A Guide to Bridging the Gap Between Marketers and Designers

It doesn’t matter if you’re a freelancer or a staff designer; sooner or later, you will be working with the marketing team. On one hand, this is good news: you share a lot in common with the marketers. You both have the same goals of turning viewers and visitors into customers, of pleasing the client and of achieving success. On the other hand, the conflict between marketers and creatives is as old as the concept of marketing itself, so you shouldn’t be surprised when you butt heads. The question is what you should do about it.

So why do marketers often have such a hard time working with designers and vice versa? What does this age-old conflict mean for you as a designer? At what point should you sacrifice design and development for the sake of marketing tactics? Is there a right time? Has the collaboration between marketing and creative teams improved over the last few years and decades, or is it still the same?

To help answer these questions, here’s a closer look at the age-old questions of marketer versus creative. Whether you’ve been a designer for days or for decades, here’s what you ought to know in today’s content-driven business world.

What Marketers and Creatives Have in Common

Beyond a shared goal of a satisfied client and an improved bottom line, you actually share several things in common with marketers. Like designers, marketers start from the same place of wanting to meet a client’s needs. You both examine several strategies or concepts as part of your work process. You both want the end product — be it a landing page or a website — to look good and to be successful. In fact, it’s good to work toward commonality with marketers. The more you share in common with marketers (and they with you), the better you can both be at your work; likewise, the less you share, the more projects suffer. “I’d challenge you to find a successful marketer who doesn’t use a creative process to develop new and stimulating ideas,” says Adria Saracino at MarketingProfs. “Likewise, show me a designer who lacks a deeper understanding of marketing and a drive to attain viewers’ eyes, and I’ll show you a designer who’s soon to be fired.”

The Differing Roles of Marketers and Creatives

Even with some similarities between marketing and creative work, however, you don’t need someone to tell you there are big differences; this is usually pretty obvious. In the most generalized terms, marketers tend to be driven by reach: they are concerned with measurement, conversion, ranks, etc. — any sort of cold, hard facts that reveal the spread of a campaign. Creatives, on the other hand, tend to be willing to sacrifice a little bit of audience size or impression count in order to make their messaging more useful, aesthetically pleasing, interesting and/or outside-the-box. Marketers will focus on numbers; creatives will focus on what they see as valuable, problem-solving content. When it comes to defining success, a marketer most wants a wide reach, while a designer most wants a product or piece of content that solves a need in an aesthetically pleasing way.

What do marketers often miss about creatives? If you asked most marketers what it is that creatives do, you’d probably be disappointed with the response. One of the most common misunderstandings that non-designers make about designers is viewing designers as artists, according to Keith Frankel at Hubspot, which at first sounds like a compliment but actually misses the point. “The vast majority of non-designers don’t actually understand what a designer’s real role is,” he writes. “Design is first and foremost a job of solving problems. Designers see (or are tasked with responding to) a need. They must brainstorm how to best satisfy that need, create the solution, and then send the result out into the world for others to enjoy. In such a way, design is all about making someone’s life easier.”

You know that your job as a designer is to create sites that provide what the client needs in terms of information, accessibility, functionality and so on. But the fact is that most marketers aren’t going to understand this. Recognize that while you and marketers have different roles, you are both seeking the same end goal: good products that please the client and spread.

How can you understand marketers better? Part of understanding a marketer is obvious: knowing you think differently. Ultimately, this means knowing that “marketing thinking is all about seeing people in aggregate so that you can communicate with them as efficiently as possible,” says blogger and digital brand strategist Peter J. Thomson. “Design thinking is all about seeing people as individuals so you can delight that one person and extrapolate that out to others.” The best businesses will have people doing both — because when someone’s thinking about the average guy and someone’s thinking about the particular individual, you stand a much greater chance of reaching both.

Signs of Communication Breakdown

Think you don’t have a problem working with marketers? Unsure of how to tell there’s a communication problem going on? You could be wrong. Here are some telltale signs to watch for:

  • Skeptical feeling toward marketing team: This isn’t a hard sign to read. If your entire department feels distrustful of the marketers, you’ve got a problem — and this is also true if the entire department is a one-person staff of you.
  • Lack of engagement in meetings: Think about it: when you meet with the marketing team, are you asking questions? Delving into strategies? Working together to develop the best solutions? If not, something isn’t working.
  • No meetings: If marketing and design aren’t collaborating by sitting down to strategize together, it’s clear you’re not partnering together.
  • No partnership: If you’re not viewing the marketing side of website projects as partners, you’re viewing it wrong.
  • Disdain for marketing ideas: What happens when you receive direction from the marketing team? If you’re ignoring and disdaining it, you’re not working together.

