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Inside P+S

What every marketer should know about working with designers

Jim Babb
Jim Babb

At Part and Sum, we approach strategy work creatively and creative work strategically. Combine the two, and the sky’s the limit. Nobody knows this better than Brett Mascavage, a talented creative director and designer who’s been one of our most frequent collaborators.

Working with creatives is an essential skill for marketers and entrepreneurs. I decided to ask Brett for his POV on that relationship, and how marketers can be better partners in the design process.

How do you apply strategic thinking to creative work?

It's a combination of three things: customer journey, business goals, and knowledge. I need to understand these points in order to make confident decisions. How should customers move through the product or website? Does this fulfill the business objective, whatever that may be? Are there problems because of an internal process issue? Is the proposed solution feasible?

How do you collaborate with P+S strategists and other clients?

There’s been an evolution in the way design works. In the past,  it was common for the client and PM to talk, and information would trickle down to designers. I’m much more collaborative, which works well with the Part and Sum team. When I’m doing design, I’m thinking holistically, and so are the strategists. They dig in deep with clients at the very beginning. From that point on, we can look back at interviews, data, and testing to make informed decisions together.

What is something you wish everyone who worked with designers understood, or understood better? How can clients be better partners in the design process?

Come in with questions and an open mind, not a problem you’ve already solved. I love to hear “This is what I have so far, what do you think?” What’s frustrating is when people say “Here’s the solution, go make it.” I can do that, but let’s take a step back. What’s the user experience? What are the issues we need to address? We’re working as a team, so let’s communicate to find solutions.

When a client says “Do X because I want it this way, end of story,” the conversation is over, and the relationship probably is too. I’m not pushing back to be a jerk. It’s because I have a valuable perspective that can improve the product for your customers.

When it comes to feedback, back up your opinions with specifics. In design school, during critiques, we didn’t just list the things that didn’t work. We explained why they didn’t work. “Make the logo bigger” — okay, why? What are we trying to accomplish with that? Vagueness and indecision, in general, are real creativity killers. “Make it pop” means nothing. It doesn’t move the work forward.

Never worry about asking me if something is possible. It’s a computer, we can make it do anything! But again, the question is, why?

Finally, I try to avoid calling people ‘users.’ Are they customers? Members? Subscribers? Let’s talk about them as real groups of people with different motivations.

Here, we worked with Brett to reframe a complex suite of products into a smooth user experience.

Tell me about your process.

I always start by asking clarifying questions. What are your goals? Do you have content ready? Will I be working with another team, or on my own? If you’re not sure what you want, I can give you my weekly rate and an idea of how long it will take to iterate, and we can go from there.

The creative part can be a tricky thing to explain. It’s not like going to the doctor with pain, and they diagnose it in one visit. Sometimes I’ll stay up until 3 a.m. for several nights in a row trying to figure out what needs to be done. It’s not working, it’s not working, and then finally—it works.

There are so many free or cheap design apps and programs now, and just about anyone can use them. It’s cool to see access expanding, but do you worry that this kind of thing devalues real creative expertise?

It’s kind of like when people see a painting in a museum and say, “I could’ve done that.” Yeah, but you didn’t! There’s years of experience, expertise, and sociocultural context that goes into that painting, whether you realize it or not.

People who use free apps usually aren’t the people who’d hire me, which is fine. There’s a wide range of options that serve different purposes. You can get a junior designer for $50 an hour. You can go onto Fiverr and get a logo. But if you're looking for higher quality, better service, greater understanding, someone technically knowledgeable, you'll need to hire someone with the skills to deliver the results you want. With design, you get what you pay for.

I do find that many businesses will pay for creative services, but don’t want to pay for custom illustrations, photos, or fonts. I can’t tell you how many sites I catch using the same stock photography from places like Unsplash or Pexels, or the same illustrations from icons8. That’s a shame, because all these creative facets add up and make you stand out.

If you look at successful startups and businesses, they have real customization and a unique design aesthetic that they’ve built. It doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t need to hold your product launch because your aesthetic isn’t perfect. It’s more important to get started and invest in your creative over time.

Finally, what are some brands whose design you admire?

I’m really into Figma. Not only do I use their product every day, but the quirky design and branding set it apart. They put themselves out there with a unique take that showcases both the product and who they are as a company.

On a personal level, I find the Brutalist space very inspiring and full of creativity. It feels like the early days of web experimentation combined with modern techniques and interactions. You can see this style reflected in some interesting pop culture products, like MSCHF, for example.