July 20, 2020

Creating Effective Podcast Art with Carl Huber


#005 - What should you bring to the table when talking with a designer?

How can you best work WITH your designer?

What makes podcast artwork effective?

We'll address all this and more with Carl Huber in today's episode.

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Music licensed from purple-planet.com

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Transcript

Matt:
Welcome, welcome, welcome fellow podcasters. I am very excited to share today's episode with you.

Matt:
As you may have noticed from the first four episodes of Podcast Better, this will primarily be a solo show, but from time to time, I will bring on some guests, and today marks the first of those occasions. My guest today is a fantastic graphic designer named Carl. How do I know he's fantastic? Well, that's simple. I know because I worked with him to create the Podcast Better artwork. In today's episode, you'll discover what you should have prepared by the time you're looking for a designer, how to work with your designer and what goes into creating effective podcast artwork. It's a lot to cover, so let's get started.

Matt:
Podcast Better is for you, the podcaster, or soon to be podcaster, who has a business, a cause or hobby that you're passionate about. Each week we'll take a closer look at the mental, physical, and technical skills necessary to produce a quality show that your fans will want to listen to. Thanks for sharing part of your day with me so that we can podcast better together.

Matt:
Today I have with me, Carl Huber. How you doing today, Carl?

Carl:
Great. Glad to be here. Very excited.

Matt:
I'm glad to have you. You are officially going to be the first guest on Podcast Better. So how do you feel about that?

Carl:
Also very excited, Matt. It's an honor and a privilege.

Matt:
Glad to hear it.

Matt:
What can you tell me? You are a designer as far as I know. Is that your day job?

Carl:
Yeah, it's my day job for sure. I've been a professional graphic designer for about 18 years give or take in various formats. I was with one company for about 17 of those 18 years and between the economy and coronavirus and everything bouncing around I'm kind of flopping around between jobs and freelance right now. Keeping pretty busy. But yeah, professional designer for almost two decades.

Matt:
Wonderful. So that's something you went to school for I'm assuming?

Carl:
Yep. I went to school here in Western New York and stuck around because they gave me a job.

Matt:
Beautiful. You get to stay local. There's nothing wrong with that.

Carl:
Yep. Yep. Pretty good scene here.

Matt:
All right. I brought you on specifically because you actually helped design the Podcast Better artwork.

Carl:
Yes. That was a lot of fun to do. It was a great project to work on.

Matt:
I'm glad to hear it, because artwork is definitely not my forte and I struggle to find artists to work with a lot of times. It's not always a lack of funds or just the lack of people. It's just, I don't know where to look a lot of times. I don't know how to find the right people for the right job. I feel sometimes some artists are better suited for different projects.

Carl:
Absolutely.

Matt:
Is there any type of project that you like to work on more than others?

Carl:
Well, that's a great point because there's a huge difference between say an illustrator and a designer. You would like to have some skills, some overlap in between both, but I like to be able to personally work on projects that are a little bit complicated, a little bit challenging that kind of really get me thinking about strategy and how to answer a problem. Like an illustrator could create something absolutely beautiful and gorgeous, but it may not be an effective deliverable for something like a podcast cover. It may not be effective. And we'll talk about that later.

Carl:
As a designer, I get to come up with solutions to challenges like what makes good podcast art. That's what really tickles my fancy is coming up with solutions for things, and then developing those. I love working on the art end of it, the illustration end of it, but my forte, the crux of what I do is coming up with a solution that is both good communication and looks cool at the same time. That's a delicate balance.

Carl:
It's no surprise that it's kind of hard to find somebody that fills that niche because people have their strengths. Some people may be good at concepting. Some people may be good at designing or illustrating or photography. It's all under the banner of artist or designer, but there are certainly specific strengths that go along with whatever your particular lane is in that realm.

Matt:
Wow. Yeah, that's true. I've never really thought about the differentiation. I've always just kind of referenced artist or designer and use them interchangeably. You make a good point that illustrators, designers, artists, they all have slight nuances to them I think, and that's something that someone outside of the art world doesn't necessarily know much about, much less know how to differentiate them.

Carl:
Right. Yeah. Somebody who may be, again, I'll use the example of an illustrator, somebody who may be able to make an amazing illustration of a fantasy scene or something like that may not know the first thing about typesetting and typography, which if you're doing something as kind of billboardy, let's say as a podcast cover, the topography is hugely important. The artwork and illustration may be incredibly important too, but you want to have a legible, nice type going on in there as well, and they are definitely different disciplines.

