How To Create Effective Visual Content With Ashton Hauff from CoSchedule [AMP 032]
Have you ever said, “make it pop,” to your graphic designer? While you know what you mean, it’s likely that your graphic designer does not have the same mental image you do. Today’s episode is going to be about collaborating with your designer to make an amazing image that pops the way you want it to. It’s all about communication!
Ashton Hauff is the CoSchedule graphic designer. She designs up to 15 blog posts every week, as well as managing our Instagram account, helping with branding, and a lot of other tasks. Today she’s going to talk to us about trusting your graphic designer, as well as how to best communicate so that together you can create something beautiful.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- How Ashton got into design and why she loves it.
- Why digital design is such an important part of the marketing process, as well as why some types of design just add visual clutter and are ineffective.
- How Ashton makes sure that her designs are intentional and relevant to the blog posts or projects she’s working on. She also talks about how she goes about storytelling through her designs.
- Tips on finding a theme and settling on colors for a particular project.
- Why communication is an integral part of the design process.
- Some of the problems that designers can encounter when they’re working with marketing teams.
- Why it’s so important that a marketing team trust the designer’s expertise.
- How marketers can work with designers when there’s something they don’t like in the image.
- Why simplicity matters for high-quality designs, as well as why simple designs can be challenging to create.
- Why agility is important, as well as how much Ashton creates over the course of a week.
- Examples of times when things just went wrong with Ashton’s design process, including what ended up being the problem and lessons she learned.
- Ashton’s vision of the future of design in marketing, as well as her advice for people just getting started in design.
Nathan: Make it pop. Have you ever said something like that to your graphic designer? Those three words aren’t very helpful. The question becomes, “How can you collaborate with your graphic designer to create amazing visual content from the get go?” It has a lot to do with process and heavy communication. That’s why you and I are chatting with CoSchedule’s very own graphic designer, Ashton Hauff.
If you’ve ever visited a CoSchedule blog, you’ve seen Ashton’s handiwork. She designs up to 15 blog posts every single week, in addition to designing feature launch branding, sales collateral and managing our Instagram account.
Today, Ashton is sharing why trust, early involvement, and solid process are really important parts of creating effective visual content. I’m Nathan from CoSchedule and I am pumped for you to learn how to tell stories through visuals with intentional design. Let’s listen in.
Ashton, thank you a lot for being on the podcast today.
Ashton: Thank you so much for having me.
Nathan: If any of you don’t know, Ashton is our graphic designer at CoSchedule. She is the one who helps with branding, blog graphics, and a whole bunch of other awesome stuff. We’re really excited because a lot of you say that the designs she creates are amazing, which is why we want to talk about visual content today.
Ashton, just to help us get into this, how did you get into design? Why do you love it?
Ashton: I definitely love design and I have an interesting story to go along with it. When I was very little, my mom was a stay home mom but she was also a fine artist. She would do paintings, banners, signs, and anything that you could possibly imagine. I really grew up in that.
But then on the other aspect, my dad was a computer developer. He was the tech guru of the house. I grew up in between those two worlds of fine arts and computers. When it came time to start exploring what I enjoyed, I fell in love with the show Trading Spaces on HGTV. I don’t think it’s playing anymore but maybe some of you will remember. I fell in love with that, it’s my first intro to design and that was interior design. Then I dove a little bit more and I was like, “Well maybe I’ll focus on the functionality side.” So I explored architecture.
But then after going through that, I found graphic design because my high school had a class that was called Digital Design. I took it just to see if I liked it and sure enough, that was it. I knew I wanted to design, went to school in Minneapolis so, here I am.
Nathan: I’m glad that you got into digital design. It‘s definitely helped CoSchedule a lot. Let’s connect the dots now. You got into digital design. You’re obviously working on the marketing team. Why is design essential to the marketing process?
Ashton: Design is such a huge part of the marketing process just because I think we’re such a visually led society. There’s just so many stats out there, it’s like your brain processes visuals 60 times faster if I remember right. It’s also a set out there that’s 93% of all human communication is visual. When you think about marketing and you think about selling something, no matter what that might be, visuals are a huge part of the way we communicate and we can send messages to our audience.
