document design: “boring” but necessary

It’s back-to-school time, and for all who are parents, it means forms. So. Many. Forms. As I was filling out the same forms I’ve filled out each year for 7 years now, I got to thinking about how many businesses and organizations have poorly designed forms, or documents that just don’t take advantage of that small opportunity they have to market to their customer.

Our boring (but necessary) forms and documents are an important place to provide good customer service, and they can be an easy place make sure your messaging is on-brand.

Here are some simple pitfalls to avoid when putting together your more “boring” documents:

It’s Good Enough

When’s the last time you looked at your organization’s documents? Have you been photocopying the same ones for 10+ years? Even worse – have you lost the original so you’re photocopying photocopies? Maybe it’s time to review them, make sure you’re still asking for information you need and use (i.e. still asking for fax number despite not even having a fax machine anymore), and that the document looks fresh and in line with your current marketing, instead of like it’s been in use since the Reagan Administration.

No Branding

This one is simple! Make sure you include your branding on the form/document, including your logo. If the form is something that is printed in color, be sure to use splashes of your branded colors in headings and other design features. I recommend you use a consistent typeface across all of your forms/documents, even if you don’t have an “official” one with your branding. It helps bring cohesiveness into the suite of documents your organization uses, as well as provides familiarity and a kind of comfort for your customer as they move through your processes. Depending on the form and its use, you may also include your address, website, social media, etc., but not at the expense of keeping the document clean and simple.

Thinking about Your Processes, Not Your Customer

When you are developing your forms, think about the person using the form. Who is your typical customer? Under what context are they reading and completing this document: in your office or at their home to be sent in later? If it’s in your office, do they usually have a bit of time to fill it out, or is it just a few moments? When people use the form, do they typically have distractions: Do they have kids with them? Have they just gone through some kind of crisis or are they under stress? Is your service/organization a very small part of their otherwise busy life? (Answer to that last one: probably.) These are all questions to consider when deciding how much content to include and how to design your document.

Your own processes should also come into consideration of course – you want to be sure the work that needs to be done with the form afterward can be done efficiently. But, your processes should be secondary to the needs of your customer whenever possible.

Too Much Content

Think about the information you truly need. When putting together the content, don’t just throw things on the paper in order to have them; know your purpose of asking for the information. For example, if you ask for birthdate because you send out a promotional coupon to customers for their birthday, that’s great! If you ask for birthdate because that’s a thing that’s on forms and you might use it one day, consider omitting it. If possible, try to pare down the text to bullet points and brief sentences rather than lengthy explanations. Again, think about the customer and how much time they have to read what is included in your form or document.

Poor Design

We’ve all filled out forms or perused documents that have all of the information smashed together, there are no breaks or heading dividing the content into manageable sections, and the spaces are too small to actually write in your answers. This is a chance to provide better customer service! At best, a poorly designed document makes an already annoying task even more so. At worst, your customer will register a negative opinion of the service they are receiving from your organization.


Tying It All Together: Case in Point

When I worked for a local non-profit a few years ago, we had a form each participant had to fill out. We had a problem with many participants filling out the basic identifying information, but skipping some of the essential information we needed in order for them to participate in the program. We spent so much time tracking people down and calling them (often repeatedly), it was a huge drain on our human resources. We decided to do something different.

We talked about who our “customers” were, and what their lives were like. Then, we took a close look at our form and realized the information provided about our program was too wordy and used terms that a new participant wouldn’t necessarily understand. We found that we didn’t highlight the areas of the form that the participant needed to fill out; those parts were crammed in among informational text with little white space. We also realized we could cut out a couple of unnecessary questions.

I completely redesigned the form to significantly reduce the amount of text and call out each of the three steps the user needed to complete on the form. This increased the amount of white space and made it much more clear and usable. We saw a huge decrease in the number of forms that needed follow-up work, so that was good on our end. More importantly, because the forms were more complete when we received them, we could assume that they were easier for the user to fill out, which means they had easier access to our services. It was a clear win-win.


To wrap up, even those boring documents that we don’t think much about are opportunities to showcase your branding and serve your customers better. Give them a little love!

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What success have you had with changing a document’s design? I’d love to hear about changes you’ve made to an organizational document/form that improved your customers’ experiences and/or your processes.

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photo credit: user “myrfa” on Pixabay.com

proofreading: details matter

I can’t help it. I see them everywhere.

