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Jaime Hunt is vice president and chief communications and marketing officer for Miami University of Ohio.

While some marketing and communications offices are sufficiently staffed to include specialists across the gamut, many marcomm professionals find themselves in the position of serving as “a team of one.” In those cases, an individual might start their day writing a press release, spend their late morning strategizing about an upcoming event and end their day designing a publication. These generalists must possess a breadth of skills to be best positioned for success.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of marketing communications is design. There is often a perception that one must possess an innate artistic talent to be an effective graphic designer. In reality, design—like anything else—can be learned.

As I wrote about in a previous article, design in the context of marketing has a simple goal: “Convey to the reader/viewer the desired message in the most effective manner possible. With this goal in mind, [designers] have a number of tools they can use to ensure that the materials they produce will meet the needs of their clients. An infinite number of possibilities exist; however, the right choices rely on the [designer] understanding the message, the audience and the method of conveying the information.” In order to decide on the best methods, it can be helpful for designers to understand the three primary models for conveying information visually: representational, abstract and symbolic.

The representational model relies on reality to create a message. For example, an advertisement for a bridal shop may show a “real” bride trying on “real” dresses in the actual shop. This model provides the audience with familiarity and can aid in their comprehension. Rather than relying on reality, the abstract model instead works to appeal to the audience’s emotions. When deployed, this model promotes a concept, such as the lifestyle that viewers can achieve with the purchase of a specific product. Finally, the symbolic model works to attach meaning to “arbitrary systems.” One common symbol marketers frequently use to convey the idea of an eco-friendly product is a leaf. When a company places this symbol on its product packaging, it conveys to the viewer or reader that the product is “green” and “Earth-friendly.”

Designers can consider all three of these models when they’re creating materials. If one considers an example product—body wash—looking at the product through these three lenses may help them determine the best route to take. If a designer were to take a representational approach, he or she might show a real person using the product in a real shower. If the designer took an abstract approach, he or she might choose to demonstrate how the product will make the user smell so irresistible that potential romantic partners flock to him or her. A symbolic approach might include an image of a flower with lines that represent a fragrance “wafting.”

Armed with the knowledge of these three models and a well-written creative brief, a designer can determine which option may be the most effective for conveying the desired information. As you approach your next design project, think about these modes and make a decision about what is right for the piece.


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