Design secrets for small businesses – in conversation with a graphic designer
Updated: Apr 6
I like to feature other professionals when I can and as graphic design is such an important part of marketing, I wanted to talk to a graphic designer about what they do to help small businesses understand it better. Here is my conversation with Gili Wolf from Bigbad Industries.
I am a graphic designer and have been professionally for about 20 years. I'd say that I actually started much younger. I started when I was in high school, not realizing that that was what I was doing at the time. I got hired to do my first design job when I was 16 -- It was a flyer for a coffee shop called Java Junction.
I've been doing this for a long time, but my background is actually in fine art. I feel like the world is only now on board with what I wanted to do, 20 years ago, which was that I always wanted to figure out a way to merge fine art and graphic design.
Back then, there was this firm delineation between design and art and each discipline turned its nose up at the other for different reasons. I’ve always felt like I straddle both worlds and I’ve found that sort of snobbery ridiculous, really. Now, there's a merge between the two, largely because of digital platforms. I feel like you don't really have to say you're either a designer or an artist anymore. . In reality, it's hard to even delineate what's what.
What would you say is the most common misunderstanding that small businesses have about design?
Often they don't know what it is. Oftentimes small business owners or any business owner, don’t get that design actually really just means this thing exists. At the most basic level, it means anything that is tangible
After all, ‘design’ could be anything: it could mean a good design; it could be a bad design; it could be effective, or it could be ineffective. So, the question is, which of those you want? It’s not even about taste, necessarily Taste may dictate what one sees as good design, but that doesn’t determine if it's effective.
All designers have their own opinions on that matter. You can have a range of different styles that are all good It’s the application of these styles that matters toward effectiveness. Does this particular execution of the design actually fulfill the purpose it needs to serve? That seems to be one of the biggest misunderstandings of what design is for – it’s not just a pretty logo or website, it’s so much more.
What you just said about effective design is so important, because the design is so subjective. You may dislike somebody else's brand, look, and you may dislike their website and their logo, but if it achieves what they want, then it's an effective design, right?
Well, yes, in large part. And I think that businesses sometimes miss the point of the design, in that it's a delivery system, it is serving a purpose, it's not a pretty thing that you're stamping on something. Yes, it should be attractive, and you want to catch someone's attention -- that's part of the job of design. . But ultimately, my job as a designer is to help my clients deliver their message visually. So, it's not really about my personal opinion, or even theirs. You're trying to communicate something, so what elements can indicate that?
Moreover, a logo on its own is not a brand. Sure, you want a beautifully designed logo, but if you put it on a website, and you have not thought at all about how the site looks, well now you have a nice logo slapped on a website with no real intention behind it. Your beautiful logo just looks like a placeholder, and it’s not doing the work of creating brand awareness.
Another misunderstanding is the difference between brand and design. Design is an aspect of your brand, but it’s not the whole thing, there's so much more to it.
How do you explain the difference between design and brand? Or how design fits within the brand?
I like to use a borrowed house analogy. You cannot build a house without a blueprint (a strategy), and you cannot have a design without a blueprint (the brand). To build a house you have to have beams and a foundation, you can then put the walls, the paint, and the windows, (the design) on top of that Otherwise, it’s like, “Oh, great, I have a bunch of wooden beams” - the design is what delivers the house.
Ultimately your brand is the experience delivered by your business, whether that’s to customers, employees, shareholders, whomever. That encompasses all the ways someone interacts with your company: the way you talk to them; the people you hire; the aesthetics of your storefront or space, your social media feed; the language that you use; the other types of brands that your brand aligns itself with; what that brand says it stands for.
Again, the design is the delivery system of all those things. A business says it stands for X, Y & Z, and so the idea of design is to communicate that immediately. It takes three seconds to make an impression, so someone can look at a brand and intuitively get what you’re about. The design makes all that tangible.
What are the top things that businesses should make sure they get right when it comes to design?
The first thing is to really be clear on what you want to communicate. You can't have an effective design if you don't know what you’re trying to say. Then be clear on who you’re communicating to. I think that one of the things that businesses need to pay attention to is to focus on who needs to receive the message more than who is disseminating it.
Often really small businesses or solopreneurs, in particular, see their logo as being an avatar of themselves. But it’s not, it's an avatar of their business and their business is its own entity. To get it right businesses need to be super clear about who's receiving their message and what is going to resonate with that audience. While it's important for a business owner to feel good about their design as something they are putting out into the world, it's helpful to remember that it’s more of a reflection of their audience than it is of them.
If a client comes to you, what's your starting point for working with them?
I always start with an initial conversation, to find out who they are and what they're looking for, or if I'm even the right person to help them. If I’m not, I want to help them find the person who is. The starting point is to get to know each other.
Who do you want to work with?
I enjoy working with clients who really value their businesses, for example, I have a client with a cleaning business. She's a small business owner, but she has this huge vision for where she wants this business to go over time. I feel her complete trust in me, as far as helping her brand.
That is a dream client because she has clarity about what she stands for, and what she wants to express, but rather than take on the branding of her own business, she puts her trust in me to make that happen. It’s a true collaboration. She doesn’t have a huge business yet, but that's not even the point. I feel like I can be effective in helping her because I can say, “Here are things that I honestly think will benefit your business, I think this will help push you to that next level”. And she would be open to hearing that because she wants to grow.
There's a ton of joy in having a client come back with the sentiment, “Oh, my God, I love my packaging. I know I just said it's not about them, it's about who they're selling to, but I do still want them to feel pride in their brand. I want that business owner to feel excited about what they're creating because that's going to make it possible for them to sell it.
What makes Gili so great?
I've been doing this for so long that I know what I'm good at and I know what I’m not good at and I'm totally okay with that. I have reached a level of self-acceptance that I have to believe benefits clients because I want to be very honest and authentic about how I work and who I work with, both for myself and for them. I'm not going to try to do something I don't think I'm that great at and I’m fine with handing that off to somebody else who does it well. I have a certain skill set and knowledge base that can help people and I want to use that in an effective way.
So, you help them make their visual branding more effective.
Exactly. But I’m not going to lie, I’d like to put some weirder, edgier stuff out there. I think all designers want to do that, we want to make a statement with design if we can. There's room for more expressiveness and risk in how we brand and market things to make it a more interesting experience. And I want to help business owners do that -- Let’s make it exciting.
And finally, what's your favorite part of what you do now?
That's a good question. It's taken 20 years, but I think I finally now understand what I do. I more clearly see my role in the marketing industry. Right now my favorite part is partnering with people like yourself and others. I love that I can focus on being the visual creator and team up with other pros who do all of the other creative aspects of a project. That is what I've wanted for my own business since I started. I've wanted to team, and I finally know myself well enough to have found the right people to team up with, and that is a great joy.
Equal parts designer and artist, Gili brings a unique perspective and carefully crafted style to the brands she creates. She has created branding, identity systems, packaging, print, and social media design for locally-owned businesses large and small – from locally-owned to international brands including Samsung, Dell, Best Buy, Hitachi, and others. She has worked across a range of industries including health and wellness, the wedding industry, performing and fine arts, tech, non-profit, real estate, education, food packaging, restaurants, and more. A Californian in Colorado, Gili lives in Louisville, CO with her husband who she met on a design job for a dating coach. When she’s not glued to her laptop, Gili is working on her art, redecorating her house, or snooping around Denver for the best graffiti alleys and pops of color around the city.