Working with graphic designers

by Judy Petersen

Several years ago, I needed someone to design a brochure and some fact sheets. I started looking around for graphic designers (also known as art directors or just designers). An STC* member recommended Elsie Tarle, who proved to be quite capable.

After our first meeting, Elsie told me that she had worked as a graphic designer for more than twenty years. And in all those years, she had never seen such useful instructions from a client...

Techniques that technical communicators can use

... Of course, I was flattered to have my communication skills praised in this way. But it also got me thinking about techniques that technical communicators can use when they work with designers, and how to prepare to hand off a design job.

The key is in preparing your design specifications, sometimes called design plans or project specifications. Whatever you call them, they're basically a road map of what you want the designer to do. In that sense, these documents require good technical communication skills.

Elsie told me her ideas about good design specifications. And to ensure that my sample of one was valid, I called other designers to get their thoughts.

Never enough information

Here's what the designers told me:

• They want ideas from which they can work.

• They never receive enough information at the project's start. Usually, the necessary information doesn't show up until the third or fourth design draft. So the customer pays for many wasted hours.

• They seldom receive detailed specifications that contain, for example, a project schedule (and subsequent updates to the schedule) and the names and phone numbers of project participants who will work with the designer and the person doing the layout.

• They receive assignments too late in the process, which means costly overtime for rush projects.

Elements of a design specification

Taking the above into account, I created an outline of what should go into an ideal design specification.


State the purpose of the document and its audience. Provide background information, such as a list of related publications (click here for a list of material that should accompany the specs).

Tender requirements

If you work with designers outside your company, then you must ask them to submit tenders (proposals) before the project starts. Tenders basically state designers' commitments to the project. You must specify what the designers' tenders must contain. For example:

  • A commitment to the schedules in the specifications
  • Hourly rates
  • Estimated hours for entire project (based on tasks listed in the specifications)
  • The tender's validity date
  • Requirements (what you must provide for the designer)
  • Key people at the designer's workplace
  • Printing cost (specify the number of estimates that the designer should get from different printers)
  • Estimated total cost for design, layout, and printing.
Elements that need designing

List everything that should be in the first draft of the design and describe special requirements. Let's say I hired a designer to produce a newsletter. Here are the things that would need designing:

  • Front matter. Includes a banner with special newsletter logo, volume, number, and date, plus the table of contents.
  • Back matter. Includes a masthead (staff), copyright statement, and trademark notices (as needed).
  • Running headers and footers. Includes page number placement, line weight, font size, and so on.
  • Justification. The designer should specify whether the newsletter will be all left justified, full justified, or use a mix.
  • Hyphenation. The designer should say whether hyphenation will be used. This may depend on the justification.
  • Sidebars. The design should be consistent in each issue.
  • Tables. The design should provide several alternatives.
  • Illustrations. Figures, diagrams, and charts should use the same fonts in each issue.
  • Photos. Will the newsletter use black/white or color? Will photos be set on tinted background, or will graphic elements be used to frame them?
  • Captions. The designer should specify font type, style, and size.
  • Bylines. The designer should specify placement and font type, style, and size.
  • Color. Will the newsletter use black/white only

Specify limitations such as number of pages, page size, colors, fonts, and so on. Refer to other documents that contain guidelines that cover these limitations (see the sidebar).

Hardware and software

List the tools used to create the manuscript that the designer will work with. That way, the designer or layout person is prepared to convert files, if necessary. Most designers work with product such as PageMaker or QuarkXpress in a Macintosh environment.


Give the designer something to work from. Describe what you envision for the total design and for different elements that need designing, such as illustrations, symbols, or the logo.

Printing and distribution

Specify the number of copies that must be printed. Provide the name and address of the person who will receive the shipment from the printer.

Key people

List names, e-mail and postal addresses, and phone and fax numbers of contacts. Specify who is responsible for what in the project.

Design schedule

Provide a schedule for the design work. Highlight the stages that relate to the designer. Table 1 illustrates a sample design schedule. You could fold this schedule into the project schedule if the designer also produces the layout. At some point, you'll want to see each of the following:

  • A dummy, or mockup, of the finished product.
  • Paper samples that show proposed size, color, and weight
  • A progress report showing the number of hours spent so far and the estimated number of hours needed to complete the project.

Let the designer know at which stage you'll want to see each of these.

Project schedule

Designers seldom see the total picture, which makes it difficult for them to set priorities. You can help them by making a table for the entire project, listing the actions, deadlines, and people doing all tasks, not just the project leader and the designer.

Every entry from the design schedule should end up in this larger schedule, so that the designer can see how his or her actions affect the deadlines of others. A table is easy to update and reissue when changes occur and can be reused when setting up a new project.


The specifications and tasks described in this article are by no means comprehensive. I've seen even more detailed design specifications. And while this might seem like a lot of work at first, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Once you create a comprehensive, detailed design specification, you can reuse it (or parts of it) in many different projects.

Table 1. Sample design schedule.
Who Action Deadline
Project leader (PL) Submits design specification to designer. May 1
Designer Submits tender. May 15
Manager Approves tender. May 20
Designer Creates first draft of the design, which includes all items specified under the "Elements that need designing." Submits dummy and accompanying material (such as paper samples) to project leader. ...
PL Studies design. Holds review meeting. Returns review comments to designer. ...
Designer Submits progress report. ...
PL Approves progress report. ...
Designer Changes design according to review meeting report and resubmits design for approval. ...
PL Approves design (after any final adjustments are made). ...

A list of material that should accompany the specs

Give the designer as much "real information" as possible to work with, such as headings, document or volume numbers, masthead information, for example:

  • Your corporate or organizational guidelines that specify, for example, your logo color, placement, and sizing. If you have rules about font styles, sizes, and weights for certain types of information, include them as well.
  • Names and phone numbers of public relations or communications personnel who can advise the designer or answer questions. (Sometimes these people must also approve the design.) Your logo in BMP, TIF, or GIF files.
  • Samples of other documents related to the document that will be designed.
  • An early draft of the document (hard and soft copy).


* This article was reprinted with permission from the Society for Technical Communication (STC). For more information, contact: Judy Petersen.