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why pr pros need to think like designers (and how to do it)

January 28, 2013

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try a little experiment, using Mondays to post on topics related to communication. Sometimes (like today) I may share thoughts on the industry. Other times I might share campaigns I’ve spotted (like this one and this one). While I realize not everyone reading here works in the communication industry, communication is a part of all of our lives in one way or another – whether it’s in your nine to five, the volunteering you do, or the way you manage your  personal Pinterest and Twitter pages. I hope you’ll find the topics useful.  I’ll use other days to continue to post on topics like living in DC, fun finds, and general musings on life. Enjoy!


We live in a communication age where storytelling drives campaigns and good design persuades audiences to engage.

Several years ago, Daniel Pink argued in his book A Whole New Mind that in the next decades, the difference between those who get ahead and those who don’t would be the ability to think creatively and artistically. This statement more true today than ever.

Communication is increasingly visual. Products have to cut through significant noise to get noticed; this means press releases, annual reports, blog posts, Facebook covers, and white papers must look good to stand out. Whether you hate it or love it, this is the reality of the world of communication we live in today.

Most large PR firms now have – similar to ad agencies – the luxury of a full design department. They are stocked with creative directors, graphic designers, and web developers. However, most folks working in mid- to small-size firms or managing PR for small organizations don’t always have the same access. If they are lucky enough to have one or two in-house designers or the budget to outsource, small projects (like blog posts and press release templates) often get bumped for bigger projects (like web re-design).

This means PR pros who can think like a designer and create better visual products for their organizations are highly valued. Not to worry – there’s no need to go enroll yourself in a fancy art program. Here are four practical ways you can start to think like a designer:

Train yourself to think visually. We encounter visually compelling projects on a daily basis, whether an infographic shared on Twitter, a poster pinned on Pinterest, or an email sent from a non-profit organization to donors. The next time you see a product you like, don’t just smile and chalk it up to the handiwork of a talented designer. Analyze it.  Critique it. What is it that you like about it, specifically? The colors? The typeface? How are they using design to convey a mood? How could you use a similar product in your organization? Asking yourself these questions will help you begin to recognize elements of good design and make design a part of your daily thought process.

Find an unofficial design mentor. Ok, so don’t actually go up to a designer and ask them to shell out the design knowledge they’ve spent years (and money) developing, unless you are willing to pay for it. But you can get a design mentor without them even knowing. This can be as simple as adding a design blog to your daily RSS feed reader, subscribing to free online design tutorials, or following a designer on Pinterest whose style you admire. Just as PR pros need to read in order to improve their writing, they also need to be surrounded with good design in order to improve their design palate.

Take a class in Adobe Photoshop or InDesign, or another graphics program. Many PR professionals have never spent a day tinkering in a design program. That needs to change. This doesn’t mean you have to enroll in the Savannah College of Art and Design. But PR professionals, at the very least, need to know how to create a properly sized web banner in Photoshop or design an aesthetically pleasing cover page for a white paper. Sign up for one of Nicole’s Classes or take one of the self-paced classes at These courses offer great information for a nominal cost. If nothing else, the courses will allow you to speak more intelligently about design when you are working with designers.

Make design a part of your regular conversation. If design isn’t a part of your daily communication strategy conversations in your organization, make it one now. For example, when planning a series of upcoming blog posts, include in the conversation a discussion on ways those posts can be represented visually. Most of us have heard how PR pros need to use Pinterest to spread information. Make your blog pin-worthy by adding a compelling image.

Creatively and solidly designed products aren’t just for ad agencies or major PR firms. PR professionals at even the smallest organizations need to dip a toe in the creative waters. This is not to say we should sacrifice content. Rather, good design gives a quality message a platform, creating a perfectly complementary partnership. The end result will make you more experienced and prepared for the future of communication, and it will make for a well-rounded industry.

Photo credit: Erin Loechner, Design for Mankind, one of my go-to design bloggers for inspiration. Her blog here. Her pinterest page here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2013 7:07 pm

    Great advice! I was lucky enough to take some photoshop/in design classes and because of it, I get to work on more projects. I just wish someone would have told me earlier! :)

    • January 29, 2013 1:45 pm

      So true! More opportunity available to pr pros who can step into projects and use design experience.

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