Archive for October, 2008

Selecting a design firm

October 24, 2008

You’ve made the decision to hire a graphic designer to help you with your company’s brand. Congratulations! But with so many design firms and ad agencies out there, how do you make a selection? Here are some tips:

  • Observe successful brands around you and ask business owners or marketing directors who they’ve worked with. If they’re pleased with the results, they’ll most likely be eager to pass along the firm’s information.
  • Consider the expertise of the firm. Most design and advertising agencies specialize in a market or type of product. Seek out those firms that are experienced in speaking to your target market (for example, business-to-business communications, direct-to-consumer communications, or specific fields like medical or real estate marketing).
  • Consider the size firm you’d like to work with. Large firms often offer ritzy offices and accommodations and boast large staffs to work on your projects, but come with a higher price tag. Smaller firms have more modest settings but often provide a high level of customer service at a lower price. Whichever size you select, make sure the firm can handle ALL of your design and advertising needs, so you can keep it all in one place.
  • Talk to people within your network for a referral. They’re likely to have an inside track on how the firm is to work with, whether they meet deadlines, the quality of the their work, their customer service, and more. But don’t stop there, make sure to:
  • Review the firm’s portfolio. You can start with work they depict online, but more often than not, it’s just the tip of iceberg! Ask to see samples related to your industry or of a specific product type (websites, logos, marketing collateral) that you anticipate needing. Evaluate the samples for how consistently they convey the brand across products, how well they stand out against competitors, neatness and clarity, and innovation. A thorough portfolio review should help you avoid this situation:

  • Try them out. Give a firm you’re considering working with a small project to see how they work. Observe how well they estimate the project, set a schedule, meet deadlines, and provide multiple design concepts. They should listen and respond to your critiques well, and make you feel like you’ve been heard. Pay attention to whether they mark up printing or stock photography purchases. While this is a common practice, not all firms do this (Mix Creative selects not to mark up vendor services).

Be honest with prospective firms that you’re looking around. Be prepared to talk about your budget and your marketing goals, so they can get a sense of whether they are a good fit for you too. It’s not unheard of that a design firm will refer clients to a competitor if they’re better suited for a specific market.

Happy Hunting!

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Technical illustrations

October 23, 2008

For a technical company, data sheets are an opportunity to show what they know to prospective clients. Charts, graphs, tables, and conceptual drawings get right to the heart of the company’s skills and expertise. And while the intended audiences are project managers, purchasers, and engineers in search of “just the facts”, it’s important that you consider that data sheets are also an extension of your company’s brand. To this end, graphics should communicate the content clearly and simply, yet incorporate an overall look and feel that conveys immediately that this is Company X and not their competitor’s data sheet. Logos, fonts, colors, and illustration style are just some of the ways this can be accomplished. Take for example, these illustrations we did for Chromis Fiberoptics:

FTP basics

October 22, 2008

If you’re working with a designer or ad agency, placing art in a publication, creating a website, or transferring files between coworkers, chances are that at some point you will need to use FTP.

What is FTP? It stands for File Transfer Protocol, but what you really need to know is that it’s a secure way to exchange files over the internet. A virtual file cabinet, FTP is commonly used to transfer website files (html code and images) to the site’s hosting server, to download MP3 music files, or to transfer large files that would bog down email servers.

An FTP address looks a lot like a web address, except that it starts with ftp:// instead of http://. But don’t treat them the same! Unlike a website, FTP requires a user name and password to access files. While many web browsers are now able to connect to ftp servers, you’re better off using FTP access software—called an FTP Client—to access and transfer files.

FTP CLIENTS allow you to manipulate files on the FTP server: to log in, view files, upload new files, and download files. Other features include creating new file folders, transferring files to different folders, and deleting files.

FREE FTP SOFTWARE is available for download for both Macs and PCs. Many offer upgraded features for purchase, but I’ve never needed to invest in these—the basic software works just great. I’ve used a program called FETCH for my Mac for many years and find it to be very user-friendly. You can download a free trial version at fetchsoftworks.com. If you’re a PC user, you may want to try WinSCP: winscp.net/eng For both platforms, FileZilla (filezilla-project.org) gets high marks as free, general public license software, and FireFTP (fireftp.mozdev.org) for use with the Firefox internet browser.

