard this repeatedly for years from brand management teams at major corporations. In the worst cases, people choose to do nothing for fear of creating something that might upset the brand police. Giving business lines the right design, presentation and reporting platforms, ideally with guide rails for staying on brand (e.g. templates that aren’t easily broken), is a powerful way to strengthen the perception and efficacy of your entire operation.
6. Use professionals for high-priority content. If you do everything above properly, you save your most skilled design resources (time and money) by empowering the rest of your team to do the fundamentals properly. Your expert creatives will certainly appreciate being freed up to focus on the most creative and visible projects, spending the entire day focused on making things pop (designers love making things “pop” and always know what you mean when you say this).
You can’t become a design-focused company overnight, but these steps will help you approach design more holistically throughout your organization. It helps to consider the perspective of Tuhin Kumar, product designer at Facebook, who has written that “most of digital design is more an iteration than a milestone.” Prowess in visual communication will soon be par for the course, and all of us can improve. You just have to start where you are, and keep doing cooler things from there.
This article originally appeared in Communication World Magazine.