My graphic design skills, combined with my semi-technical illustration and copy-drafting capabilities, translated complex science into eye-catching report cover art also suitable for poster or exhibit design.
Design, art, and copy editing for carbon sequestration project
I gambled. My bet was that I could generate demand for – or at least interest in – something beyond what the client had requested.
Business was slow and I craved an illustrative design project to highlight my visual story skills. This particular client wanted to explain a process in a single image. Despite a tiny budget I decided to go beyond bare bones fulfillment and add significant value, delivering a polished execution when “simple” was the request.
I’m lucky – I get to learn all about cool new stuff
The deliverable was an image (and later a page) to incorporate into a proposal. The first audience was Shell Oil [UK]. In line with their environmentally-friendly retail facilities initiative, Shell entertained green roofing for a prototype London station. The low, dense plantings on a vast canopy above the pumps checked several boxes: capturing excess water runoff; filtering atmospheric carbon dioxide; sequestering other greenhouse gases; and generating oxygen. My client's expertise was with mycelium, the fine tendril-like fungus often found among plant roots in healthy soil.
Most times, the designer, brander, communicator and businessperson in me work harmoniously, making prudent compromises. But this time the “good enough” impulse was subdued and I aimed higher. If the technical exposition could be made more dramatic, would it not command more attention and respect? Would it not elevate the company brand – a small business with big talent and aspirations – to the notice of other large corporate and industrial planner customers?
The project. I happily learned plenty about the science and process of greenhouse gas sequestration in soil, and the solution my client's fungal product and expertise offered. I was free to ideate and imagine that solution visualized, captured in a still image, and free to empathize with prospects who'd receive and view it.
My first sketches stressed how plant life cleans the air. I chose a tree theme – simple, comprehensible, substantial. But once I learned how inappropriate (and ridiculous) a big tree is to green roofs, a better solution came to me. I also thought of treating this as a poster design, adding even more value. Clearly this could satisfy more than “a graphic to include in a document” if needed; if so desired, it could star in a mailer, or exhibit signage.
The ultimate hand sketch (left), prior to precise digital layout, marks the end of my favorite phase. With the earlier tree idea behind me, the new "pie slice" idea proved better. The building's roof type was further defined in the ultimate pdf (right) with contemporary glass fencing and a sidewalk, signaling the growing trend of roof use by people.
I knew that my extra efforts would not immediately pay off, but I saw this as a loss leader. It would likely open the client's eyes to the value of a quality product and the brand-building possibilities they hadn’t yet imagined. Going forward, to stay within budget, I planned to outsource the work.
I discussed all this with the client, who rewarded me with a thirty percent bonus over the budgeted price for this one project. Who knows how far the deliverable eventually traveled or how it was received; the working relationship would soon end, on a bad note.
“Now that we have the general science and process captured in a still image,” I recall the client saying, “we need something similar, but more specific to the Shell petrol stations. We need an image of a gas station roof... but as a green roof. And the budget is the same as the first project.”
Designer (me): “Hmmm... you can't afford drone images of petrol station roofs... Do you or your people have roof-oriented images, maybe courtesy of Shell? We'll then figure out how to ‘green’ them. Meanwhile I'll start a stock photo search... though that seems unlikely. However, I did find a stock illustration that might work.”
And then we broke up
As I finished up this second project, the client became less communicative and more impatient. Our good working relationship evaporated. I was angrily accused of driving up prices, called unprofessional, and berated for my disregard of startup budgets. I was further told that I wasn't doing my job. Specifically, that I had dropped image research into the laps of his small team, and also had "outsourced design decisions to him," the client.
I understand, insofar as my client contact was stressed by a deadline, small team and tiny budget. But I'm less understanding of the other accusations. It's worth noting that:
I acted in good faith, executed the requested projects, heard him out, worked to salvage the relationship, and was rewarded with silence and no payment, however meager, for completed work on this second project.
It's all a reminder that I need to be even more clear about both parties’ expectations, no matter the project size or deadline. I know small business people are busy, and this was [to him] a “simple” (more about that term someday) project. I showed respect for his endeavor, but it wasn't reciprocated. We worked things out for the first project, but the second was his chance to vent his frustrations and demonstrate his values.