I think there's a tendency among designers to create design concepts before they've spent enough time getting to know the client's business. They get so fixated on an idea that they start throwing together layouts before they've done enough preparation.
We prepare by doing the agency download: an orientation process where the agency absorbs enough information about the client's business to create relevant concepts. Not all of it will seem relevant at first, but with training, experience, and a little follow up the context and theme will start to emerge.
It's easy to think that a brief orientation will be sufficient. The length of time needed will vary from client to client. But we need sufficient perspective to guide our thinking and that only comes from understanding our client's business sufficiently well.
This Download is Going to Take Some Time Listening is an art. It requires effort and focus. And it's not something that comes naturally to creative types. Where fine art is about technique and personal expression, design requires an understanding of the enterprise, whether that's a business, a government entity, or a non-profit.
The download is a daunting intellectual challenge. One minute, I may feel like I'm in an engineering class. Next, I may need to learn about asset classes and value investing, and after that the anime style of videogames. And then I'll rush to learn the finer points of medical instrumentation, structural adhesives, beer distribution, and women's fashion.
Time is a precious luxury. An agile and retentive mind is a crucial asset. When it comes to the agency download, it's probably better to absorb more information than you need than the exact opposite.
There's more to successful creative then color palettes, typography, composition, and digital technique. With every project, I find myself becoming a mini expert in my client's businesses so that I can understand my client's customers.
Client Crunch Time Remember in college when you had to crunch before an exam? The agency download is a bit like that. There's also that scene in The Matrix where Neo downloads Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art that normally takes years to master, in less than a minute. You have to absorb numerous facts and data about an entire business. Who are their customers? What do they buy? What challenges do they face? What are the products and services and what needs do they address?
Lately I've been called in to do more branding work, which is really difficult, especially for established companies trying to achieve a burst in sales activity or create interest in a new product launch. Details are important. Somehow, after a good night's sleep, the mind processes and distills all this information. And only then do I have the proper frame of reference to judge whether this or that idea will succeed or not.
It's easy in this day and age to feel like we can accomplish the download using GoToMeeting or a Skype teleconference call. Those are both great tools, but I think face-to-face meetings are still preferable. Maybe if you've got a giant wall screen video conferencing system you might pick up on the nuances normally only gleaned with face-to-face interaction, but I don't have one of those yet and neither do any of my clients.
As a designer, I have outsider status, which is an asset. I'm not too close to the information, but I know enough to eliminate the guesswork and still have the distance and perspective to perceive creative possibilities that may never have occurred to the client.