Here’s a great resource comparing FTP clients, including prices, compatibility, and functions: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_FTP_clients.

Got your own FTP Client favorites? Share them with us! Leave a comment below:

Hey! Thanks for the mention!

October 20, 2008

We LOVE it when we have the opportunity to work with talented professionals, like Rod Wilson of Andrews Photography. We love it even more when they mention us in their blog:

We did a photo shoot for Russells on the Lake. A fine Dining Restaurant in Big Lake, MN. This is the finished Russell’s tradeshow banner. Look for our later post with all the great food photos we took for them. We love taking photos and different subjects keep us fresh. We are based in Saint Paul lower town and will also travel to get the job done.

Katrina Hase with Themixcreative.com was a joy to work. She does graphic design, marketing, and advertising. If you are looking for someone to get you started or need a fresh face give her a call.

Improve your Business Image

October 11, 2008

Branding was the overarching theme of last night’s SparkHer forum, hosted by WIN members Stephanie Hansen, Wendy Blomseth, Katrina Hase, and Cari Spears and introduced by Teresa Thomas-Carroll of Women in Networking.

You are the Brand

“You are the brand,” explained Stephanie Hansen, the first speaker of the night. She encouraged us to think about what our personal brand is, and then to consistently and confidently project that image as we go out and make new business contacts.

Knowing our audiences is key to understanding how to present ourselves. Stephanie, both a radio personality on FM 107.1 and owner of Printz, explained that she needs to consider her audiences when selecting what part of her image to present. “You, as business associations, need to know that I know the printing business,” not the personal details she shares with her radio audiences.

Stephanie gave some tricks of the trade when it comes to presenting your personal brand in a networking situation: have a firm handshake, wear your name tag on your right side for better viewing, and have a good 30 second commercial. “About 10 of you had good commercials as you introduced yourself this evening,” Stephanie shared with us. “The rest of you, I’m not sure what it is you do!” Being clear about what you do versus giving descriptions that sound good but are less to-the-point was an important take-home message.

For people who attend networking events that are going through a job transition, Stephanie cautioned that instead of sharing your personal story, to instead be clear about how people can help you do your business. Because even when you’re between jobs, your image is your brand and you need to present a consistent and confident image.

Your Image in Photographs—An Important Branding Tool

Wendy Blomseth of InBeaute Photography specializes in helping business owners, professionals, and “sales divas” present themselves to potential and existing clients with professional portraits. Keeping in front of your clients with photographs has the impact of making people become familiar with you in way that goes beyond just words, she explained.

Professional images fit in with achieving or enhancing several aspects of your strategic marketing plan. “Try reading your marketing plan and add the words “WITH IMAGES” after each action item. You’ll probably be surprised that there are few strategies in your plan that are not supported with high quality images.” For example:

  • Define your mission WITH IMAGES
  • Identify the products or services that you provide WITH IMAGES
  • Identity your target buyers/end users WITH IMAGES
  • Illustrate the unique characteristics of your products or services that distinguish you from your competition WITH IMAGES
  • Illustrate your brand and/or identity WITH IMAGES

Wendy suggested strategically using images to tell your story on your website. For each page that describes what you do, illustrate it with a photograph. “Here’s you meeting with a client or your product. Here’s you with your team hard at work. Here’s you rolling up your sleeves and getting things done. . . With five clicks, a potential client has a good visual story of what you do in less than a minute,” which is about the time spent at an average website.

Take inventory of your current images. Ask yourself if they are current, good quality, or hold viewers’ attention. Consider having three to five images with different facial expression and clothing changes to represent you in different media: blogs, websites, brochures, business cards, and other sites.

“You and your prospective clients are being visually bombarded with 1,000 to 3,000 images every day,” Wendy explained. Make sure to make your image memorable.

Defining your Business’ Brand

Katrina Hase of Mix Creative spoke about the process of defining your company’s brand.

In a crowded marketplace, having a defined brand that speaks directly to its target audiences is key. Without this, your products and services will be lost among a sea of competitors.

So what is a brand?

