What makes the work you do a calling? For Janel Gancena, Sparxoo’s art director, she designs because it changes lives. “There’s a quote that one of my graphic design professors told me in college, and it’s rung true: When you learn to see, you can’t unlearn to see,” she says. “Once you see that everything is designed in its own way, you can’t unsee that. It goes with you throughout your career, your life — you see everything.”
Janel uses this second sight to lead Sparxoo’s designers in crafting top-notch creative content. Her best practices and favorite tools are all a part of Sparxoo’s success — and today, she’s opening her playbook to share these with you.
When you’re first approaching content design, Janel says it’s all about aligning with the client. “Understanding their mission, vision, and values is the starting point,” she says. “That is what will inspire me as I go. It’s all about getting inside their heads to figure out, how do we best understand you so we know how to best help you.” Janel says that, apart from the more obvious meetings with the client to define these facets of a brand’s story, her team will also look into the competition. Understanding the competitive landscape helps to inspire design, and can provide context for your strategy.
Next, it’s time to start honing in on a design focus. “After reading through all my notes from a client meeting, I will pick out key words,” Janel says. “Let’s say we’re talking to a client and they keep bringing up bold, dramatic, and sophisticated. If I can find words like that, I will write them down right before I sketch things out. When I see those words, I can already envision what the style could be. That’s the bridge that takes me from the note-taking and the words to the first round of sketches.”
This takes Janel to her favorite part of creative graphic design: the game. “You need to communicate whatever the message is, but how can you communicate it in a smart and clever way,” she says. “When I design a logo, I try to pare down the visual as much as possible while still communicating the key message. That’s the game — how do I push the design while maintaining the message. It makes the process exciting.”
Even for someone as passionate about content design as Janel, she can still experience creative ruts. Luckily, she’s not alone — and that’s the trick to her success. “The beauty of our collaboration at Sparxoo is being able to go to each other to find inspiration,” Janel says. “Going to someone else, whether that’s another designer, writer, or anyone at the agency all the way up to our president, can help break the rut. I trust everyone at Sparxoo because of their ability to be creative in all different ways. Someone may say, I don’t have exactly the answer you’re looking for, but it reminds me of this, and then that can spark a whole new set of ideas.” Janel also utilizes short walks and breaks to recharge her creative batteries when they’re running low.
Janel also finds inspiration outside of her own content creation agency. “I’m constantly looking on social media at other creatives’ work,” she says. “I’ve followed so many talented people, and it’s been awesome reaching out to some of these creatives and starting conversations.” Curated design blogs and Instagram accounts help keep Janel and her team informed on the latest design trends, and also act as inspiration for other projects.
But Janel doesn’t just stick with creative content from agencies. “For me, it’s also about looking outside of the graphic design world,” she says. “I find inspiration everywhere. Whether it’s the architecture of a building, or something on the sidewalk I see, or street art, magazines, books — there’s always something you can take in that inspires you. Whether it’s in person or digital, I’ll take a picture or screen shot and save it so I have a bank of inspiration pieces. Everything sorts itself out in my brain.”
When it comes to the nitty gritty of designing for a brand, Janel and her team lean on content creation tools to get the job done well. “For digital or web design, Adobe XD has features that make the collaboration between designer and developer really seamless,” she says. “XD has a feature where you can share a preview link, which is great for sharing with clients. There’s also a developer link that outputs a different view for the developer, but also includes all the things that you want them to export, like the images, text styles, color palette, and spacing measurements. It makes it really easy for developers to see the specific things we want in a design and translate that into their world of coding.”
For white papers, the Sparxoo team works with InDesign, and for logos they create in Illustrator. Janel says that these industry-standard creative tools have helped her team to be efficient, productive, and above all — creative.
Though the world of creative graphic design is built around innovation and imagination, there are still pitfalls that can beset even the most experienced designers. “If you’ve been working with a client for years, at a point, there could be some staleness to your approach,” Janel says. “You might think, ‘I know what they’re looking for so let me create something that would be an easy approval.’ Instead, you should try to get a fresh set of eyes and think in a different way to push the client.”
Not only can you get too comfortable with a client’s preferences, but it’s also important to do some self-reflection to avoid personal stylistic ruts. “When you get comfortable with a style or it’s a style that you prefer personally, you might be looking to force in your personal preference versus creating for your client’s brand,” Janel says. “There are always projects where you can insert some personal preference in there. That’s also one of the positive challenges, though. The client’s needs can push you, as a designer.”
The last pitfall Janel warns of is mixing up your clientele. “Especially when you work within an agency and are switching from one client to another, they all have different voices, so sometimes it’s tough to separate between each one,” she says. “Especially in a day where you’re working on four different clients. You just have to keep the client and their voice in mind. But it could open up opportunities for each client, too!”
For Sparxoo, there are two main ingredients that Janel feels make up our recipe for success. “The first thing is what we call strategic design,” she says. “There’s equal importance on both the initial strategic aspect of a project and the design. That leads into the second thing, which is the variety and diversity of team members that we have. Everyone has a different expertise, everyone wears multiple hats, and I think being able to have a team like that to lean on gives us an advantage over any other agency. Collaborating can potentially change my design, or the amount of versions I have, because I want to do what the client wants, but it will inspire me to do a little more.” Janel says this kind of teamwork doesn’t just help when it comes to collaboration — it helps with motivation, too. “The general mindset of people at Sparxoo is, yes I can do what you’re asking me, but I can also do more, not just for our clients but for ourselves,” Janel says. “It keeps us all accountable. That quality of work and thoughtfulness stays with me on every project, so I think about how I can continue to push creatively.”
Once you’ve mastered your creative design, it’s time to think about where and how to display your assets. Up next, Sparxoo president Rob Kane will share why your website is mission critical for a great brand story.