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Writer Wednesday: Writer's Toolbox Week 3

Happy Wednesday, Writers and Writer-adjacents! So far in our Writer’s Toolbox Series, Kristin has talked you through the importance of branding as an author, and the role it plays in marketing you and your books. This week she’s asked me to chime in for a closer look at why you should consider hiring a graphic designer to help with branding, and how to actually talk dirty (or clean, no judgement) design with them.

Just in case we haven’t met yet, I’m Lucy, Sword & Silk’s in-house cover designer. In addition to my work with Sword & Silk, I design for a hand-picked clientele that includes several international bestselling authors as well as a major New York publishing house.

Let’s get down to business, huns:

Why should you work with a graphic designer?

1. You view your writing career as a business and, like any good business, you recognize your own limitations and outsource to other professionals when the need arises. Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean that you should. Professional graphic designers spend years and thousands of dollars learning to do what they do, and even longer learning to do it well. Think about where you’re starting from: if you have a background in art or design, if you’re confident using graphics software and creating your own visual branding and press kits, then go for it! If not, then think about how much time and energy you’ll need to sink into just getting the basics together, and how much money you’re going to need to invest along the way. Then multiply that at least tenfold, and squeeze all of that into your current budget and schedule for writing, editing, marketing, working other jobs, parenting, etc. Most people probably could do it themselves, but when you step back and consider the whole picture: they also probably shouldn’t.

2. You want a quality end product.

Those sacrifices and compromises on time, energy, and your pocketbook we just talked about if you’re thinking of taking the DIY approach to branding? Yeah, those are going to be an investment just to give you a handle on the basics. You could probably manage, with enough time and money, and your village to support you, to pull together your own visual branding, but what’s the end result going to be? How confident are you that you will be able to produce something that not only accurately represents you and your books, but is also appealing to your target reader (and unappealing to readers who aren’t going to love you and are instead going to leave bad reviews and be stingy with the stars)? In this context the designer is tasked with interpreting, translating, and transmitting an abstract message (i.e. you as an author and everything you and your writing stand for) into one or more concrete images. This message consists of an intricate network of thoughts and emotional connections, and their associated visual and psychological cues. These elements need to be examined and filtered into key components that are strong and relevant for your target reader. Based on all of these things, the end design should ideally then promote a sense of personal connection between you and your target reader in the split second first impression of an image. If done well, this will translate into sales, fans and a core following. Job done. Ultimately, visual design and branding are complex, dynamic and symbiotic processes involving high-level cognitive and communication functions like translation and interpretation, applied with creativity, through a highly-skilled artform. Even if you can do it, will you do it well? 3. You can afford to (or can’t afford not to).

This is pure and simple maths. Sometimes we literally can’t afford to go with the pro. Sometimes we have to make-do and mend, and that’s okay. As much as I want to challenge whether you should be doing your own visual branding, I also completely understand that money is a finite resource for a lot of us, particularly if you’re already struggling with book sales because your branding and marketing aren’t where they could be. There’s no shame in starting where you’re at and, equally, no harm in educating yourself for the future. Even if your bank balance won’t allow for outsourcing, you can start planning now. Start taking your writing career seriously now. Get ready for when you can afford to work with a team. In the coming weeks I’ll be back to discuss some options for DIY branding, so make sure you’re following Sword & Silk on your social media of choice!

How to work with your graphic designer:

1. Solid introductions

Like working with any contractor or business, it’s important to establish everyone’s expectations and make sure you’re on the same page. Some points you may want to consider:

  • What exactly are you hiring the designer to do? What files (or physical products) will you be walking away with? Are you happy and confident with their portfolio and how they are branded?

  • What is their consultation process? Will they take you through a branding consultation or exercises first, or will you be required to approach them with your branding framework already assembled?

  • How much are they going to charge you? Is the full amount required up-front? What is their refund policy for unsatisfactory work or unforeseen circumstances? Do they have any package deals you can take advantage of?

  • Does their fee include licensing of stock images and other resources? Where do they acquire their resources from (i.e. Are they ethically sourced? Is there potential for you to run into legal issues as a result of improperly licensed or plagiarized or pirated materials?)

  • How quickly do you need things done? Can the designer accommodate your projected schedule?

  • What is their preferred method of communication (e.g. email, social media, etc.)? How long do they usually take to reply to communication?

  • What do you do if you’re unhappy with how things are going or end up?

2. Respect the expert you’ve hired

Starting from a place of respect is great advice for any relationship, not gonna lie. In this particular instance, though, keep in mind that you’ve paid a professional for access to their niche skills, years of study and experience, their expert viewpoint, and also, ultimately, the time and energy to do something that you’ve decided is worth the investment. Do your best to remember that your designer might be living and working in a different time zone, so your regular 9-5 might actually be 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. for them. They’re also probably working on other projects simultaneously, so while a great designer will do their best to give you the time and attention you’ve hired them for, there may also be competing priorities for other clients happening for them behind the scenes.

3. Learn their native tongue

Learning how to talk about images and design is going to take both your experience and result from working with a graphic designer to the next level. The less time and energy they have to spend explaining things, or trying to find a common language to communicate concepts, the more time they can focus on really nailing that end product and giving you the best design possible.

There are some fantastic free resources out there that will help you get a grasp on the basics. Here are a few articles to get you started:

If you’d prefer something a little more interactive, Canva has an excellent range of free mini-courses, including this one on Graphic Design Basics, consisting of twelve <2 min videos and activities. There are also endless videos on YouTube covering anything from the very basics to advanced concepts and techniques. Just pick out some keywords from some of the articles above and follow the rabbit-hole.

4. Show, don’t tell

I mean, not all the time, but a catchy title for writers, right?! Sometimes it’s going to be easy to explain a visual concept or provide feedback to your designer, and sometimes… it’s not. Something I encourage my clients to do, right from the initial consultation, is to provide me with as many visual examples as they can. I’m talking moodboards and screenshots and grainy mobile photos; whatever it takes for me to understand what they’re seeing inside their head. This is especially helpful when trying to communicate colors. Take this chart of just some of the options for the color red, for example, and hopefully you’ll start to understand how much simpler a picture can make things:

5. Don’t put up with a diva designer

As much as they’re entitled not to put up with your bad behavior, this is a professional exchange and you’re entitled to the same! We’ve all met artistes with poorly-curated egos, and quite honestly there’s just no room for that in this business.

And that’s pretty much the basics covered! I’ll be back with more designer insight soon. If you have questions or would like us to do a deep dive into another graphic design topic, drop us a comment below. Tune in next week for a special guest post from Sword & Silk's Haleigh Wenger!

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