Design directors: the key to defining your brand?
Brands stay on-message and present their messages with precision and clarity in an ever-widening range of communication channels. That’s a provocative blanket statement, but it’s generally true. The worst missteps and sour notes we see in media today typically come from ill-conceived, tone-deaf, heat-of-the-moment mistakes, not from a fundamental pink-and-orange level clash of message and medium.
That coordination doesn’t happen by magic. Sometimes it comes from a small, focused creative team that understands how to row in the same directions while working in different disciplines. In larger organizations, there are often too many different stakeholders and too many overlapping agendas to leave consistency up to the collective genius of the creative hive mind.
At that scale, there’s typically a crafty design director taking on the crucial responsibilities of defining the look, feel, and priorities of the brand across the vast media landscape.
Part creative, part tech guru
Executive responsibility for consistent, effective voice across channels and media can be rolled into the creative director position. When split out, as is more often found at larger and multi-purpose agencies and internal shops, the design director is typically someone with both strong design credentials and a head for the intricacies of modern, tech-driven media.
Jason Weamer, styled as the creative/technical director of digital agency Visual Identity Group, manages to fulfill both roles because he came at design from a programmer’s background. “I started in the business on the software development side before realizing my interest lay in design,” he says.
In short, understanding what it means to have a great design, and how to communicate that great design in a format that may be as small as 150×150 pixels on a very tiny screen, is one of the design director’s greatest contributions.
Knowing how to automate the worst tasks
Marketing is the same as any other discipline. When requirements become too onerous to manage with conventional sources of labor, labor-saving innovations are created to pick up the slack. Design directors benefit from media infrastructure that has taken away much of the brute-force visual verification that might have been necessary even a few short years ago. Instead of fretting over every device and display the target audience might have, responsive design does most of the work of keeping the brand’s message intact and delivered to identity specifications.
“A lot of the nightmares of multi-media design have gone away now that we have responsive design, and tools that make it easy to see all of your potential layouts on a single screen instead of having to manually flip through, or print them out before evaluating,” Weamer says.
Two strategic paths
Weamer offers that the ideologies behind graceful degradation and progressive enhancement offer a good template for a design director’s mindset. “If you’re used to people designing with large spaces and lots of freedom, it can be useful to see what you can take away from that design, rather than finding new ways to enhance it,” he says.
Design directors also serve as good guardians of budget and strategy when new channels appear to be on the verge of exploding. Their responsibilities can include vetting the potential and limitations of new media, being ready to serve the demand for content when needed without leading the organization to over-commit to a potential dead end.
The latest push-pull channel relationship for design directors is undoubtedly wearables. Although a “mobile-first” approach is at least a serious consideration for many modern campaigns, hardly anybody is talking “wearable-first” yet, because even though the growth is steady the audiences and the applications haven’t shown themselves to be dramatically better than mobile. Shipments of wearable tech grew over 67% on a quarterly year-over-year basis in early 2016 , according to IDC, but we have yet to see a wholesale takeover of customer communications at the wristwatch or head-mounted level.
Knowing when to say we can do that is equally important as knowing when to say but we don’t have to do it today. Master those conversations (and get the timing right) and the design director’s office awaits.