“Your brand is a combination of the words, images, and tone or personality you present to your audiences,” she explained. “It conveys who your company is, its history, its mission, who you sell to, how you’re different from your competitors, and your company’s personality.”

Katrina passed out a worksheet to help define your company’s brand. The different sections of the worksheet take into account your company’s history and objectives, audiences, competitors, inspirations, and personality.

The bottom portion of the worksheet defines a company’s personality through metaphors. “This part is the most fun,” Katrina said, “and I find that it’s often the most revealing in illustrating who your company  is.” Katrina interviewed two participants, asking if their company were a flower, what would it be? For another, if her company were a car what would it be? Their answers revealed small details about their companies and even their business philosophies that may have been missed by more standard questions.

Katrina demonstrated the process using the example of a foundation she recently did work for. Using key words from the worksheet, she assembled an inspiration board of images, each of which visually represented an aspect of the company. Next, she demonstrated how those images inform different design approaches and ultimately the finished brand.

You can download the branding personality worksheet here.

“Once you’ve defined your brand, it’s important to be consistent in presenting it to your audiences,” Katrina reminded. “Don’t be tempted to make changes here and there because you’re bored with it. It’s just when you’re starting get bored with your brand that people are starting to get the message.”

Keeping your Brand in Front of Audiences

Cari Spears of Eagan Shirtwerks shared an experience that led her to reconsider her company’s marketing approach. “Oh, I’m so glad we found you!” one of her clients told her over the phone, “We used your company once before, but we couldn’t remember your name, so we kept calling around.”

What’s wrong with this picture? Cari asked us. Even though her company is in the business of selling promotional products, they had forgotten the importance of keeping their company’s name and brand in front of audiences.

Cari corrected the issue by coming up with a marketing plan for sending promotional products throughout the year to different segments of their audiences. She summarized the plan in a table. Along the Y axis was Target Market, Product to Send, Slogan on Card, Cost, and Item to Order This Month. Along the X axis was the month of the year.

Using her marketing plan, Cari was able to specify which audiences to reach out to during which months, what kinds of products to send and how to plan for the next month. Planning the entire year at once helped Cari to allocate her budget in chunks and make her dollars go further.

And breaking up the audiences allowed her to send pricier items to a small number of their best customers, and less expensive items a large number of new prospects.

Cari can review your company’s budget and make suggestions for promotional items that will have an impact and keep your brand in front of audiences.

Talk to our panelists

If you have further questions or would like reprints of materials from the seminar, feel free to contact our panelists:

Stephanie Hansen, Printz

Wendy Blomseth, InBeaute Photography

Katrina Hase, Mix Creative

Cari Spears, Eagan Shirtwerks and Promotionals

Quick list: Top 5 Ways to Market Your Company on a Budget

October 10, 2008

  1. Network. Show up early and often to business networking events and start meeting potential clients or making connections with people who can benefit your business. Print a busload of business cards and pass them out like candy on Halloween night.
  2. Send out an e-newsletter. The start-up fees and monthly dues are very affordable. Once you have your template, it’s a breeze to update and send on a regular basis. Just make sure that your newsletter offers a real value to your subscribers, or you’ll quickly end up in their spam box.
  3. Blog. This is a no-brainer. It helps your company be found organically through the search engines, and lets people know your areas of expertise. And sites like this one (through WordPress.com) are completely free!
  4. Update your website. Archive your e-newsletters on the site, add an e-newsletter sign-up form, update your client list/products/portfolio and get rid of out-of-date information.
  5. Get some free publicity. This may take some creativity on your part. Give a talk at a local networking or trade event, send a press release to local papers that presents your company in a manner that has a newsworthy angle, hold a charitable event with other companies, start a guerrilla marketing (i.e. street) campaign, or dream up a creative publicity stunt. It won’t come without some creativity and sweat, but it can be affordable if you plan it that way!

Got your own ideas for inexpensive marketing? We’d love to hear ’em. Leave a comment below with your suggestions!

The perspiration of inspiration: tips to get the ideas flowing

October 7, 2008

Perhaps when I’m retired I’ll have the luxury of letting inspiration come to me naturally: sipping espresso in a sidewalk cafe and watching people bustle by, strolling museums and taking in the great works, or rummaging through family heirlooms in the attic.

