Designing a Series of Emails

When our vice president of global human resources, Tinna Hall, requested a set of email teasers to promote our company-wide employee engagement survey, I had these concerns: how will I carry a consistent theme across all emails? How can I design a flexible format that will effectively communicate the content of each message visually? How do I keep them interesting to our 1,000-plus designers? And lastly, as a member of "branding police" for Affinity Express, how will I accomplish all of this while staying true to our branding?

 Since this was a weekly project that ran for six weeks and all the messages were not provided to me upfront, I just took it one email at a time and tried to design something that would work for both short and long headlines and body copy.

 Here's the design for the first email teaser. I created something simple, clean and colorful, using shapes and colors to symbolize the different opinions and ideas of our people versus a cliché light bulb.



I carried the structure of the first design, with the headline, logo, etc., over to the second week email teaser. The wave of colors coming from the head urges employees to voice their thoughts. I didn't go with the overused "man shouting in a megaphone" image.




For the third week, I transformed our logo into colored puzzle blocks in a playful way and added hand-prints all over to imply that every employee's opinion is different and important.




Building on the design from the previous email, the focus for the fourth week email was "engagement". I used colorful blocks to emphasize the word and encourage employees to take part in the survey.




The next email was more of a follow-up to the previous one. The visual communicates that we are a global company and the colored thought balloons made it consistent with rest of the emails.




In this final email, I used hands in colorful circles to acknowledge all employees who participated. The circles added a festive look and feel (like balloons) and make the design visually interesting.




The employee engagement survey generated a 67% response rate globally. I think these promotional emails played an integral part in making this effort a success!

What made the emails effective was that certain elements were consistent so the audience could recognize all the designs as part of a series. In this case, the layout of the headline, body copy and logo were repeated. Then visual interest came from the items that did change: the content and graphics. We took the opportunity to play on the colors of our logo and interpret them in several ways that worked to support the purpose of the emails. My advice when you develop your campaigns is to decide what will stay the same and be consistent. Then be creative on the rest of the designs!

Have you already designed a series of emails for your company? If so, how did you go about maintaining your branding but still making it interesting for your audience?


Tips on Using Stock Photos

Images are a key component of every marketing design. When used properly, images can have an enormous impact, enticing viewers to stop and take in the message. Finding the right images can be a challenging task because there are many options.

  1. You can take your own photos, but most of us are not professional photographers and amateur efforts never look as good. Plus, you might want something that you can't easily photograph: a photo of an island in the ocean, for example, when you live 1,000 miles from the beach.
  2. Another option is commissioned photography, but the cost can be prohibitive for SMBs. It also requires a lot of time and effort: selecting locations, hiring models, etc.
  3. The third—and easiest—alternative is stock photography. One of the advantages is that you have millions of photos to choose from and it's easy to purchase and download from websites.

One big downside of stock photography is that the images you choose might also be used by other subscribers to the service. But if you're willing to risk not having a one-of-a-kind image, this is a cheap and easy option. To use stock photos effectively, here are some things to consider. {C}

Welcome to Chicago BrochureAppropriate images

Take time to look for appropriate images that relate to your content. If a photo is amazing but it doesn't connect to the message, your communication is not effective.

Sometimes, you can combine two stock photos in order to come up with what you have in mind.

In this example, I used an image of the Chicago skyline and a vector illustration. Once I knew the look I wanted to achieve, I developed this design and made adjustments to both stock images by adjusting colors, lighting and depth of field.

Proper resolution

Some sites vary their prices by resolution size. Don't settle for low-resolution images because it is cheaper. Look for something that is a perfect fit for the project. If you can't afford a particular resolution of a photo, what you can do is look for a similar image that is cheaper with the same resolution.

Resolution Options

Generic images

You don't want to select a photo that has been used repeatedly or looks staged with overly-posed subjects. You want to show people with more candid expressions. An authentic image in a realistic setting works best.

Ignoring the fact that a business person at a computer can be a bit of a cliché, you can see the photo on the left creates a subtle and more real reaction and expression, as the subject seems to be focused on what he is doing and reacting to it. In comparison, the photo on the right looks staged like a shot in a catalog.

