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Soup to Nuts: A Graphic Designer’s Project Start to Finish

April 12, 2010

Last week I gave a presentation to a group about what I do as a marketing / graphics / writing professional. As I’d been working recently on one specific project that encompassed all of these skills, I thought a recap of the project’s progress was ideal material for describing my services in detail.

Case Study – Launching a New Product from Planning Stages through Promotion

It began with a discussion with my client, Sidelines, Inc. (graciously allowing me to reproduce the project experience on my end from inception to production). I heard the details of the product’s new features. I inquired about proposed product names. This is an area in which my writing experience fills the gap. A client may often be thinking about a product’s wonderful features. Thus, they use descriptive words (long, tall, silent, smooth, skinny) when proposing names. None of these words, however, are particularly zippy and attention-grabbing as a product name. So I am often called upon to propose trademarkable product names. I’ll make lists and lists of ideas, many of which aren’t particularly exciting, but you need to write them all out in order to ensure you’ve exhausted all possibilities. You never know when name #402 is going to pop into your head, creating the next memorable “Technicolor” or “Microsoft.”

The new product was christened, “Premier Closet Mirror.” It is a successor to the original Closet Mirror. It’s not particularly fancy, but it accurately describes what it is and that it’s a notch above the original product in its features and design.

What happens next? While we are debating over the virtues of various product names, we also discuss how to best photograph the product. We want to show it in its best light, of course. This can be an interesting challenge for a variety of reasons. First, I’m never at the photo shoots since I’m a thousand miles away in proximity. Second, to ensure I get the shots I think we need, we do a lot of advance planning, discussing the camera angles, set dressing and optional shots. Coupled with these issues are a series of logistics: When will the product be available for purchase and shipment to the public? When will it be available to the photographer? When is the photographer able to fit us into his schedule? How much time will I have between photo shoot and first-needed publication (magazine ad deadline)? The list of obstacles to be overcome goes on and on. In this instance, the prototype wouldn’t be available for photography until after it appeared at a trade show and was shipped back to Sidelines’ offices.

Having coordinated various deadlines on the calendar and reviewed the shot list (as several new products were being photographed in one day), I had to then wait for a report from Sidelines on progress on site. Hiccups in this process can include minor arguments about the best location to show the product within the set; colors and textures of the surrounding props and materials; and a bit of panic when the photographer is running behind, forcing choices in eliminating some not-so-optional shots to ensure the must-have shots all get taken in the allotted timeframe.

The clock really begins ticking when the photographs arrive on my doorstep, or rather, arrive via online link for download. It’s a matter of days to review and amend the photos, create a print ad layout and write the copy, getting the final ad approved and off to the publisher by the magazine’s deadline — or to make a print deadline for a brochure mailing.

As the Premier Closet Mirror is a moving piece, storing tucked away against a cabinet wall and then sliding out and pivoting to face the viewer, it’s an interesting challenge as a graphics designer to depict a product in motion…with still-motion photos. As we have done in the past, we opted to show the mirror in its “closed” and “open” positions, as well as in mid-motion, sliding out from the cabinet. So now I need to get three photos into one full page ad, making it very clear it’s all the same product in different stages. Here’s the first original shot:

The first observation I make is that they didn’t remove the extra baskets just sitting on the top shelf. They’re a distraction and will need to be Photoshopped out. (Yes, “Photoshopped” is a verb to those of us ‘in the biz.’) The next problem is the distraction of unmatching adjacent cabinets (white) filled with an array of pastel-covered baskets. They have to go too since a real closet wouldn’t have this hodge-podge mix of products and cabinet finishes.

Here is the same view with mirror in its second, pulled-out position:

So I have to make the same amendments to this shot: no baskets on the top and no pastels or white cabinetry.

Here is the third view with the mirror rotated to the front:

The last observation I make is that the mirror glass likely needs spiffing up. Will viewers know at a quick glance what the product is? This third shot is the one I will use as the main, anchor shot for the full page ad. The other two will be smaller inset images, so the bulk of work will be on this one photo.

And now I go to work. First task: Remove the baskets on the top shelf.

Then cover over the white cabinetry and pastel-covered baskets. This isn’t the easiest of tasks as I have to locate a cabinet door with the same photo angle, lighting, scaled a bit larger and so on.

Now I need to draw greater focus to the main product. The photographer uses general flood lighting specifically so the image has the greatest versatility in use. I can add shadows and highlights to pull the focus to the product and not the surrounding set, as I did here:

Next, I need to convey that this is a mirror, which means it needs to reflect something. You can imagine what a nightmare it is for photographers because their camera, lighting equipment and off-set stuff all get picked up in the mirror’s true reflection, so they always replace the reflection with one made up unless it’s possible to get a genuine reflection from the angle they are shooting at. Given this is photographed in what is actually a cramped conference room with glass walls, it isn’t possible here. And ideally, the client would like to show off more product, so that’s what I put in the reflection:

This is always an interesting exercise since mirror reflections are always ninety degrees from the angle of the shot. So I have to figure out what could be seen, at what angle, if it was a real closet. That means reviewing a catalog of previous photo shoots to find similar shots of similar product and set styling, lighting and so forth. Then the shot has to be layered in, scaled to imitate what would be the appropriate focal length from the actual mirror and cropping it to fit. It all has to seem “right” so the eye doesn’t see a fake.

Remember, my job here is to sell the product. I have to make it look fabulous and ensure a viewer knows at-a-glance exactly what it does and the benefit of buying one. This is a tall order to achieve in just one glance. So I ask myself if the current amendment has adequately done that job. And the answer, IMHO, was: no. The shot is too static. The eye is drawn to light and movement and color – in that order. The photographer made a wise choice when selecting to position the red dress next to the photograph since all the surrounding cabinetry is very dark. Your eye is drawn to the product because of the proximity of the red dress. And yet, we don’t want the eyes on the red dress instead of on the mirror.

Our original shot list included one with a model shown in the reflection. But due to time constraints they didn’t get one that day. This is where I had to step in to insist the model be included. And, again, this is where the magic of Photoshopping comes in. All I have to do is find the perfect model shot and insert her into the image:

In this case, she was originally facing the opposite direction, but I can flip her around in Photoshop. I did not want a female facing front in the image. If we had done that, then viewers would pay attention to the model and not to the product. But by having her back to the audience your attention is once again returned to the product. Lastly, we lucked out in finding her in the right light and in a perfectly contrasting blue dress to juxtapose against the red dress hanging next to the mirror. So in she goes; she gets scaled to fit the room and focal length; and the rest of her arms and legs get cropped out where her reflection can’t be seen outside of the mirror.

Have we adequately sold this product as a mirror? At-a-glance a viewer may not know if he’s seeing a mirror or looking through a window. That’s why it’s essential to add a bit of lighting glare on the glass:

Now that the main photo has all its enhancements I can put together the full magazine ad, complete with copy, contact information and resizing for the publication:

But the client wanted a single-sided brochure with all the product specifications and copy. This made an interesting challenge since the inset photos were originally over the shadowed cabinetry on the left (and since our eyes naturally move left-to-right like the product from closed to open position). The only logical place to position the copy and bullet points was over the cabinetry. (And did I mention, yes, I have to write the copy as well.) This meant the inset photos had to move over the relatively busy closet parts on the right. So I blurred them out a bit so the eye wouldn’t be competing between the inset photos in the foreground with the closet parts in the background:

From this finished piece the individual copy and photos then get amended and repeated on Sidelines’ website and other venues. Take a look to compare the original to the final transformation. A good designer should be able to foresee all the possible incarnations and application needs of all product photos.

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