But the reality is, I’m a working graphic artist, and my clients can’t afford to wait with the clock ticking while I siphon inspiration from day-to-day activities. So I’ve developed a process to get things moving. And while I don’t try everything every time, these creative jump starts are great to select from as I stare at the blank page in front of me:

  • Start with words. Brainstorm similes and metaphors for the concept/idea you are presenting. Expand the list to include words that express the personality of the project, colors, shapes, cliches associated with it. Be expansive at first, then go back through and highlight the words that BEST express the idea. Use those as your guide.
  • Brainstorm images. Start with sketching many of the words you listed earlier. Play with ways to show those ideas visually. Don’t try to design anything. Just make a lot of sloppy marks on the paper to act as placeholders for ideas.
  • Research images. Go online now and use Google Images to look up images that correspond to words on your original list. You’ll be surprised how many more ideas this will give you. For example, say you look up the word “cake”. You’ll expect to find lots of images of birthday cakes, cake slices, cupcakes. . .right? But you may be surprised to see something like a rice cake. Or the band, “Cake”. Print out images that surprise you or convey an idea really well. Take note of colors that are commonly used in association with the images.
  • Research your competition. Take note of the traditional colors, fonts, images, and designs of your client’s competitors. You’ll want to know the competition well if you want to create something that sets your client apart.
  • Research fonts. Visit font sites online or use your own software to investigate font choices. Type in your client’s name and preview how it looks in different fonts. Take note of and print our your favorites.
  • Review design annuals, art books, historical resources. If you know you want to work in a certain style, this can give you a good baseline for the elements that go into it. Sketch variations on elements you like. Keep your sketches loose to make the ideas your own.
  • Create an inspiration board. Now that you’ve collected words, images, colors, and sketches, get them up on a board or wall in front of you. Organize them into chunks that make sense to you.
  • Create thumbnails. Referencing your inspiration board, create tiny layout sketches that suggest elements of the design. Create dozens of these, then go back and select the ones you think will work the best. Flesh out these top ideas in a larger format and include more detail. Play around with adding colors and simulating the fonts.

Have your own sources of inspiration? Share them with us, we’d love to hear them! Leave a comment below.

Found! An equation for calculating trifolds

October 3, 2008

Trifold brochures don’t have three equally-sized panels. The cover must be slightly larger than the inside flap to accommodate the fold. Finally, a good resource for calculating the folds can be found here:

http://www.universalprinting.com/help/foldingguide.html#letter

It even has a built-in formula to churn out the numbers for you!

Looking for more info about brochures? Check out our post: Beyond the Trifold

Enjoy!

Resolution Blues: the tiff between gifs and jpgs

October 3, 2008

Ever have this happen? A publication asks you to send a logo or photo to them, so you take time out of your busy day, find the logo or image on your hard drive and send it over. Later that day, someone from the production department emails you that you’ve sent the wrong file format. Huh?

Or perhaps you put together a gorgeous Powerpoint presentation with photos you downloaded from the web, then went to print handouts from the file, only to discover the pictures are all jaggy and weird looking! What’s going on?

Well, my friend—you’re experiencing the resolution blues. (Don’t worry—you’re not alone!)

Resolution of an image has two main dimensions: the number of dots or pixels, and the amount of space those dots/pixels have to cover. Let’s say you have a thousand dots. If you spread the dots evenly within a  1-inch square, they will be need to be tiny and compressed. This is called high resolution. Now take the same dots and try to fill a 10-inch square. To cover the same surface, the dots themselves will have to become larger and packed more loosely. This is an example of low resolution.

OK, so you’re probably thinking: dots and squares? I thought you were going to tell me why the designer said I sent the wrong file!

To start, it may be helpful to know that a screen has 72 dots—called pixels in the computer world—for every inch. So, even if your image has a thousand dots per inch, you will always only see the 72.

In contrast, a typical commercial printer puts down 300 dots or more per inch. So, if your image has only 72 dots, it will look all jaggy and weird when printed because the amount of dots is too small for the space provided.

