By Deb Boucher Stetson

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

We’re all familiar with that phrase, and while it’s an old one — dating to 1911, by most accounts — it’s truer than ever in today’s Digital Age.

“A picture really is worth a thousand words — particularly these days when people are much more used to looking at pictures,” says Brad Schiff, president of Pierce-Coté Advertising, based in Osterville. That, he observes “has lot to do with the internet. People are constantly looking at their cell phones and constantly being presented with pictures —and it seems like they’d rather look at pictures.”

That’s why it’s more important than ever for businesses to make sure the visuals they put out are eye-catching, attractive and on-message.

In short, you want those visuals to be worth the proverbial thousand words, and then some.

That’s where design comes in.

Defining Design

“Design really brings to life the way that a particular product or brand is positioned in the market,” Schiff says.

Put another way, “Design is the visual face of a company,” says designer Chris Lewis, owner of Chris Lewis Creative in Plymouth.

To be effective, design has to really work — in every sense of the word. “It should have a consistent look and feel for all marketing efforts of the company brand,” Lewis explains. And, he adds, “Branding is everything. It represents quality, reputation and even emotions.”

Good design is more than just an attractive image, Schiff says: “For good design you have to communicate to your audience what is special about your product.”

Alison Caron, owner of Alison Caron Design in Hyannis, says the role of design is multifaceted. “It can definitely aid in communication,” she says. “It can attract you, first but once it grabs you, a lot of what we do is focusing the message,” and conveying to consumers why that message is important. In other words, the job of design is to not only grab the consumer’s attention, but keep it for as long as it takes to get the brand’s message across.

Designer Carolyn Reardon-Neuman, owner of Wildcat Design in Brewster, says any branding or advertising design “has to make sense for the subject — the visual has to match the content.”

That said, how do you get there?

Diving Into Process

Designers generally have a process, and Reardon-Neuman, who also serves as art director for Cape & Plymouth Business, shares hers in the accompanying “Deconstructing The Cover” sidebar. Like others in the business, she stresses the collaborative aspect of design. Good design, she says, starts with a conversation. The first thing she does with a new client or a new campaign with an existing client is get the client to talk — and the more they talk, the better she likes it.

“I’ll ask a lot of questions,” she says. “I’ll ask, ‘Why don’t you like this color?’ or why it’s important to include certain elements.” The more information she can get, the more able she is to deliver what the client wants, she said. “More input is better. I might not use it all, but it’ll help me clarify what client wants.” After that, “It’s my job to distill it.”

That, she says, is the essence of brand-focused design: “It’s kind of distilling everything down to its most basic concept.”

The idea is to condense all the ideas “down to the basics, because you don’t want anything extra in there — the less complicated the more impact,” she said. “Less is definitely more.”

Caron, of Alison Caron Design, agrees, and notes that often clients have to be convinced of that. Many clients, she said, “want to put everything in there … a lot of what we do is taking stuff out.” The best way to explain the benefit of that, she says, is to show the client contrasting designs, one with everything the client was hoping to include and another stripped down. Invariably, a client will see the wisdom of her approach when presented with visuals — once again demonstrating that a picture is worth a thousand words.

As a designer, Reardon-Neuman is comfortable with fairly loose direction, feeling that while less is more with the resulting design, more is better when it comes to client input. But others prefer a more focused approach. Pierce-Coté Advertising has four designers on staff, and Schiff feels it’s important that they get clear guidance from the outset of a project.

“I think it’s important to give them direction – you can’t just go in there and say give me a nice design,” he says. “Thoughtful direction is the most important part — a good start makes for a good ending. The more direction you are able to give to a designer, the more time and money you’ll save.”

In an agency, project managers and marketing professionals can help clients communicate their needs to designers. “I’m a marketing guy,” Schiff said. “I cannot draw a straight line, but I know how to give direction”

What he wants his designers to know from the start from a client is, “What makes your product so distinct?” Also, “Is there a certain tone you need to use, are there certain colors you must have?”

Of course, like Caron, Schiff has experienced the kitchen sink approach, where clients want to include everything they love about their product or service in an ad. “You can’t put everything into what makes you distinct,” he says. “Focus on one or two things.”

That helps the designer create a visual that is clean, distinctive and has plenty of breathing room. In terms of ads, “One trend has been less copy — a clean read, more white space. You can put an ad in a magazine and people will just skip over it if it’s not attractive or has too much copy,” he says.

Lewis said that spare, clean look works well with today’s consumer. “Now it’s about sophisticated simplicity. Consumers will give you all of two seconds to make up their mind on whether they are interested and then they move on,” he said. “A lot of white space, hits of bright colors, and thoughtful conceptual photography to draw you in.”

