The legendary (and perennially cool) Cher said it best: “The worst thing in the world is to be uncool.”
That may be true for rock and pop stars, but it’s doubly true for graphic design businesses, as well as design and development agencies. The worlds of music and fashion move so fast that yesterday’s “it” girl or guy is today’s tragically unhip straggler, and the speed of technology makes digital trends even faster. If you’re still putting giant drop shadows on everything like it’s 2003, or making apps that look like they belong on a BlackBerry device, chances are your graphic design business is falling behind.
So is your graphic design firm so two thousand and late? Here are six common ways agencies fall behind the times in terms of their technology and processes, and how you can remedy each to drive your business into the future.
1. You’re still not hip to mobile.
It’s true that graphic design is an art form, and you may see your graphic design business as being very niche — maybe you only focus on a few aspects of visual design, like logos and branding, print or web design. After all, nobody wants to become the “jack of all trades, master of none” cliche.
However, mobile has seeped into everything we do today. If you’re designing a website without creating a mobile experience, you have a great shot of winning clients… in 2006. Even outside of digital design, you’ll have to consider how the logos and typefaces you choose for a brand will look on smartphones and tablets, or how a certain print promotion might look inside of a mobile email. That means that to stay relevant, you’ll have to brush up on the language of mobile design.
2. Your software isn’t up to date.
If the version of Adobe Creative Suite you’re running is so old, you can legally download it for free, your graphic design business might be behind the times.
No CFO takes pleasure in dropping huge chunks of budget down on capital expenditures, especially during lean years. But refusing to invest in the right tools — and update the tools that currently keep your shop running — can only hurt your graphic design business down the line.
There are a few reasons for this. New software means new functionality, which means the agencies using the new versions have capabilities yours doesn’t have. When it comes time to bid against them for lucrative contracts, you might be losing out on good business. Even with the best ideas and the best talent, your team is stymied if they lack today’s most important tools, especially if your potential clients are demanding them.
Secondly, newer software tends to be optimized to run faster and make your workloads more convenient, which means increased productivity from your team. Let’s take Adobe for example. The Creative Cloud release automatically searches TypeKit when you’re missing the necessary fonts to open a file, smoothing out a common time-consuming annoyance facing designers. Photoshop CC supports Illustrator-style artboards, and tools like the Spot-Healing Brush and Patch Tool now work in real time. All of this means more time and fewer frustration for your team members — leading to improved morale and bandwidth for new projects, both of which can put more money in your graphic design business’ pocket.
The third and most urgent reason you should be regularly upgrading, updating and patching your software is that old software eventually falls out of support. That means that when your tool encounters a program-breaking glitch or bug, you can’t just call up the vendor to fix it. Unless you can find a way to unbreak your software, you’ll find yourself with an abruptly tanked investment. Then, you’ll need to scramble to find a replacement, dropping emergency budget into new software and throwing off your projected profit margins.
How to Stay Ahead of the Curve
How can you keep your graphic design business from falling into a software slump? Most software vendors are only too eager to let you know when they’re rolling out an upgrade, update or patch, so make sure you’re not funneling those emails right into your email archives (or worse, your spam folder). You should be prioritizing updates as follows: patches, software updates and new software versions.
Patches are a must-have, as many of them smooth out actual bugs in software, some of which may lead to security vulnerabilities and even data leaks — and believe us, you don’t want to deal with the fallout from a breach of intellectual property because of a bug you didn’t patch. Software updates that add or improve existing functionality are your next priority, and tend to incur either a small cost or no cost.
New software versions are the last priority, and will require the most room in your budget, but are essential to keeping your graphic design business on the bleeding edge of what’s current in digital design. Usually announced months or even years in advance of their release, updates like Adobe CC will give you plenty of warning time to ready the capital expenditure column of your accounting software.
But Don’t Forget New Tools
After patches, upgrades and new software versions, of course, there are tools from different vendors. Maybe your graphic design business is completely up-to-date when it comes to your actual design software, but your testing and QA tools are in the dark ages, or you lack a truly modern interactive prototyping solution. Knowing when to invest in a new piece of software or equipment can be a challenge, so make sure you do your research — and keep the lines of communication open with your teammates.
Every quarter, ask your designers and developers, “What’s on your wish list, and why?” Chances are, they’ve already had their eyes on tools that could make their jobs easier (or more fun!). Many of these may have free trials (for example, Proto.io lets you try the software for 15 days for free, and provides ample tutorials during that time). Sign a few designers up, schedule in time for them to learn the software, and ask them for a write-up when they’re done. This will give you a good idea as to whether a certain tool is a must-have for your graphic design business, or simply a fun toy to play with for a few weeks before returning to the same familiar workflow.
Looking to spruce up your graphic design toolkit? At Proto.io, we’re big fans of Sketch, Pixelmator, Assembly by Pixite and Adobe Capture. But don’t forget hardware tools, either! Your office may be due for a new iMac or two, or maybe your designers could use a Wacom tablet, Apple Pencil or iPad Pro to sketch out their ideas. (If you’re a PC shop, we’re also big fans of the Surface Pro.)