Generic Images

It is also important for your image to reflect the main message of your material. For example, if you are talking about catching up on reading for work over the weekend, like Kelly did recently, an image that makes sense is a person reading in casual attire and a relaxed setting versus in a suit in an office.

Product photos

Inserting products on a stock photo background is one of the most common techniques used. But if the tactic is obvious, it will look terrible. It can be a tedious process to make the image look natural by adjusting shadows, highlights and the overall scene lighting but it is well-worth the time invested.

You don't want to feature your product this way.

Bad sample

You can see many mistakes in the example above. First, there is a white line on the left that doesn't match well with the car's angle. Second, the lighting of the car looks wrong since the sky is somewhat orange. Lastly, the car should be on the right side of the road if you are targeting North American customers.

On the other hand, the example below exhibits the best way to add in your product into a scene with consistent lighting, color and a perfect angle.

Good sample

Image quality

To achieve the goal of the project, the image must have high quality and be visually appealing. Avoid any outdated and non-professional photographs. It is your designers' responsibility to know the current design trends, but some things to look for are clothing, hairstyles, places, furniture etc.

You wouldn't want to use this photo to illustrate your hair salon because of the old style. Image quality sample This one is more current in terms of the hair and the attire: Image quality sample In this ad, the designer has effectively used a high-quality image. The colors reinforce the message and draw attention to the copy. Sample ad Stock photography is an invaluable resource that makes the development of creative marketing material cost-effective and convenient. However, you should take the time to select the perfect image that will work with your message and your marketing materials.

Writing an Effective Creative Brief for a Design Project

A creative brief is almost like a roadmap for how a project will turn out. It is the best chance to set the tone of your project so it starts off in the right direction. Your design will be only as good as your brief.

I remember a quote from a seminar on writing good briefs conducted by the Philippine Association of National Advertisers (PANA): "It is the miracle and magic of advertising that a structured, formal document can produce communication that touches people emotionally."

There are all types of creative briefs and methods for developing them. The approach you use is less important than the mission: communicate clearly and thoroughly what you want. In other words, provide detailed instructions.

Affinity Express has order management systems (AESB and IDEA) that guide our clients through all the critical details, from size to folding specifications to fonts that must be used. Essentially, our technical team created an electronic client brief to make it easier for clients to communicate. We give them an area for "Additional Instructions" in which they can write anything that might help inform the designers. They can also attach as many reference documents as possible to show styles they like, old versions of documents, color combinations that work well and more.

Whether you are a client and use Affinity Express or not, here is what you should include in your creative brief for your internal team members and outside providers.


What is the goal of the design? What are you trying to communicate and why? Last week, Kelly tasked me with the design of a tool to sell website services. She explained that such a tool would help our clients' sales people to sell, ultimately benefitting us with more orders for websites. We needed to communicate why it is important for small- to medium-sized businesses to have websites, the features provided and the fast turn times.

Project specifics

What are the deadlines? What are the deliverables? What is the desired output size, orientation, printing specifics (e.g., DPI, full bleed, etc.)?

To meet the request of the news publishing client, we had to create a strong draft that could be shared in two or three days. Kelly felt a two-page, 8-1/2 X 11" flyer would be best, with a portrait orientation. Because this document will ultimately be provided to all our clients using website services, we needed to create a design that could easily be adapted by adding specific company names and logos.

Mandatory information

In addition to details like contact names and numbers, addresses, website addresses and social media information, what absolutely must be incorporated?

For this project, we used placeholders for all of the contact information. The document will serve as a leave-behind for newspaper sales people, so it should enable advertisers to reach the sales person easily to say, "Yes, I want you to build me a new website!"


Who is the target audience? What are your competitive differentiators? What is the call to action?

We have two audiences for our website sales tool: our clients and their local advertisers. To illustrate the advantages of our offering, we highlight the price but also include a matrix of features. This gets the message across that our clients can deliver high-quality, feature-rich websites at very competitive rates compared to other providers in the marketplace. We included a call to action for small- to medium-sized businesses to contact their trusted newspaper salespeople for more information or to place orders.

Reference materials

Do you have examples of the look and style you want to achieve? What are the styles you want to avoid?