Nathan: You think about the social networks that are taking off, Instagram and Snapchat, all of it is visual communication.
Ashton: It’s allowing not just the professionals to make visuals but everyday people, they’re just making it for fun and they want to share their lives. Visuals are the way they get to do that.
Nathan: Definitely, something that we talk about, since we’re talking about design and marketing and including visual content within your marketing programs. Something we talk about at CoSchedule is that we don’t want to have visuals in our content just to have visuals. Could you tell me about that, how do you do that? Explore that for me, please.
Ashton: You’re exactly right. With living in such a visual communication oriented society in our everyday life, it’s so easy to just add to the noise and add to the clutter and just do it because everyone else is doing it. But at CoSchedule and just with any designer really try to be intentional and purposeful. Because that way, if the visuals are researched and thought out and thorough and they serve a purpose they will send out, they will get that attention.
I try to ask myself like, “What’s important about this content?” No matter if it’s a blog post, a book, a podcast, it doesn’t matter. What is the content and what’s important about it or what do people want to see or read about this content? What’s the key take away or what are the key things you want somebody to see when they scan through? Anything like that or what story do you want to convey. Those are all questions that I try to ask myself no matter what I’m designing or what visual I’m making just to ensure over and over and over again that it’s very intentional and very purposeful and serves it the purpose that I’m trying to serve.
Nathan: It’s really smart. A lot of people have noticed it which is why specifically on the blog post, we hear all the time that people loved them. How are you intentional and purposeful? What does that look like in practice?
Ashton: Sure. For blog graphics, I always make sure that I read the content. That sounds so simple but it’s so easy to just dive in and to skim it just like anyone else. But you have to read the content to know what’s important about it. That’s a key step to be intentional.
I also try to do research about what are other blogs doing? What could we do better or where we failing? And trying to add more purpose into that visual on that aspect so that no matter what it is that it has both the content that you’re representing but it also is doing well and serving well as a graphic itself.
Nathan: I’m wondering, the thing that you’ve mentioned throughout this conversation so far is storytelling. How do you tell that story through visuals then?
Ashton: It starts just with that reading the content because you have to know what story you’re telling before you can jump into design. It all starts with the content. Then from there, I personally start with the color scheme that fits the mood or the tone of that story and know its language. What kind of tone are you trying to convey? It’s the same thing with color, it’s the same thing with design. I do my best to try to find colors that fit that tone so we’re telling the same story with the copy and the visuals.
A lot of times with content or things on the CoSchedule blog, we’re trying to be really comprehensive and we’re trying to teach something. Those ideas, those topics might be a little bit more complex.
Next, I take a theme or I try to find some metaphor or something that really can illustrate that topic in a more simplified way that it’s digestible and easy to learn. Then I really just try to have fun with it. Themes can be fun. They don’t have to be super straightforward, just anything to make it enjoyable.
Then the last thing is to make sure you have transitions. With storytelling, there’s always that page flip. Where there always is a pause or a climax or whatever it might be. With visuals, you need those transitions too. You need visual breaks. That’s something that I always try to keep with our visual storytelling as well.
Nathan: That’s interesting. I know that something you try to do is not have an entire page on a screen that doesn’t have a visual on it. You’re really good about being intentional with those visual breaks within our content.
Ashton: Yeah and sometimes it’s not even a graphic, it’s just a click to tweet or it’s the way that we structure the content with bullet points. It’s just some way of breaking up the story and breaking up what we’re trying to convey.
Nathan: Something you just mentioned Ashton, is that you try to find a theme for that specific topic. Walk me through that. Give me an example of a theme you’ve chosen maybe for a blog post or maybe for branding for a future launch.
Ashton: The one that comes to mind right away is the LSI blog post that we did. Correct me if I’m wrong Nathan because I’m not the expert here, but LSI is latent semantic indexing. Is that correct?
