VDP Roundup: Working with Designers

Montpelier Alive recently hosted a meeting of the Vermont Downtowns Program, which meets quarterly to talk shop and learn from one another. It does take up the entirety of my day, but it’s really great to hear what’s happening in other communities, and to share knowledge.

Part of my hosting duties was 75 minutes about Montpelier Alive. Typically the host does a walking tour of the downtown, but I chose not to do that, since Montpelier is a place that many of these folks have been to and/or will visit again. Plus it was optional. I wanted to tie in with the Four Points® theme of Promotions, and so decided instead to focus on talking about the why’s and how’s of using professional graphic designers for your outgoing materials.

Communities represented include Springfield, Rutland, Windsor, White River Junction, St. Johnsbury, and Montpelier.

Communities represented in this photo include Springfield, Rutland, Windsor, White River Junction, St. Johnsbury, and Montpelier.

In the back of the room, I set up a table of our current materials, all of which were outsourced to local graphic designers.

“I’m only two years into the job,” I said, “and the comment that I continue to hear from people is that since I came on board, everything seems so much more polished and professional looking. And so I want to talk about how and why that happens,” I began. Here’s a recap of our discussion (quotes are notes from Montpelier Alive designers): 


PRIDE – We’re membership-based organization. We also receive a lot of our funding from the community. A professional presentation of ourselves and our programs instills a sense of pride from our members and donors. We want everyone to feel great about contributing to our success. It’s basically putting our best foot forward.

RESOURCE ALLOCATION – I can make a good poster, but it will take me half a day. But Dana can make a great poster in about an hour. My time is better spent on higher-value tasks. The same thing with volunteers. Would you rather they spent a half day making a poster or working on donor solicitations? I can guarantee that your graphic designer is going to pass on stuffing envelopes.

“…[a volunteer/lay designer] sometimes produces fabulous things, but most often produces hastily made directionless work.” – Carrie


THE CREATIVE BRIEF—I usually write a summary of what I’m looking for, which include the following: design notes (colors, size, etc), message (purpose, audience, mission statement), proposed usages (banner, ads, posters, etc), mandatory elements. For projects involving many different pieces, make sure to list everything you want designed for the project, including lawn signs, buttons, tickets, etc.

“I especially appreciate the thought put into the feel of the PoemCity branding: it was awesome to take home a piece of paper that said, ‘we want our logo to be inky, arty, clean, bold, active, both modern and old-fashioned, conveying writing, using blue or black colors.’” – Dana

PoemCity logo, designed by Dana Dwinell-Yardley

PoemCity logo, designed by Dana Dwinell-Yardley

TECHNICAL SPECS / TOOLS – Obtain these from the printers/publishers BEFORE they start the project. And/or put them in touch with the people who will know.

“It was frustrating to have set up the Frostival poster for bleed, for example, and then find out last-minute that it actually was going to have a margin. It turned out that the layout was flexible and adapted well to a margin setup, but other layouts may not have been so forgiving.” – Dana


FREEDOMS – Once the creative brief/scope of work is outlined, the designers usually will return with first drafts, most of which are super amazing. I believe in trusting their creative juices, since it allows them to take risks with the work.

FEEDBACK – Feel free to mark it up—it’s your work after all. I give loads of feedback, with usually 2-3 drafts before I’m satisfied. I do this EVEN IF the work is excellent. Because it can always be better.

“Having a lot of creative freedom has been good and bad in that I’m very happy to have it but always worry about going in the wrong direction.” – Brice

State Street Slam logo, designed by Brice McIntosh

State Street Slam logo, designed by Brice McIntosh

The only time I’m not super picky is when ad designers are asking for proofs. The newspaper designers are working for someone else, and if they’ve put together what I’ve asked them too, then I’m happy. This leads me into the last part—


Newspapers and magazines all have their own design team, all of whom are sending out messages about your community. Get together with them, and make sure you are all on the same page. Even though I do not micro-manage what ad designers create, I do communicate with my ad rep as to what projects / promotions they are selling. And I give them feedback on it. Whether they want it or not.

Do the grouped retail ads convey the retail message of your marketplace? Is the promotion utilizing existing creative assets that you have in place? Is everyone using the same color palette, logo, calendar listing?

Talk with your ad reps about all programs you also have going, in case they can offer value via their outlet—a cooperative ad page with your logo / schedule, for example. They are interested in their sales commissions, so it makes sense that they will be your ally and work with you if they want the sale.

“Thank you for giving an up-and-coming designer a chance! Doing work for you has really enabled me to hone my design skills and break out into the local freelance world in way that I hadn’t before.” – Dana

PS: The BEST part of this presentation was getting to talk about PoemCity, and getting other communities interested in it. This evolved from a discussion about the creative brief about the PoemCity logo. (more in a future blog post)

ORCA Media, our local public access station, came by and recorded the afternoon segment of the day—it includes Michelle Barber’s talk about using social media.

Phayvanh Luekhamhan is Executive Director of Montpelier Alive, a nationally accredited Main Street ® program, part of the Vermont Downtown Program. She love what she does and loves writing about it. 

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