“People are bombarded with images,” agrees Reardon-Neuman, and that’s why a good design is “the quickest way to get attention.”

Good design is something that can be hard to articulate, but easy to spot. “You know good branding when you see it,” she says. As an example, she points to Apple, a company whose iconic logo needs to introduction. “Apple branding is brilliant — you know an Apple product right away,” she point out. “And that’s what a designer will buy you.”

Creative Encounters

Businesspeople who have not experienced working with designers, she says, may be a bit apprehensive about the prospect of trying to communicate with someone they view as “artistic” as opposed to fellow businesspeople. “I think a lot of people have anxiety about working with creative people,” Reardon-Neuman says. “An artist in the business world has always been a contradiction. But a designer is a business,” she points out, and the world of commercial design is a hybrid in that sense — really combining the creative and business worlds.

Lewis says collaboration is key when working with a designer. “Keep an open mind with the designer’s suggestions. It’s a partnership,” he says. “Naturally you’ll have a vision but forcing the designer’s hand in creating something that’s been sketched on the back of a napkin is not the way to go. Designers have great ideas!”

Ideas are worth a lot, but that’s not all you get when working with a professional designer — you tap into their skills, their experience and intuition. Experienced designers know what works, and that’s gold to clients. “This is your brand, so don’t go cheap,” Lewis says. “Resist using your sister-in-law’s cousin because she went to art school 20 years ago. You’ll only end up paying someone else down the road.”

That said, don’t shy away from telling a designer what you can and cannot afford. “Most designers will work with just about any budget,” Lewis says.

His advice is to find a designer you like and develop a relationship that will benefit your brand over the long term. Ideally, “A startup business owner and designer should be working off a five- to 10-year business plan,” he suggests.

Reardon-Neuman, who has a number of long-term clients at Wildcat Design, says an established relationship makes for efficiency, which saves clients time and money. Over time, she says, client-designer communications get much easier. “One of the benefits of working long-term with a designer is you develop a shorthand,” she says.

A trusted designer can be a business’s best friend: “A good designer will have a plan for you — you won’t be reinventing the wheel every step,” she says. “If you don’t have someone guiding you, you end up defeating the whole purpose of branding.”

Schiff says “brand standards” are a big part of design. “Some [clients] come to us already with established standards, and some we have to help them create [standards]. What we do very often is create a brand standards package — it will have a tagline, font, color” and other elements, “So everything can be consistent.” He added, “You’re still able to use imagination in terms of coming up with things that are going to appeal to customers, but you have those basic things that remain consistent.”

Lewis agrees that consistency is inherent in branding. “Typography, photography, color palette and a smart and creative marketing message should be well thought out for all mediums including, web, video and television,” Lewis said. “A good designer should have experience in all of these areas and should proceed in big-picture thinking.”

Digital Age Design

Those different media are what sets modern design apart from its forebears. In terms of change, “The web is the biggest thing, and smartphones,” Alison Caron says. “So now, design is not static … It’s more fluid.”

“Twenty years ago it was all about print. Now it’s designing for all mediums,” Lewis points out.

“So much now is geared toward online, so design has got to be responsive,” Schiff says, because it has to appear equally attractive on laptops, phones, tablets and other media. “This has changed design — it’s got to come across a very different spectrum.”

He adds that this has helped lead the trend to spare, clean design: “On an iPhone, for example, you have less space … You have to be very succinct when you’re dealing with a digital ad.”

Fortunately, design technology has kept up very nicely with other technologies, meaning designers have access to software that ensures their creativity translates well across various media. “From one native file, you can do multiple formats that are going to work over multiple media,” Reardon-Neuman says, adding that she loves designing on a computer. “It is fabulous — it is the best tool ever.”

But such tools only work well when you know how to use them. Reardon-Neuman says that’s one more reason to work with a professional designer. “It ensures that it’s going to be produced correctly.”

Caron feels technology can be a double-edged sword. While she appreciates the computer as a tool, she thinks it is often overused. “I have two employees who are young, and just last week I was telling them, ‘Get away from the computer and take out a piece of paper and sketch it out first.’ Lots of people are using computers as a crutch.” Caron also teaches at Cape Cod Community College, and encourages her students to develop tactile design skills along with computer skills.

Schiff makes a good point about keeping technology in perspective. “Video is new — that’s just moving pictures,” he says.

So in the end, we’re back to that old axiom. Whether it’s moving picture, on a smartphone or on a tablet, a picture is still worth a thousand words.