Nathan: Yup. You nailed it.
Ashton: Good, I learned well. That’s something that not most people have heard of unless you’re in kind of the SCO keyword world, that’s a tongue twister. I did all the research. I’ read the blog post and I tried to learn it myself. I realized that a good way to convey or pick a scene for that would be to relate it to a school of fish. Visually, I have all of these fish and how they travelled together. Then, I broke it up where LSI is a sub keyword or in the keyword family of another keyword. I used fish to illustrate that topic.
Nathan: Nice, that’s smart because it is such a complicated thing so you figured out a way to teach through visuals and it’s almost like you did a better job through visuals than with text.
Ashton: That’s the goal.
Nathan: Something else you mentioned Ashton was that color is really important and you try to choose for blog post and for the different features that we launch, you try to choose a color. You are a big fan of color psychology. I was wondering if you could explain why is color so important to design?
Ashton: I could geek out about color probably all day. But to me, color is just so essential and the first thing that I gravitate towards because I really do think that’s our audience’s first impression of the design or the visual that we have. That could be the first impression of a landing page or a blog post, whatever it might it be. It’s really the first thing that we gravitate towards. That’s why color is so important.
Not only that but there’s a whole world of color psychology because color affects our emotions, which might, initially sound really crazy but it does. When you’re a little kid, you’re drawn to all these bright colors because it makes you happy and there’s a reason that stop signs are red because it gets our attention and just so many different things like that that we can use in our everyday life that we probably even notice.
But in design, it’s such a key tool because we’re trained to notice and we’re trained to know the psychology behind it. Color is my first thing just because it is the first impression that people see and it also is such a powerful tool for conveying that emotion throughout your visual.
Nathan: That sounds really smart. Ash, design is obviously really important to capture some of that attention, helps with retaining it when they’re on a blog post or even capturing it through social media. You’re working with us in the marketing team, what does the process look like to implement all the stuff that you’ve been talking about?
Ashton: The process really starts with communicating early on. No matter what the project might be, I really try to communicate with both the content author, or the team lead, or whoever it might be to really gather all the information I can possibly have, whether that’s the specs like the size or the deadline or things like that. I just ask a ton of question. I try to gather as much information as possible just so that I can be informed and I can be on the same page as the team lead and the other people on my team that are part of the project.
The second thing I do is I really dive into that research phase. To me, this is really where the value and the strategy comes in because research lets me see what other people are doing, how we can be different and just all of those things around that. I try to gather ideas through that research phase.
From there, that’s when I jump in. That’s when I start designing. I have a couple of ideas and rough concepts and then I present that to the team because I really want to value their feedback. Because we are a team, it’s not the content trying to be awesome or the visuals trying to be awesome but we’re trying to be great together. I submit that to my team and they give me feedback, whether that copy changes or that something just doesn’t fit right they don’t match up, whatever that might be then they can provide me edits.
Then the last step really is to take all of their feedback and take that critique to adjust my design and make it that finished, polished, and finalized visual that we publish with the project.
Nathan: That’s really smart. I almost think of it like four phases of content development: idea, writing, design and then just buttoning everything up and polishing. We definitely want you involved throughout that process. Ashton, I know you’ve got other friends in the design world, you’ve got your experiences outside of CoSchedule, I was wondering if we could work into your process like that. What are some of the problems that you or other designers might encounter working within marketing teams?
Ashton: It’s funny that you asked that because I was just talking with my other design colleagues the other day and I think there are three things that it really boils down to. The first is trust. There has to be a relationship of trust between your team and yourself and they need to trust your expertise.
The second thing is just making sure that everything is simplified, content. The message that we’re trying is they can get so complex but we only have a few seconds so just trying to simplify as much as possible. Just keep asking why.
The last thing is agility, which is just the ability to be flexible, the ability to come up with ideas in the pivot. Really, all those things need to be in place not just for design, but the whole team, really. But it does boil down to the design process and if those things are evident, you’ll have a really great project at the end of the day. But if those things fall through, then the whole marketing team won’t be in really good place.