I blame my dad, whose liberal use of red ink on anything I did for school when I was a kid shaped my worldview (and frustrated me to no end).

Now, I can’t ignore a grammar or typographical error if I try.

For instance: I recently noticed a new company popped up in my community. When I decided to explore their website, I found that there was a typo on their homepage. This error was a part of my first impression of their business. They are brand new and working to establish their reputation, and something that little is what jumped out at me and stuck with me.

Mistakes happen – no one is perfect, and sometimes little imperfections give your business a bit of humanity. The trouble is when errors are repeated or not corrected, are a part of your company’s first impression, or are frequent, they can leave a negative impression of your business on your customer.

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photo credit: PDpics on Pixabay.com

I know, I know… not everyone is as… umm… fastidious about grammar and such as my dad and I are. In fact, I can hear your eyes rolling from here! But before you click the little ‘x’ at the top of your browser, hear me out:

Most of your customers that catch errors in your communications probably don’t really care so much, but they do garner an impression of you, even if subconsciously, unfair, or inaccurate. All of your communications (even social media posts) are a reflection of the care and concern you have for your customer and their experience with your business. Grammatical and typographical errors are so small and so easy to fix – you don’t want them to be a part of the impression you give a potential customer.

If you don’t have a full-time writer/editor on staff (ha!), hopefully you have someone who is able to glance over your smaller communications and proof them for errors. When your bigger publications or marketing materials are at stake, be sure to have someone with the appropriate background proof and edit them. Don’t let something so easily corrected cast a shadow on your customer’s impression of your business.

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Side note: Most graphic design companies put the ball in your court on this; you own any errors that make it through to print. I’m no different – the final version of anything I create is yours to approve – but you can elect to have me proof or edit the content you’ve written, or even write the content for you. I can’t promise perfection, but I can promise I’ll be vigilant about getting it right.

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cover photo credit: user 3844328 on Pixabay.com

10 tools for DIY design that don’t max your budget

Hiring a designer isn’t always in the budget, and it isn’t always necessary! For simple projects, there are tons of DIY resources online that will help you put together that quick image for your newest social media post, blog post, or to stick in an email campaign. Many of the resources have free and low-cost options that are still pretty powerful and will get the job done. Here are a few I trust:

Photo editing

To overlay text on an image or otherwise doctor it up, you don’t have to have fancy software. Online resources like Canva.com and PicMonkey.com allow you to easily create those fun customized images I’m sure you’ve seen on social media and blogs. Both resources have free tools as well as more powerful paid options.

**If you have an event or campaign coming up, I can create artwork for you to overlay on your images, like I did for K&G Gymnastics. They use Canva to place the artwork I created over pictures they took at some of their clients’ businesses, and shared them on social media, like this:

photo credit: K&G Gymnastics

Free photos and images

I’ve posted about them on my Facebook page before, and I love them: Pixabay.com and Unsplash.com have free, high-res stock art you can use wherever you want to and for whatever purpose, including commercial use. TOTALLY FREE! You don’t even have to give artist credit when you use them (but it IS the nice thing to do). Unsplash has photos only, but Pixabay has videos and vector art in addition to photos. (I even have a couple of my photos out there!)

Colors

Sometimes I get stuck when trying to find the perfect color to compliment a main color, or I want inspiration for a palette of colors that go well together.

If you find yourself in the same boat, one option is Colourlovers.com. Colourlovers has tons of color palettes, and you can use search terms to find just the mood you’re looking for.

Or if you know exactly what color you want, Colorzilla.com is a free add-on tool for your web browser that lets you pull colors from literally anything you can pull up on the web. Use the little eyedropper tool to click on an area of a photo or webpage on your screen, and it will give you the RGB and hex color codes for that precise color. Pretty neat-o! This is also helpful for when you’re trying to describe that VERY SPECIFIC color you want to your graphic designer. 🙂

Finally, Coolors helps you find a palette from a starter color or photo. It is definitely one of my frequent go-to resources.

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photo credit: Pixabay.com user “vixrealitum”

Fonts

If you’re tired of the fonts that came with your computer and want to find something to better fit your branding or the voice of the message, it’s hard to know what sites you can trust to download fonts. DO NOT just Google “free fonts” and get download-happy, lest you end up with nasty viruses and a big ole’ computer repair bill.