This is one of the best ways to communicate intent. As they say, "a picture is worth a thousand words." Whether it is a professional sample you love or a hand-drawn layout to show where you want to put various elements, designers are visual people and can grasp your concept much faster this way.

Recently, Kelly, Unmana and I were brainstorming over the design concept for a wallpaper for employees. Rather than using words to show what I found inspiring, I found designs from well-known companies that I thought had the same energy and bold colors we would want for our own. This step resulted in both Unmana and Kelly picking the same option and giving me a strong start to create something unique for Affinity Express. Working with a visual is a lot easier than two or more people coming to a common interpretation of terms like "bright, eye-catching, creative, etc."

Overall, when briefing your designer or creative team, it is important to come as a storyteller and inspire them. Here's one good example from the seminar:

"I once had an account executive give me a brief with a hole burnt into it. That got me curious. Then I noticed it was for Pizza Hut's fiery pizza. Right there, she got me. It's not the brief in itself that inspires you but how it's briefed. Everything must be filled with an opportunity to make you smile, to make you stop and think."

In many cases, the people providing instructions to designers are not from the same discipline. This can make communication difficult, as you probably don't speak the same "language." But it is absolutely critical that you give your team a thorough and clear description of what you want. Although Kelly and Unmana are very verbal because they are writers, we've evolved into a strong team because we learned to collaborate through email and by using visual examples.

If you focus on providing solid creative briefs, you will save both time and costs for projects, improve the morale of your team and produce better design work.

Thanks to Kelly Glass for her input on this post. 

Reviewing Design Work

"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things."

-    Winston Churchill

As a client, when reviewing creative work, it is important to give constructive criticism. When reviewing a print ad, logo design, web design etc., what is the best way to provide feedback? Here are some guidelines on how critiques should be made to get the end products you want.

1.  Be objective

Who is your primary audience? Will the design draw their attention? Sometimes we confuse our personal taste with the needs of the target market. By setting aside your own preferences, you can better review a designer's choices on color, layout, visual imagery and typography.

When I worked at a bank as a graphic artist, I handled the pre-to post-production of an audio-visual presentation of the Philippine National Anthem and also the official hymn of the bank. When I was reviewing the shots of the videographer, I thought that we should have gone with a more aggressive style. But, since the audience was bankers, I needed to remember their perspective, which is more conventional and conservative.

Recently, when I drafted a new look for our website for a specific segment of customers, Kelly Glass initially said she wasn't sure about putting the navigation in an unexpected area of the pages. So I created a second version for comparison and she ended up preferring the non-traditional approach because she felt the overall layout would best fit with the priorities of these customers. She kept an open mind and we ended up with a more effective design.

2. Focus on the big picture

Ask yourself if the visuals communicate your vision clearly. Will they appeal to your audience? Do they use appropriate imagery, graphics, fonts and color schemes?

I once worked on a freelance project to create a new package design for a cake box. The goal was an effective box construction with eye-catching design on a limited budget. The project's goal: to draw the attention of the target market and differentiate the package from competitors' cake boxes. Because the client communicated the project goals and other details clearly, I was able to get the work done faster and more effectively. They are still using the design after more than two years.

When I'm designing for Affinity Express, Kelly will often give me more of the "big picture" view, not merely the requirements of a specific project. This enables me go beyond simply following a narrow set of instructions to contribute far more to the work. For example, we had a team discussion before I conducted a photo shoot at our Manila facility and, as a result, I understood what she wanted the images to convey. Rather than just happy employees at work, I was able to capture the essence of what we do for a variety of design categories and vertical markets. Now, instead of a narrow application, we can use these photos for all our print and online marketing materials.

3. Stand out from the crowd

Does the design blend in with those of the other companies in the industry? If so, you're not going to get noticed. Grabbing the attention of your audience is an important step to getting your message across. Evaluate designs with an eye toward differentiating your brand from the competition.


Poster created for Affinity Express employees


When I was asked to design a poster to promote our Facebook page internally, I was concerned that it might not be seen with all the posters and memos on our bulletin boards. What I did is that I used a bold blue color background with eye-catching color boxes in the center and a big "Like Us" on Facebook button. As a result, I got some nice feedback from other team members and we significantly increased our Facebook page likes.

