Event Recap: Return on (Design) Investment

“Make it pretty!” These three small words can make any designer cringe–but it’s that feeling, that pit in your stomach when your clients ask to make their logo bigger, that inspired this series. As designers ourselves, we knew our profession contributes way more than mad Photoshop skills and extensive Pantone selections. Designers are smart, strategic, and worth every penny!

We decided to move forward with this idea focused on Return on (Design) Investment because we recognized a need in the design community to give our members a voice and a seat at the table. We believe in the value of design beyond aesthetics and our challenge is to figure out how to articulate that worth to any and all stakeholders. We don’t think that the series will provide all the answers, but hope to spark conversation by bring together people that have stories and experiences to share. We launched the series with a focus on nonprofit organizations, and plan to cover corporations and government agencies in future installments.

The inaugural Return on Design investment event held several weeks ago at the Human Rights Campaign included five pairs of panelists, the creative and the business counterpart/client. Some key takeaways:

ONE Campaign
Garth Moore, US Digital Director & Elizabeth Brady, Global Design Manager
Fight the good fight. Take the time (and muster all the patience you need) to educate your clients. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Provide very specific examples of what they are looking for. Answer their question right away. Make sure they’re asking the right questions. Stay within budget.

Make it cool. It’s what you do when your boss is literally a rock star. But how do you define “cool?” Work with your client, engage them in the process, and make them feel like they own it. The sense of shared ownership results in client buy-in. Staying true to your brand and mission eventually leads to swaying public opinion and convincing politicians and world leaders that this mission is worth fighting for.

Levine & Associates and AARP
Marco Javier, Design Director (Levine) and Holly Schulz, Editorial Manager (AARP)
Fight hard and smart. “Pick battles big enough to matter; small enough to win” —Jonathan Kozol. Nuff said.

Relationships matter. Trust is key when it comes to clients. Get to know them. Anticipate their unique needs. Be their go-to person. Be someone they want to work with again, and again, and again.

Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
Robert Villaflor, Design Director and Cathryn Oakley, Legislative Counsel, State & Municipal Advocacy
It takes all forms. Sometimes the value doesn’t equate to dollars and cents. For HRC, “Changing hearts and minds is our return on design investment.” Know who your stakeholders are. Identify their priorities. Deliver the numbers that matter to them.

Scott Stroud, Independent UX Consultant & Patrick Cooper, Director of Web and Engagement
Solve the right problem. “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”—Albert Einstein. The biggest driver in clients allocating money in places other than design is a lack of identifying the problem they’re solving for. Ask the right questions. Solve the right problems!

Open access. There are advantages to agile processes. It’s fast, flexible and effective. Look into it. Invite everyone to play. Open the design process to all. Inject design thinking wherever and whenever people work. The final product should be a collective effort.

Design Lab 360 and FHI 360
Anne Quito, Director (Design Lab 360) and Todd Philips, Director (FHI 360)
Misunderstood. The word “design” carries a connotation of luxury. Present it as a necessity! It’s not just an “extra,” it’s more than an “add-on.” It’s essential and integral to building an effective, meaningful product.

Can’t afford it? If your client thinks design is expensive, then tell him or her that bad design is even MORE expensive. State the opportunity costs. Describe what is lost when the wrong message is communicated or if the user can’t find the “donate” button. No organization can afford that kind of expense.

Look for AIGA DC’s next ROI event in the Fall.


Ambica Prakash serves as the Social Change Chair on AIGA DC’s board of directors, and is the Principal of Eighty2degrees, a socially responsible design studio.

Rica Rosario is an AIGA DC board member, design strategist for FHI 360, and MBA Candidate at American University’s Kogod School of Business.

All images courtesy of Mary Welch-Higgins, AIGA DC member and founder of Distinct Studios.

By Rica Rosario
Published June 3, 2014