Nathan: I’ve been on teams where it’s been interesting working with designers and something that you’ve mentioned right now was the word trust. I want to know a little bit more about that. Why is trust so important? Why is it important that a marketing team trusts your expertise?
Ashton: On the surface level, trust has to be present with any team just in general. But the second most important part about trust at least when working with the designer is you have to trust that they know what they’re doing. What I mean by that is that there are a lot of elements to visuals and to design that, say the everyday person doesn’t notice. They see the finished piece as one layer and then that’s it.
But when it comes to design and designers and people that work in the industry, we see all of the different layers that make that piece what it is. We see the color psychology that we talked about. We see all of the typographic choices and the spacing and the type and all of those things. We see the hierarchy of what’s the most important down to what’s least important and how that’s arranged on the visual. We see the layout that keeps it all balanced and keeps it coherent.
We see all of these layers and all of these variables that come together. Like a recipe almost that makes the stew what it is. We see why it tastes good, why it looks good. We really need people to trust us because we have studied and we’re passionate about every single variable on that piece.
Nathan: One part of trust Ashton seems like just understanding that you obviously have this expertise. From a marketer’s perspective and I’m working with a graphic designer like you, let’s say I provide you some feedback that maybe just isn’t up to the design standards. How should we, as marketers, work with designers on situations like that?
Ashton: Let’s see. Like I said, when that trust is in place, you value both person’s opinions. As the designer too, I don’t want to just dismiss what you’re saying, I want to take it and I want to respect your opinion too even if you don’t know necessarily everything that the designer knows because you might be like our audience and so I want to take that feedback and I want to value it.
How I approach it if let’s say your feedback is great but from a designer’s standpoint, it’s just not on par. I really try to describe. I don’t just say like, “Oh, that’s bad feedback. I’m not going to listen to you. I’m just going to do it my way because I’m the designer.” I’ll break it down and I’ll say, “I understand this could be better here, but this is the descriptive reason why I think from a designer’s standpoint, it would be better if it was either left this way or changed in this way.”
The easiest way to handle that situation, just to be very descriptive and clear, that’s also a really good learning point for designer to talk to whoever they’re working with so that they could see from their perspective.
Nathan: Ashton, something you’ve mentioned about good design is simplicity. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that. Let’s say you’ve got some feedback, a lot of times it might comeback and say, “You know what, let’s add a bunch of stuff in.” That’s maybe not the right thing so why does simplicity matter for really high quality design?
Ashton: Design that’s simple looks easy but it’s actually really hard to do. We try to strive for it to be simple because we really only have seconds to achieve or trying to achieve. It’s like seven seconds we make a first impression whether it’s a person or a landing page. We have seconds to make that impression. If something is overly complicated and overly complex or the audience doesn’t know where to put their eyes or where to read, we lose them. Then your visual isn’t serving its purpose.
As designers, we really try to ask why. And then we ask why again just to make sure that what’s important is really on the graphic itself. That might mean less copy or that might mean less color, it works both ways. But no matter what it is, we really want something to be simple because we need it to be simple. Humans, like I said, we need that visual break sometimes. Something simple might stand out more than a really complicated piece as well.
Nathan: Ashton, I want to circle back something that you mentioned as a top problem for designers working in marketing teams or for marketing teams is being agile or agility. Let’s explore that a little bit. What do you mean by agility? How does that come into play with the design process?
Ashton: Being agile, what I mean by that is you have this ability to take feedback and to pivot almost at any point in your process. This is something that CoSchedule, the whole team really values. It’s one of our core pieces to how we work. But it’s really, really valuable because it focuses on the production and the making over perfection.
That’s so easy for designer individually or for any type of creative or maker to just get stuck and thinking that, “Oh, this needs to be perfect.” We just spend hours and hours and hours thinking of that one type is or that one color that could just make it better, when really, we just need to be agile and we need to move on, or we need to just get feedback, or we need to do whatever it might be to get us out of that rut.