If any of the above signs are true of your work with the marketing personnel, you know you’re not viewing them as partners. Likewise, if they’re not taking your comments seriously, are constantly demanding many versions of revisions, putting you off on low-level marketing staff or regularly changing plans, they aren’t viewing you as partners. In either case, you’re not working as effectively as you could.

How Can You Bridge the Communication Gap?

Understanding the common misunderstandings between marketers and designers is only half the battle — next you need to know what you can do about it. The good news is that there are lots of ways you can make it easier for marketers to know where you’re coming from and avoid big problems down the line. Here are a few tips:

  1. Set Clear Goals (Together): From the earliest days of the project, everything will run much smoother when everybody is on the same page. “There is an enormous amount of value to be mined from both disciplines bringing their points of view and expertise to the table right at the beginning,” says Julia Pena of Creative Bloq. So right away, the first time you meet with a member of the marketing team, figure out what you’re doing, and figure it out together. Get everything out in the open upfront to avoid confusion and frustration.
  2. Set Clear Expectations: Right along with clear goals, set clear expectations for the marketing team. When they understand what your design process looks like, they’ll be better prepared for how much time, what sort of information, and any other things you’ll need in order to get your part of the project done. Likewise, set clear deadlines — both for their end of the process and yours — to streamline the process for you both.
  3. Gather Information: At the first information meeting, you need to focus on gathering all the information you’ll need to complete your design. This information will include desired tone, target audience, deadlines — as well as, most importantly, what problems you’re looking to solve. Likewise, find out what the marketing team is managing and what you are managing. Who will be writing the content, and what SEO keywords need to be included? Is there current branding that must be continued? What expectations has the client expressed?
  4. Document Everything: Throughout the project, document everything, from the initial meeting to each aspect of the process, along with how long each one takes. That way, if any questions should be raised about why a certain step took the time and money it did, you have an explanation to provide.
  5. Be Prepared for Revisions: After you’ve finished your Web design, you can usually expect criticisms or negative feedback of some kind — although this should be less true when clear communication happens upfront. Try to turn vague or unhelpful criticism (“This isn’t quite what I want,” or, “No, can you make it better?”) into more specific, targeted direction. Ask open-ended questions to determine what exactly the marketing team is seeking. It’s OK to defend decisions you’ve made, as long as you’re also willing to consider criticisms, too. By staying open-minded and reasonable, you’ll make the design process simpler for everyone.
  6. Know Your Worth: Just because someone on the marketing team tells you to do something doesn’t mean you necessarily should. If the person is your supervisor, that’s one thing. If he or she is your peer, that’s another. “I have had to pull marketing co-workers aside and remind them that we were both reporting to the same person and that no one ever told me anything about reporting to them,” says Speider Schneider at Smashing Magazine. “I’m not ‘being difficult’: I’m taking control of my work for my department so that I don’t have to take the fall for failed initiatives or low sales down the road.” In every situation, be polite, be professional, but, when it’s necessary, be ready to stand your ground.

The basic keys to managing the conflicts that arise between marketers and creatives is this: Don’t be afraid of the confrontation, communicate clearly, and be willing to listen to a marketer’s perspective on why the font should actually be red instead of blue (and after considering the points made, do what you believe is best). Finding ways to encourage communication among marketers and creatives is a powerful step toward getting everyone to work together.

Why Bringing Marketing and Design Together Matters

Sure, it would be easier to just focus on your design and leave it at that, but you’d actually be doing your client — and your work — a disservice. The best marketers in the world are most successful when they have a well-designed product to market, and the best designers in the world are most successful when they have the backing of a good marketing team. In other words, finding ways to work together with marketers will only improve your success over time.

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  1. I think this gap definitely exists and at one point it was a difficult path to cross but it has certainly got better over the years. I think many designers now realize that conversion optimization and user experience is a crucial process when designing a website.

  2. Kristen,

    This is another really great article. Brad Paige and I just had a meeting with our marketing and design teams to go over our communication procedures just the other day. One of our points was everyone thinks a little differently, which is actually a bonus, because we get a lot more ideas and perspectives to work with as long as everyone can properly communicate.

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