Thirty years ago, ddm was started with the belief that sound marketing thought and great design were not mutually exclusive. We believed beautiful design execution and marketing intelligence could exist within one agency. As one of our formidable founders—and OG art director—Kurt Dietsch explains it, “ddm was founded on the idea that designers and marketers were equals, two halves of the same unique brain.”
What’s remarkable is that idea still rings true today. While so much has changed in the world of creative design, its principles and its connection to marketing strategy remain a key formula for ddm and our clients.
To explore our philosophy of brand design even further, we enlisted the help of Kurt and one of our current designers, Lissa VanderJagt. As former professors of design, they lend their perspectives to what design is and what it will look like in the future.
Q: How has impactful marketing and advertising design changed or remained the same over the last 30 years?
Kurt: Thirty years ago, there were certainly design trends, color palettes, type fonts, photo techniques, etc., as there still are now. But we tried to work with clients who were less interested in appearing trendy and more interested in conveying who they were and how they were different from their competitors. As designers, the challenge then, and now, is to always be aware of the trends that exist and leverage them where appropriate. Most of all, we must seek to present the client creatively in a look and voice that truly reflects who they really are.
Lissa: When I was in design school, we were fiddling around in Dreamweaver. Now, designers are creating beautiful UI apps and websites with Figma that I’m in awe of. The new tools and processes of designing have truly changed how we think about design and how users interact with each touchpoint.
Both agreed that while trends and tools have changed, the core elements of good design haven’t.
“No matter how technology changes and morphs, the backbone of design stays the same: contrast, scale, balance, white space, and rhythm. The designs we use to attract attention and form beautiful compositions are timeless and will remain relevant,” Lissa says.
“I don’t think the fundamentals have changed,” Kurt adds. “Good design should fully leverage our present tool kit and maximize the impact of images and messages via the unique qualities of each possible medium and channel. I have seen design tools change immensely over the 48 years I have practiced, but what makes for excellent design solutions has proven to be fairly consistent.”
Q: As professors, what were the core concepts you passed along to students?
Kurt: A designer/art director always needs to have solid rationale for what they suggest to a client and be able to clearly and compellingly communicate that themselves. Design is a business tool, and as such, a good designer needs to understand marketing channels, sales, brand positioning, and consumer thinking.
I told them often that it was impossible to ask too many questions. Design is, in essence, a never-ending learning process.
Lissa: The concept that I drilled into my students—no matter print or web—was always hierarchy. With our attention spans growing smaller, we need to make sure the most important message is communicated clearly and simply. In creating hierarchy, all the design principles come into play to ensure the information is correctly experienced by the audience: contrast, scale, juxtaposition, balance, repetition, etc.
Design students today have access to more resources and programs than ever before. Because of the rapid digital changes, students are able to keep pace and adapt to new mediums quickly. What students can create and what trends will result from new technology is truly an open book.
Q: How do you balance creativity with strict brand guidelines?
Kurt: As a brand consultant still helping clients, I believe deeply that branding helps clients be clear about who they are. As a designer helping that client, their brand position gives me something rock solid to build on. If they’re logically conceived, they can simply provide a ‘framework’ for the designer/art director to use, letting them focus more on the concepts and voice needed to convey compelling brand marketing. I believe branding can often take much of the subjective out of the creative debate.
Lissa: Designing with brand guidelines is like a tangram puzzle that needs solving. You have four or five distinct shapes to work with, so creating something unique that fits together takes skill. Remaining creative when you face boundaries is tough, especially when you’re comfortable in a routine.
I find coming at a project with a new perspective is helpful; passing it along to another designer to see what they would do, changing up your design process, and finding inspiration in new places, or literally turning it upside down to see the composition in a fresh way helps.
Q: How can clients help with the creative process?
Kurt: Clients need to be as organized as possible with their upfront download of information. They need to provide data to support their ideas or expectations, and they need to answer all the questions anyone asks them.
Designers should not be afraid to ask questions about brand guidelines that are not clear or are inconsistent with the brand position. Designers and clients alike should really listen and learn from the first meeting thru completion of a project.
Good listening skills are a creative necessity.
Lissa: Clients can help with the creative process by giving us insights into their users/customers. What we create is not for us, it is for the user ultimately. Putting yourself in the customers’ shoes is the only way to know if the design is effective and where changes need to happen.
Trust is also huge. We appreciate when clients trust our expertise and trust that we’re giving them the best work possible.
Q: What are the elements of truly great marketing design?
Kurt: Compelling creative, clarity of message, and convincing differentiation.
Lissa: If the design communicates the intended message succinctly, effectively, and uses the brand elements composed in a way that attracts the eye, the design will be great.
It also has to say a lot without saying a lot. If the audience can understand the message quickly without having to read a ton of words, remember the design piece, and if it engages with the call to action, then you have a great design piece.
Final thoughts from Kurt
I would leave designers—and clients—with these thoughts.
There were many days when I actually saw the ‘magic’ of what truly effective design could do. When a client would react to presented design options with wonder at our ability to translate who they were and what they valued as a business.
When participants in a focus group testing of designs or identity concepts would respond with the very personality traits I was trying to convey in the ideas presented. When we could actually track in research the consumer’s shift in perceptions of a client because of how we ‘imaged’ their product or services.
All these instances made being a designer incredibly exciting, fulfilling and powerful. I can honestly say I never had a boring day as a creative communicator in 48 years of doing what I loved.
Remember you occupy a unique place in the marketing communications ecosystem, a place where your originality and skillful use of tools can move people’s hearts and minds, and alter their actions and beliefs.