The same principle applies when you are designing to reach people outside your office. We had to freshen up and increase the impact of our brochures and price sheets for trade shows in 2012. With this in mind, I researched the branding of some of our competitors and was able to create a new look for Affinity Express that built on our brand and is bold, attractive and professional in comparison to other providers.

4. Be specific on changes

Endless revisions happen when new people are introduced in the review process of a project or if you don't know what you really want. Revisions can get really expensive and very time-consuming. To make this process efficient, compile all changes you want  and send it to your designer at one go. And if you explain the reasons why something does or does not work, you are giving your designer the ability to learn so he or she can get closer to what you need the next time.



When Kelly, Unmana and I reviewed our online holiday card, Kelly asked me to compile all comments and suggestions then submit to the team for changes. By doing this, we were able to complete the project with only two rounds of revisions. If we all sent our input separately, the designers would have had to act on the notes one by one and some points might have conflicted, causing confusion and delays.

We take the same approach with our company newsletter. Several people, including Unmana Data and Tinna Hall have to review the content to ensure it is ready to publish. We also get stories, photos, quotes and more from a wide variety of employees. Kelly acts as the gatekeeper, reviews all suggestions and changes first, and sends me one single list of to-dos. That's one reason why we reduced the number of revisions for the quarterly newsletter from 12 or 15 to three or four!

Working well with designers all comes down to communication. You have to be able to define your objectives upfront, provide detailed explanations and regular, constructive feedback. When you master this, designers will enjoy working with you, have the information they need and be motivated to exceed your expectations. Then you can watch the quality and productivity for all your projects—and your results—grow!

Design Projects: Information You Should Provide Your Designer

"Design is about getting the right idea, and getting the idea right," according to Marty Neumeier. So how do you get the most from your projects and achieve critical marketing goals? Do you have a clear vision or do you want your designer to develop the ideas for you?

Clear information and direction are vital to a design project's success. Defining your objectives, target audience and your optimum results will enable a designer to meet your needs and overcome challenges effectively.

It is best to provide a thorough brief that sketches out the task at hand. However, when clients have a vague goal or an incomplete brief, it is the designer's responsibility to lead and to get the required information. Whether you are the client or the designer, here is what should be covered:

1.  Scope

What is the project? What is the budget? What are the deliverables? Will the images and copy be supplied? What is the timeframe?

Communicating these important information at the start of the process gives the designer a framework and enables him or her to clearly define the visual problem and devise solutions.

We have been working on our annual online holiday card. In this case, the budget is essentially zero because we produce it internally. The goal is to wish our clients and prospects the best for the season but also to illustrate our range of digital capabilities and creativity. Although we started early, we know we have to complete all revisions by early December. In this case, after Kelly, Unmana and I brainstormed the concept, Kelly provided the copy and some images she researched. Taking this input, I am working with the Affinity Express Interactive Team to execute the design and ensure we meet the deadline. At every stage, I ask myself if we are getting closer to meeting the goal and showing what our company is capable of. This helps me to lead others effectively and give constructive feedback.

2. Project objective

What are the objectives of this project? What response do you want to elicit? What impression should your audience be left with? Sometimes marketing efforts are focused on increasing awareness and, even more often, they want to drive lead generation and sales. Having a clear purpose will help your designer to craft his or her creative approach.

Sometimes, when the sales team is focused on a specific company, I develop custom artwork and images to showcase our creativity and expertise in a way that is unique to the prospect. With a major cosmetics company, I researched their branding and advertising. Ultimately, I came up with a design (above) that used our logo as if it were an eye shadow pallet—tying our business to that of the prospect in an interesting way to get initial attention that starts a conversation.

3. Target market

Who is your primary audience? What are the gender, age, education, lifestyle and preferences of your target audience?

These details help designers determine the type of visual imagery they will create.

Affinity Express serves retailers, multi-media publishers and other companies that support small- to medium-sized businesses. When we recently created a brochure to communicate the range of print and interactive services we provide for retailers, I researched appropriate images and samples that would show our expertise. This had to be very specific to the sub-categories of retailers we serve and cover circulars, coupons, emails, QR codes, landing pages, mobile-optimized sites and more. If I wasn't told anything about our target market and their challenges, I might have picked the wrong product samples and caused a disconnect for sales with their prospects or even prevented them from getting meetings.

Direct mail I designed for retailers

4. Branding

According to Walter Landor, founder of Landor Associates, "Products are made in the factory, brands are made in mind." Talk to your designer about the attitude and individuality of your brand. Provide guidelines on standards your designer must adhere to and avoid. It will be helpful to show the materials you are currently using—to give him or her an idea of what you like.

If your company does not currently have corporate branding guidelines, or in addition to them, provide design samples that inspire you (e.g., colors, font, images, graphic elements, etc.). When you let your designer know your taste, he or she will get closer to producing what you've envisioned.

For example, Kelly will often ask me to format and enhance PowerPoint presentations that are compiled by our salespeople so they not only convey the important messages but also showcase our skills in design. She edits the content first and will point out any branding non-conformities to me. Then we work to decide what types of images will get our points across when we are addressing business to business topics, rather than using old, overused stock images.

5. Specific properties

Amid all the above, don't forget to share specifics. Is it low-resolution because it is for web? Or should it be high-resolution because it is a print ad?  What should the size of the design be, and the orientation (landscape or portrait)? Forgetting to provide these details might cost you unnecessary time and money in revisions.

In my previous job, when I supervised a photo shoot for our bank collateral, I made sure that the photographer provided many options and the framing wasn't too tight so it might be rendered on different products such as flyer, brochure, print ad and presentations. This saved me a lot of trouble when my boss decided to use the same photos on a different set of collateral.

Communicating all of this information from the start can make a major difference in helping you to get projects done faster and at a lower cost (as revisions can get expensive with external and internal resources). You can rely on designers for creativity and insight and, sometimes, you will get an outcome you love but couldn't possibly have envisioned. But designers can't read your mind, so you increase your chances of success by arming them with as much detail and reference material as possible.

If you are a designer, what inputs are most helpful to you? If you are a client, have you gotten designs that went beyond your wildest dreams and, if so, what did you do that resulted in this outcome?

Designing Our Website Icon/Favicon

How do you make your brand stronger down to the smallest detail? How can you enhance your website and stand out from competitors and other companies?

Try using a favicon, which is also known as a favorites icon, to display in the address bar when your site is open in the web browser. You can see them today on most popular websites, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Facebook Icon Twitter Icon LinkedIn Icon
Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

Without an icon, your site can look flat or worse, like you don't care enough to create one.

Affinity Express didn't have a favicon, so I suggested creating one and took on the task of designing a 16x16-pixel icon that could also be used in various media such as Facebook. I wanted our favicon to convey creativity because we offer advertising and marketing production solutions and have a team of more than 900 designers.

With this in mind, I developed several design studies that were true to our corporate branding.

Design study one Design study two Design study three
Design study one Design study two Design study three

Kelly was partial to the second and third design but wanted to improve them by removing the "x" and using only the "a" for Affinity. I revised it and came up with these studies.

design study2 revised design study three revised
Design study two revised Design study three revised

Unmana and Kelly both chose the second design because it is more fluid, organic and dynamic. When I applied it on our website, it appeared like this. And here's how the favicon is used on our Facebook page. The design was approved and makes Affinity Express more recognizable because it creates a visual reference to our brand that is memorable. Have you designed a favicon for your company? If so, what was your inspiration? If not, give it a try or ask a designer to come up with some options for you. It's a great way to show flair, communicate your company's personality and take your branding to a new level.

Creative Blocks: How to Work Through and Find Your Inspiration

"The creative mind of an artist is an expression of his soul," but what happens when your creativity dries up? We've all experienced it: the ideas aren't coming, the clock is ticking and the client (or the boss) is waiting.

It is very human to face creative blocks, regardless of the type of work you do.

As a senior designer for a dynamic company with a heavy workload and tight deadlines, I don't have the luxury of letting them get the best of me. As Professor Robert Winston says, great composers have come through creative blocks to produce outstanding works. That's great to know, but how do you get over it and FAST?

1.  Manage expectations

When you realize you are stuck, it is important to manage your client or supervisor to make him or her feel that you have everything covered. Suggest concepts, get feedback and provide updates (basically, appear like you don't have a block). Ask plenty of questions, as you never know if an answer or insight will suddenly solve the problem for you. Either way, the communication will help the person understand the process and feel engaged, which buys you some time.

Recently, there was a project that stumped me: the "welcome to Chicago" brochure for the annual strategy meeting of our Senior Business Team. The challenge was to fit in a lot of content and yet maintain a nice, clean layout with the Affinity Express our corporate branding. Because of the length (which was around 2,200 words for a four-page brochure plus several images), I played with the layout for a couple of hours until I finally got the right format and style. It also took me some time to conceptualize a design for the cover. My first pass was abstract lights but then I received feedback that Kelly Glass explained that she wanted a cosmopolitan and bold look for the cover (maybe a stylized skyline with some effect).

It got me thinking that I could blend the two ideas and I finally was able to execute the look and feel of the brochure that I wanted. Aside from some very small changes, Kelly embraced the idea and was very complimentary and excited about the design (because I used this tip,and she didn't realize how challenging the project was had been to start).

The "welcome to Chicago" brochure I designed

2.  Create your sanctuary

Do you like to work with music or in silence? Are you able to focus more when your desk is organized? Do you need to be alone or surrounded by others? Know what suits you and control the environment to open the door to creativity.

For me, I usually begin my day in the office by cleaning my desk. Also having background sounds while working helps me to be focused even thought others might consider it noise. But I do prefer to work alone rather than to be in the midst of the conversation and buzz of others.

3.  Find the right frame of mind

Build your profile of inspiration to determine what both triggers and hinders your creativity. Do ideas start to flow when you look at books of paintings, take walks, play games, exercise or something else? Focus on what invigorates and gets you into the right mood, so you can re-approach a project with fresh eyes.

What works for me is looking at images of great artwork and beautiful houses for their architecture, concept, elements and interior design—it helps me remind of my goal to work hard and succeed so I can have my own attractive home in the future.

4.  Cultivate experiences

Steve Jobs once said: "Creativity is just connecting things. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have." When creative people try to solve a design problem, they tend to look for answers everywhere except within themselves. It is important to set aside a time to reflect because creative people do better work when they have thought more about their experiences.

According to Henry Ward Beecher: "Every artist dips his brush in his soul, and paints his own nature into pictures." Any time you doubt your creative ability, just remind yourself of what you have accomplished, that you've been in this situation before and were still able to produce outstanding work.

5.  Brainstorm with others

Creative collaboration is an asset. Whether you speak to others in the same field or from completely different disciplines, outside perspectives can get your thought process back on track or at least let you rule out what won't work. You can talk through the challenge and toss ideas around. And you get to build on the experiences of your colleagues.

When I worked at a bank as a graphic artist, I had the opportunity used to often brainstorm with my colleagues. It was a faster way for me to develop ideas because it helped determine quickly which concepts had promise and which needed more thought.

6.  Conduct research

Have other pros dealt with a similar challenge and, if so, what have they done? Can you improve upon it? How can you approach things from a completely different angle? What is the background of the project and/or the client? How about the industry—what are some of the pain points, who is the competition and what is their approach? Research expands your view of a project and can set you on a path to solving the problem.

In my previous job, when our art director left the company, I was challenged to step up and take on all the design projects myself. The immediate objective was to create a stage design and collateral for the company's anniversary. Research helped me a lot, since I needed to consider the budget, design feasibility, availability of materials and timeline. Without research, a project has no foundation.

7.  Don't panic

Sometimes we get into a vicious cycle of worrying about the block and we end up perpetuating it. If all the above tips don't work, put something down on paper, canvas, etc., ignore whether it is good or bad and walk away. Come back in set period of time (e.g., one hour) and add to it without editing or questioning yourself. Repeat. Before too much time elapses, you will have either something that is great or something that won't work, allowing you to move your focus in to a different direction. The worst thing you can do is: nothing.

Creativity is an active, not a passive process. If you keep working at it, you can dissolve creative blocks and be productive. Warren Buffet says, "No matter how great the talent or effort, some things just take time." But these are a few ways you can speed up the process.