I was working in an ad agency that landed a plum client: a Fortune 500 company’s new air-cargo startup. It was a great opportunity, because it was a high-visibility business that literally needed everything from the ground up — every brochure, every sign, every name badge, you name it.
It also needed something that was a dream project for graphic designers: a livery for its fleet of airplanes. As one of those people who can’t help but look up every time an airplane passes, I thought that was pretty cool. Then I saw the design proposals and said “uh-oh.”
It wasn’t that the designs were lacking. In fact, they were darned good. The problem was that instead of placing those designs on a real airplane, the designers had cobbled together a craft of their own. Airplane geeks in the crowd will understand this right away, but the airline was slated to fly 727F models. The design looked like the forced marriage of a DC-10, an L1011, and something from those Tupelov folks.
The morning of the presentation, I warned the design team that they were making a fatal mistake. “These guys live and breathe airplanes,” I explained. “Not only are you presenting your design on the wrong plane, you’re presenting it on one that doesn’t even exist.” I was told that I was paranoid, an idiot, and had no idea what I was talking about. But when the team returned from the presentation, my boss said those three magical words: “You were right.” The team opened the presentation with their cool designs, and the CEO’s immediate response was, “Just what the hell is that supposed to be?” He proceeded to rip the team and the agency apart for several minutes. Instead of looking like the professional designers they were, the team looked like rank amateurs.
I ran into a similar situation when helping a development company prepare a presentation about an intermodal facility for a group of logistics professionals. The designer had been told to put a train on the front, and grabbed a pretty stock photo. Unfortunately, the photo was clearly of a European locomotive, rather than the American products that would serve the facility. To the designer, a train was a train, but to the target audience, that pretty European train would have sent a message that the developer really didn’t understand intermodal.
You may not be a (fill-in-the-blank) geek, but your client or customer may be. What seems inconsequential or commonplace to you may be unique and amazing in your client or customer’s eyes. It’s not their job to tell you that — it’s up to you to be perceptive and inquisitive enough to find out on your own.