A site I’ve trusted for just about ever is dafont.com. Pay attention here though – many of the free fonts are only licensed for personal use, and you’d need to contact the designer (read: pay for a commercial license) before using them commercially. I recently discovered FontSquirrel.com, which has only free fonts that come with the commercial license (and therefore can be used for ads or pretty much anything). GOLD MINE!

Bonus fun for font nerds: if you just HAVE to know what a certain font is, there’s a site called Identifont. You answer a bunch of questions about the different attributes the font has, and it spits back what font(s) it could be. Then you can use it in your own project!

Infographics

When a picture needs to tell a thousand stats, Piktochart.com is a great tool. With multiple price levels, including basic free tools, you can get that data looking good and much more appealing to your audience. HubSpot.com also has 15 free downloadable templates you can edit in Powerpoint.

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So, there you go! Now you have a bunch of free or low-cost tools to get you on the path to creating your own designs when hiring someone just isn’t in the budget. Of course, this list isn’t intended to be all-inclusive or exhaustive. There are tons of other great options out there too! Know some reliable and trustworthy sites? Share them in the comments here!

If you you do use some of the resources shared here, I would love to see what you come up with! Share it with me on Facebook or Instagram @bluesunmn.

Finally, when you DO need a designer (like when your time carries more value than the cost of hiring a designer, or when the project is beyond your abilities, or when you want something a little less home-grown and a little more professional), I’ll be here! Reach out and tell me about your project!

Happy creating!

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cover photo credit: Pixabay.com

marketing: are you telling the truth?

Recently, I was scrolling through Facebook, and I came upon one of those sponsored posts advertising social media marketing strategies. It promised a free download: something like “10 easy tips to increase your business’ visibility on social media”. I’m sure it was a catchier title than that to have stopped my scrolling, but anyway, I read the post and it seemed interesting. The tone was friendly and professional, and it seemed legit. I read the comments and they were appreciative and complimentary of the content. So, I clicked the link and filled out the form, expecting little but hoping for at least a nugget of information I hadn’t heard before.

Message received

When I hit submit, I was brought to a confirmation page. The tone of the confirmation page was jarring and a complete 180 from the initial post. There was a brashness and extreme casualness to the tone… there were even swear words. Quite a few of them. Now, I am known to drop an eff-bomb here and there… and there. It wasn’t the swearing that got me. It was the complete switch from what I had read before. It was a breach of the contract I thought I was agreeing to, and it threw me off. I decided to wait until the promised 10 Easy Tips arrived in my email inbox before I fully formed an opinion.

10 easy tips?

The next day, the email arrived. Skimming it, I found more of the same brash language that I had seen on the confirmation page. But WORSE, I saw multiple type-os. This woman was advertising her social media/marketing strategies, offering tips on writing content, even offering services to write your content for you, but her very first email to me was riddled with errors. I don’t even know if there was a link to the 10 Easy Tips. I didn’t care anymore. I don’t want 10 Easy Tips from someone who doesn’t know how to spell words. I unsubscribed from the email list, deleted the email, and thought about the lesson there.

Business consideration

Has a scenario like this happened to you before? Have you walked into a store or engaged in an online transaction only to find what you were receiving was totally different than your expectations? What did that feel like? Maybe a violation of trust or a betrayal? I imagine it didn’t increase your confidence in that business or organization.

Now, think about it from your own employment point of view. Your company or organization promises something with its marketing. It sends promises overtly through its messaging about the products or services offered and indirectly through the language and visuals chosen for that marketing, so ask yourself:

  • Does your advertising accurately showcase who you are in a consistent and engaging voice, without type-os? (If not, I can help fix that!)
  • Are the visuals interesting and the design user-friendly? (I can help there too.)
  • How’s the follow-through from your organization–does the action meet the promise? (That part’s on you and your team.)
  • And how about you personally… do you hold up your organization’s promise through your individual actions in your day-to-day? (Also on you.)

It’s something to think about. After this, I looked more closely at my website and my social media posts to make sure the tones aligned, and that they matched my personality and how I want my business presented.

Maybe it’s time to examine your processes and make sure your customers’ experiences match your organization’s marketing promises. Or maybe things have changed, and your marketing needs to be tweaked to better convey how you are currently doing business. Either way, people will quickly move on if they feel the promise made wasn’t kept, so it does no good to rope ’em in if they run at the first chance they get. People trust people who tell truths and are more likely to return to (and recommend) you when their expectations are met.

We know all this… but do we do it? I’d love to hear your experiences.

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photo credit: Tero Vesalainen via Pixabay.com