So by now, hopefully you’re getting the idea that when printing images, the more dots, the better. And when showing an image on screen, you can get away with fewer dots.

But why not just always use the most dots as possible? Then an image would look good on screen or printed, right? This gets us to the issue of file size and file types.

The more dots you have, the larger the file gets. Imagine a picture sized to be 5″ x 7″. If the image has 300 dots per inch (dpi), there will be a total of 3.15 million dots! Now imagine a 5″ x 7″ image with 72 dots per inch (dpi). This image would only have 181 thousand dots. Since every dot is a piece of information recorded in the file, hopefully you’ll see that you save a lot of information space by choosing a smaller dots-per-inch ratio.

Consider now that I’m a graphic designer. When I’m designing for print, it’s common for me to have image files that are several megabytes in size—even 100 megabytes or more! That’s what’s often needed to produce a printed image that looks as crisp as say an image developed by traditional film processing.

But I also design for the internet. Most servers would be bogged down by, if not completely reject, a 100 MB image. For this I need something MUCH smaller in file size. But how?

This brings into play the idea of file compression. The idea here is to take a raw image file, filled with oodles and oodles of dots (and thus a TON of data), a squish the data together to create a smaller file than what you began with.

Speaking of what you began with, while most digital cameras save images in a format called jpg (pronounced jay-peg) or NEF (common in high-end cameras), another common raw-data-huge-number-of-dots file is called a TIFF. “Tiff” stands for “tagged information file format”, but for the rest of us, it’s probably most important to know that TIFF formats save the image in a form that is very close to the original input and have very little “dot-squishing” (otherwise known as compression) that can degrade the image. So TIFF images are a great format for print, which can tolerate higher file sizes and more dots per inch.

But what if your goal is to see the image quickly via the internet? Then you’ll want to compress the data a bit. Now you’re looking at either a jpg or gif file format. Let’s look at one at a time.

JPG (or Jpeg): This file format uses mathematical tricks to squish the dots to a smaller number, while still retaining the overall image look. You can elect to save an image as a jpg at a high resolution, losing very little data. Or, you can select the maximum compression, which may make the image look quite jaggy if you view it at more than 100% of the size you saved it. JPGs at high resolution can be used in print, but more often they’re common for showing photographic images on the web. A high resolution jpg will look flawless on a 72 dpi screen, but will have a much smaller size than a high-resolution TIFF saved for print. It’s not a good idea to repeatedly save and resave an image as a jpg. Each time you do this, the image loses a little more of its information, eventually rendering it unusable. You should take note that if you save a logo file as a JPG, the background will always be solid. That is, it won’t be transparent. Jpg formats don’t support a transparent background. But gifs do. Read on. . .

GIF (pronounced “gif”). This file format was created for web-bound images. GIF stands for “graphic interchange format”, but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that GIFs are one of the internet’s standard graphic formats. This format greatly reduces the file size, best used for logos or other images with solid fields of color. (Natural images, like photogaphs, will look quite yucky if you try to compress their file size with this format.) With a gif, the background can retain the ability to look transparent. This is great with logos, if you prefer they don’t have a white box around them when  you display them on a website! GIFs are really small in size, so they load quickly on the web. Conversely, though, they print terribly—due to their small number of dots per inch. DON’T USE GIFS FOR ANYTHING THAT IS MEANT TO BE PRINTED.

So. . .what have we learned? Large files/more dots=good for printing. File format: TIFF. Smaller files/larger dots=good for screen or internet. File format: Jpg or GIF. Got a photo for the web? Forget about gifs! Got a logo? Gifs are best!

I’ll leave with a final complicating factor. Designers like me create image files in a couple of well-known programs such as Adobe Illustrator (for color illustrations), or Photoshop (most often for photographs). Images created in these programs are saved as either .ai (Illustrator files) or .psd (Photoshop files). Since these are the application files, they most likely contain the highest image quality and can be saved as a tiff, jpg, or gif file. I’m telling you this, because if that production artist who calls still doesn’t like the files you send, you will need to contact your designer as request the so-called “native files”—the format in which they were created—so they can be saved in the manner in which they will ultimately be used.

I know this is a lot to take in! If you still have questions, please leave a comment and I’ll get back to you!