The same thing goes for marketing teams. When a team isn’t agile, they probably have too much of a rigid, detailed idea or concept of what they want the finished piece to be when in reality, they may need to listen to ideas or ask for help or whatever it might be, they need to pivot and they need to move on.
Agility is really important both for the designer individually but also for the marketing team so there is that freedom and there is that environment of brainstorming new ideas, finding new concepts, and just moving wherever you might need to go in order to reach what you’re trying to accomplish.
Nathan: Ashton, agility definitely applies to some of the work that you’ve been doing. You create tons of content in a given week. Walk me through that, how much do you knock out in a week?
Ashton: Oh, wow. Every week is different at CoSchedule. Sometimes we have more product heavy things and sometimes we have more content heavy things. But on a weekly basis, I probably do 5 to 10 blog posts. I brand a feature launch which boils down to social campaigns, email graphics, promotion in general, Facebook ads. It’s really a variety of things and takes different forms every week.
Nathan: I know how it’s just easy to get swept up under the thing that we need to make this perfect but you focus on shipping. Talk to me about that.
Ashton: As a designer, I’m definitely, I will admit, more of a perfectionist but being on a team that’s agile and being on a team that’s flexible really has opened my creativity too because I’m more focused on that idea of getting out the doors so that our audience can interact with it and engage with it and work towards our goals. Sometimes you just have to let go of it even if you feel like, “This could be better.” Sometimes that 95% is okay because perfection doesn’t really exist and so sometimes we just have to be okay with that. We have to understand that we’ve done the very best that we can. My team has helped me to be the very best at this can be in its time to just get it out there.
Nathan: I know that Seth Godin says, “If you haven’t shipped, you haven’t done anything at all.” Getting something up to 95% good, will the extra 5% increase your goals that much further? That’s the question that we think of.
Ashton: Is it even worth the time that you’re just hassling over it?
Nathan: Exactly. Speaking of that, getting swept up into perfectionism or something like that. Ashton, could you give me some examples of times where things just went wrong with design or with your process?
Ashton: For sure. Usually when things go wrong, it comes down to a few different key things. It’s usually poor communication, a distrusting relationship or being too constrained or limited with the project itself.
For example, there was one time where I worked on teams where the idea or the concept is, in a meeting before I ever enter the picture then I just get their feedback or I get the idea I jump right into the design phase and make all these thing and I think it’s awesome, I think it’s great. But then when I present it to them they’re like, “Oh, this isn’t meeting the goal. This isn’t the concept we have in mind.” That’s really because, as me as a designer, I either didn’t ask enough questions because I was scared or busy or just gotten the rut of designing or I should have then a part of that ideation of that brainstorming meeting because then, I could have heard directly from them what problem there was and then how design could help solve it. That’s a key example of how poor communication really affected the outcome there.
The other thing is distrust. I’ve worked with a lot of clients that come to me and they think they know exactly what they want and how they think it should look, but then they don’t really allow me to invest in that research phase, like I said earlier, to me, it’s one of the most valuable phases because research lets me know how I can meet that goal.
When I don’t have that trust to do that phase, I might make something that visually pleases the client but at the end of the day, it doesn’t meet the goal that they were trying to achieve. Therefore, to me, it’s just a failed project. If there’s not that trust there on both parties, it really doesn’t allow for exploration and a good end product.
Nathan: Something I want to follow-up with that then is what’s the lesson learned from those experiences? How do you make sure that you solve those problems before they become issues?
Ashton: The biggest lesson is over communicate early on. It’s really all about communication and just over communicating. Don’t be scared to ask questions, don’t be scared to come back later in the game too and ask questions because things will come up that you didn’t know right away and that’s perfectly okay. You should get an answer and that will help you design from there.
The other thing with relationships is if your team, or your client, or whoever it might be doesn’t trust one another or you don’t trust them, that really isn’t going to work. The lesson then there is just maybe you shouldn’t be working together on that project. Or maybe you should shift up the team so you’re working with people that you can rely on because it is a team process and it is a team project.
