Ask any marketer and they probably have a story about working with a designer whose sole focus was to make something “pretty.” The new layout might look nice initially, but close inspection reveals key data points are misrepresented, an image doesn’t connect with the content or audience, icons are mismatched, charts are disproportional (or simply wrong altogether) … you name it.
All because the designer didn’t read or try to understand the material.
Sound familiar? In my years of collaborating with marketing professionals, understanding content well and minimizing these frustrations are some of the core competencies that keep me and Notion in their circle. Because looking clean and being on brand is just not enough.
When Notion’s identity was first forming, we’d jokingly tell our clients, “we’re designers who read.” And it stuck, because we care about our client’s communication goals and messages as much as they do, and we genuinely want them to succeed. Our clients are used to hearing questions from us like:
“What does that acronym mean?”
“In what context will the piece be read?”
“What are the audience’s pain points?”
“Why is this data important?”
“Do you have more info about the problem/solution/CTA?”
… Because all this matters, especially in B2B marketing.
Our nature to collaborate and solve problems stems from years of experience supporting communications experts, marketers and product managers who consider us true partners. They deserve a “strategic designer” at their side, focused on creating a solution that fits their purpose best.
Today we thrive in complicated businesses with multiple verticals and product lines; it’s our bread and butter. Our engagement with a client may start with a well-designed PowerPoint for visual storytelling, but it quickly leads into other marketing channels, interactive tools and videos, because of our genuine interest in (and comprehension of) their business. It’s a key component of our creativity—and it also builds client trust for long-term relationships.
What we do isn’t a secret, but it’s taken many years and practice to do it well. Here are some ways designers can add value to their work and make marketers’ lives easier:
Read before you start designing
Make this a real step! If something doesn’t make sense to you, ask for clarification. Most clients welcome this. Your goal is to understand the information well enough so that you can sell it to someone else – because that’s what you’re doing with your design.
Work with a copywriter
If you have a copywriter on your team, lean on them to help you understand the content so you can improve how it is expressed visually. As one Notioneer put it, “You don’t need to know how to fix it – you just need to recognize something is wrong.” Then you can explore options and collaborate to create visual solutions that align well with the message.
Use your creative director as a resource
Some designers suffer by creating alone or being siloed. This is not ideal for growth, nor does it generate the best ideas. You need a team who has been in the business, has broader experience and has learned from past mistakes. Be sure you’re in a place to accept feedback with an open mind – their role is to help you get it right, and their input comes from a good place.
Focus on the data
Sometimes we receive data visualizations that makes no sense. Bar graphs, line charts, and donut/pie charts all have their place. Learning best practices takes time, but it starts with asking questions: “What does this data mean?” and “Why is this important?” If the creative director or account team doesn’t know, then ask the marketer. If they don’t know, ask the SME (subject matter expert) or product person. Reading isn’t only about words; it’s seeing the data correctly too.
It’s a short comprehensive manual on grammar and writing that will help you think more critically about the words on the page. You don’t need to know what a dangling participle is, but if you realize that something reads funny or a comma looks misplaced, fix it. It will make you, and the client, look better – which is what we aim to do.
Caring about and understanding the content on the page can set designers apart, as marketers are looking for problem solvers and helpful collaborators. They appreciate creatives who are seeking ways to make their content work harder and be more engaging.
A designer who reads is ultimately better at interpreting the page – understanding each phrase, highlighting what’s important to the audience and providing visuals that become essential for better storytelling.
At Notion, we continue to invest in nurturing these skills and coach all our team members to “read” – to not just apply the clients’ brand standards, but to understand their business ecosystem and its challenges. We learn what our clients’ products do, how they generate revenue and why they matter to the people they serve. We aim to get as close to the content as possible, to where we can explain and present the information in a professional, engaging way. It takes time and care, but having pride in the final product is a reward in itself.