3. Your server room is a utility closet with a box fan.
Let’s face it: most graphic design businesses don’t have the kind of budget to throw at a server room that, say, an established IT firm may have. But if your server is crashing all the time, causing hours of lost productivity among your staff, not only is it a sign you’re falling behind the times, but it’s a sign you’re probably losing money.
Servers generate a lot of heat, and that heat can not only hurt performance, but kill the hardware fast. Do you notice a loss of productivity around summer time? It’s not just that your staff is dreaming about the beach (or at least their next froyo break), but that your server just can’t take the heat.
How to Keep Cool
Even start-ups and smaller graphic design businesses can afford to take a few common sense measures to protecting their hardware. Make sure to keep your server separate from other equipment, preferably in its own room or closet — if it’s next to a large printer (or, if you’re really Stone Aging it, Xerox machine), it will be subjected to the heat generated by these other machines. Consider investing in a cooling solution tailor-made for small- to medium-businesses, or at the very least, install a portable AC unit near your server. During the winter, you can open a window to allow ambient air to flow in, saving money and the environment (just remember not to freeze out the staff).
4. The most recent design trends elude you.
We get it. You’re up to your neck in new contracts, running a tight ship and brushing your teeth in the shower to save time. Running a graphic design business is not for the faint of heart, and finding the time to read up on new trends between client calls and concepting meetings can feel like a monumental challenge.
But you have to take time to make time, and if your development team isn’t up to snuff on HTML5 and your design team isn’t hip to the latest and greatest in gesture-based design or typography, you’ll have to work much harder to convince new business prospects to take you on.
Our suggestion? Find your top five favorite design blogs and sign up for their newsletters with your business email, and then actually read those emails. You’ll be building professional development right into a daily work activity — reading your email — and can use that time as a springboard to start a good all-staff discussion. Send an article about the month’s top interaction designs and ask your staff what their favorites are, why and how they would make those designs better (or their own). These discussions can help you tap into the collective genius of your team while staying on top of current trends and bringing your graphic design business into the future.
5. Your workflow management is still in the dark ages.
Your graphic design business might have the most up-to-date disruptive design software in the industry and still be falling behind if your workflow management and project management tools aren’t up to snuff.
Yes, we get that talking about workflow, collaboration tools and CMS integration aren’t exactly the most exciting things your agency has to think about, but at the end of the day (or the fiscal year), they’re some of the most important cogs and wheels turning behind the scenes of your graphic design business. Without proper workflow management, deadlines get lost (and thus, missed), client feedback becomes echoes fading into the ether and designers, developers and managers alike become frustrated.
Frustrated, unhappy teams tend not to be productive, innovative teams (unless you’re the cast of Star Wars, but why take that chance?).
Giving Your Workflow Some… Well, Flow
If the only tool you use for collaboration and deadline management is your email provider, you’re long past due for a process upgrade. The first sp toward upping your project management game is to identify the problem: at what pointet in your process do things break? When, and why, does communication fail? Once you’ve determined need (again, this is a great time for some honest conversations with your team), look for a solution.
If deadlines or meetings are a problem, a tool that sends push reminders about projects could tighten up your process. If gathering feedback is a problem, look for apps that enable centralized discussion about a project, so that you can see an in-line history of comments and changes, rather than having to search through your inbox every time you recall a comment your client made (hint: Proto.io lets you do this right inside of the prototyping app).
The right tools can clean up your workflow management quite a bit, but remember that there is such thing as too much of a good thing. If you’re the kind of techie who loves getting your hands on the latest tool without thinking too hard on whether it fits your process (be honest — we won’t judge!), your project management might be a bit too in the space ages. If all of your interactions are digital, via email, messenger apps and Skype, you can communicate most of your ideas pretty efficiently — but sometimes, problems are most quickly solved simply by gathering the team around a whiteboard and talking face to face.
While this isn’t possible for every organization (particularly if your team is working remote from multiple locations), if you do have a centralized office at your disposal, make sure you get a bit of facetime every now and again. Much human communication is nonverbal, and little things like facial expressions, tone of voice and body language can go a long way toward expressing your point. There’s no need to turn what could be a five-minute in-person conversation into an email chain spanning dozens of messages.
6. Your graphic design business still uses static wireframes.
We all know at least one person of whom it can be said, “Pictures don’t do them justice.” That can be said for every mobile app or website, too. Graphic design businesses no longer operate in a static, two-dimensional world. Yes, you may still create logos and branding for new businesses or established firms that need a refresh, wonderful illustrations for paper goods and even package design, but many of your products are now illustrated and interactive, even good old fashioned highway billboards. So why should your prototypes be flat and motionless?
With modern digital prototyping tools like Proto.io, you can create fully interactive prototypes of your mobile apps that actually look and feel like the final product.
Don’t Just Stay On Top of Trends — Set Them
Keeping your graphic design business fresh and current in the ever-evolving world of digital design is a tall order, but even that isn’t enough. The agencies that rise to the top are the ones who don’t just see the trends, but take them a step further, creating truly disruptive products that change the way people interact with the world around them. Take this list as a starting point, and then drive your graphic design business full throttle into the future.
What other ways do graphic design businesses too often behind — and what should they do to get ahead? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio!