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Whether you’re producing a brochure, a microsite or an RFP response, graphic design is an important way to distinguish your offering from everyone else’s.

Before the client reads a word of your document they will start to form a judgment based on the front cover, and long after they have forgotten the detail of the text they will recall the images you used. But finding great visuals to illustrate financial services is difficult, because the underlying concepts are often complex and sometimes dry, leading to an overreliance on a handful of hackneyed visual metaphors.

Here are some ideas that could help you get more from your design studio or agency partner, and increase the impact of every document they create.

1. Involve design from the start

When visual design falls short it’s normally for one of two reasons: not enough input from stakeholders or too much input from stakeholders.

If a designer is confronted with a bewildering spreadsheet and an accompanying note to ‘make this look engaging’, they might get lucky and nail it, but probably not. Equally, if the note reads ‘put this text in a red box with a green border, with centre-aligned Calibri’, then there’s a limit to what the designer can do.

If your project features some visual decision-making, the best thing you can do is get the designer’s view on it right at the start of the process. If you’re scratching your head trying to come up with the right image, pick up the phone and reap the benefits of the designer’s expertise.

Another benefit of getting the designer’s ideas early on is that they are less likely to be burdened by already knowing the standard illustrations for financial concepts. If asked for a visual to explain the relationship between the price and yield of a bond, for instance, you will very likely think of a seesaw. Because that’s what’s always used. A designer, however, might have a different idea, and different ideas will make your work stand out from the crowd. Think of any time taken to explain a potentially unfamiliar financial concept to a designer as an investment in their creative capital and your combined intellectual firepower.

As well as providing a fresh perspective, the designer’s ideas will be informed by their sophisticated knowledge of layout. Taking our example of bond yields, it may be that the designer knows that only a tall, thin illustration will work in our imaginary layout, so a paternoster lift would be better than a seesaw.

Getting your designer’s input can be hugely valuable, but it’s important to be selective. Inviting them to every routine production or editorial meeting takes up time that would be better spent doing design work.

2. Lighten the load of production work

The graphic designer’s typical day is a mix of creative work on the one hand and pasting text into templates and churning out standard charts on the other – what’s normally called ‘production’ work. If your job involves passing materials to the design team, you may be in a position to tip this balance. Here are two practical ways to speed up production, freeing up time for valuable creative work:

Your designer will be an expert at InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop, but Excel is a different story. It doesn’t feature in the curriculum of graphic design degrees, and visually minded creatives are often ill at ease with it.

So, when sending design an Excel sheet, only include what is needed to make the chart, and paste data as values rather than formulae. Bespoke charts are normally created in Illustrator, which freaks out if there are a lot of data points (thousands rather than hundreds). So, if you want a 10-year fund-performance chart, request monthly rather than daily data.

Another bugbear of designers is taking in changes. It’s sometimes necessary because they are the ones who can open the InDesign files used for more complex layouts, but it’s tedious work that doesn’t often play to a designer’s strengths.

The process can be hugely simplified by having stakeholders edit PDFs in Acrobat (you’ll need the pro version to do this), which can then be automatically flowed into the InDesign document.

 3. Infographics are great – when they’re done right

The appearance of the standard line, bar and pie charts that are essential for financial documents should be covered in your brand guidelines, ensuring visual consistency and making the production process as fast and repeatable as possible.

Beyond these basic charts are infographics, which hand the job of storytelling over to the designer.  Information is Beautiful shows just how compelling they can be.

Although a good designer will be able to make almost any collection of data look attractive, creating infographics that tell the viewer a compelling story isn’t easy. Creating these complex visuals also involves a lot of bespoke design work, so it makes sense to ask yourself whether this story really lends itself to visual treatment before handing it to the designer. The same goes for interactive content on websites.

One truly informative, arresting infographic has far more storytelling power than a collection of uninspiring data sets that have been squeezed into a visual form simply to break up the text.

Something that can help identify infographic-worthy data is the ‘three S test’. Is your data striking, salient and self-explanatory? If it’s all three, then it has what it needs to grab the reader’s attention, inform them about something that matters to them and be understood without additional commentary.

Getting a non-expert opinion on your infographic will very often highlight flawed assumptions about what you can expect a reader or viewer to know, so it’s good practice to get an industry outsider’s take on graphics aimed at a retail audience.

If this blog has got you thinking about whether your visual design hits the mark, get in touch to find out how we can help.

Harry Brooks
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