Lastly, setting clear expectations of how the design process works early on is always really beneficial for both parties because then it gives your teammates and the writers and everyone else involved, an idea of how you prefer to work. And then if they can set their expectations for you as a designer, it lets you know what they’re expecting or what deadlines there might be. There is enough creative freedom to work but also you know when your deadline is. There is that clear expectation and balance of, “Okay, you can do all these amazing things but at the end of the day it needs to be done by this day.” There’s that balance there.
Nathan: Ashton I know at CoSchedule, we’re doubling down on design, we think that there’s a big future for that in marketing. Talk to me about that. What do you see as the future of design in marketing?
Ashton: I definitely think design would be super important and it would just continue to become more important as the years go on for the future of marketing and especially marketing. That’s how we were able to tell stories and communicate what our product or our brand is. Everyday, consumers nowadays really do care about great design. They expect it. That wasn’t the case 30 years ago. That will continue to excel and it’ll be something that our audience demands of us as business and products. Design will be a huge factor for that.
As far as what kind of graphics, graphics will be more animated. Whether that’s GIFs, or motion design, or video, anything that draws that extra attention from the audience will be huge.
I definitely don’t want to forget about print design. It definitely will have its place. As the internet and digital design and anything on the web becomes more and more common, that also makes print more unique and special in a way.
In the world now, even of all those print design, it’s digital every single day. As we continue to consume more of that, getting something in the mail that’s print or ordering something that’s print will be almost like a special treasure that you didn’t expect. I don’t think any forms of design will go away, I just think that certain areas will increase and become more common and valuable. Then there are other parts of design that will be more unique and treasured but I think they have all their place and all our mediums for designers to explore.
Nathan: Give me some examples of how you are implementing some of these things that you think will happen in the future currently at CoSchedule. I want to know what you’re doing right now.
Ashton: Graphics that are more animated. For instance, on the CoSchedule blog, we love to make GIFs, or memes, or things that just draw our audience in. We also do a lot of videos with our new video series called Overheard at CoSchedule. That’s just where we show the behind-the-scenes at CoSchedule while also trying to teach or explain something to our audience that we really care about is the company. Those are a few different ways that CoSchedule and the marketing team are doing that now. As far as print design, we love swag. We love making that community for our audience and so we’ve done a few print pieces that we mail out that just becomes hopefully it’s a daymaker, that’s the goal of that.
Nathan: Ashton, to wrap this up, I want to know for someone who’s new to this or someone looking to improve their design in marketing, where should they focus?
Ashton: The first thing to focus on would just be to learn one variable of design at a time. What I mean by that is that there’s a thing out there called design elements and design principles. Those are including some of the things that we’ve already talked about like color, layout, typography, hierarchy, balance, and all of these variables. The best way to just start and to learn design is to take those one at a time. Maybe get a book or read online what those are. You go one at a time and should just explore those concepts. Because even me, I’m constantly learning things about just those elements and that really improves your design overall.
The second thing is I would totally check out www.lynda.com. They have so many tutorials, hundreds of tutorials. You can get lost and then if you really wanted to but lynda.com has a variety of beginner level to advanced tutorials out there. When you feel like you have a good understanding of those design principles, you’ve maybe watched a couple of tutorials and you’re just ready to try it out and ready to dive in, there are a lot of free tools out there like Canva that you can just use right from the get go and try it out.
Nathan: Ashton, I would add one more to your radar or any marketer’s radar is to hire a graphic designer. This is what they do, they’re awesome at it. You can’t hire Ashton though, she’s mine. Anyway Ashton, thank you so much for sharing all of these. I know that people are really going to love it. Thanks.
Ashton: Thanks for having me.
Nathan: Great content with poor design becomes poor content. Make no mistake. Your audience judges you by your website and blog design. The better it is, the more credible you appear. It’s the halo effect and knowing that can really help you attract and retain the right kinds of prospects through powerful visual design. Ashton, thank you for sharing all of these on the podcast today. Thanks to all of you for listening in to this episode of the Actionable Marketing Podcast.