Carl:
One of the things that was great about the school that I went to was they put focus on individual parts of it. You would have a class for typography, a class for illustration, a class for design work, so you got to work on them all. One of the things I always say is my most impactful class in college, and we're going back 25 years now, was a rhetoric class because it taught me how to speak about things. It taught me about how to do the different kinds of communication that are effective; logos, pathos, ethos, that sort of thing. So if somebody goes to a trade school, they may be wonderful with the programs, but they might not have any idea how to use them in a way that's effective. So yeah, it's a whole big world for artists out there.

Matt:
You mentioned being able to communicate not only your ideas, but I'm assuming with clients as well then. Is there any bit of advice you can give to someone who might be in my seat, or a first time podcaster, who's looking for some podcast art? What should they be looking for, or be looking at, or what types of things are you as a designer going to want from the client up front?

Carl:
Well, the interesting thing about that is that as a designer, first and foremost, it's my job to kind of get behind the client's eyes and see what they are seeing, see what they want to achieve. It's not my show. I'm just here to make you look good. So there tends to be a lot of ego in the design world, which is unfortunate because the path of the designer is to ... and people may argue about this, but I think the path of a designer is to achieve the client's vision. So the better vision, the more developed the vision the client has, and in those cases, it would be the podcast hosts, the easier it is for me to work with that.

Carl:
Now I've certainly had clients that have very, very specific visions, and that can be just as bad as no vision whatsoever. There has to be room for kind of a teamwork where both sides come to the table with, "Okay, I've got an idea and the designer has the skillset to bring that idea to life." So going to find a designer and coming to them with nothing is tough. We have to have at least nuts and bolts, know what the podcasts going to be named, know what it's about, and things like that. But if there's something like somebody says, "My podcast is about finances, but I love cats. Can we do a cat themed podcast cover?" The answer is, "Well sure, but is that the best strategy." We can talk about that.

Carl:
Maybe it's what differentiates you from the pack. That's something definitely to come to the table with is at least an idea of how you want your podcast artwork or any artwork really, to feel. If you have a solid idea that just needs fleshing out, that's great. But if you come too developed, you may be kind of strangling the creativity of the designer.

Carl:
There's a broad avenue where it works really well, and it's really just the ends of the bell curve, where it gets kind of cumbersome. So for the most part, as long as you have some idea, you're going to be fine because for me at least, a lot of the development cycle of creating a piece of artwork is the communication between the designer and the client. It's a collaborative process. It really is. It's not something where you just say, "I want a podcast cover artwork. Here's the name of my podcast," and go sit in a cave and isolate yourself for 30 days and come back with something amazing. This work doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's not in a void.

Carl:
I want to make sure that as I'm developing the art, the podcast host has a say in it because there's nothing more frustrating than pouring hours and hours into a piece, and coming back to the client and they say, "This is not at all what I intended. You completely read me wrong." There's a lot of just communication, and the more open everybody is about the communication, and so many things in life in general, open communication is paramount. So it's not only just being an artist and knowing how to do typesetting and things like that; it's about being a good communicator, and hopefully I can get my point across, through email or through a Skype call or whatever it is and make sure that the client's vision is getting developed.

Matt:
That makes a lot of sense. In that description I heard basically two things as a minimum requirement; the name of the podcast and what the podcast is about. Is there anything else you can think of that you'd say, "I really need to know this; this would really help me figure out which direction to take this?"

Carl:
If the customer has something like that previous example of I love cats, can we use a cat theme, that absolutely should be communicated. But at the bare minimum, you want the name and I'll call it the genre of the podcast, because it has to be communicative and good artwork. And by good in this case, I mean effectively convincing or persuasive. It has to have strategies to connect with the intended goal. And if the client can develop those strategies on their own or with the designer, then so much the better. If somebody comes to me with a podcast that just says, "It's supposed to be about Star Trek, but I don't really know what we're going to do with it," that doesn't really give me the tools I need to start building a Star Trek themed podcast cover.

Carl:
I've done several Star Trek theme podcast covers. One is called Table Trek, which they talk about games and things within the Star Trek universe, but they also have cocktails while they talk. So I developed this cover that has the 3D chess from Star Trek in it and it has a margarita on it. That's communication that happened between me and the client to develop that as an idea. Originally, I had a martini glass in there and they said, "Oh, the host prefers to drink margaritas." I'm like, "Okay, a margarita glass. No problem."

Carl:
So the effective intended goal of this artwork is it's twofold. Initially it's to get people to check out the podcast. It has to look engaging and inviting because we are judging a book by its cover here really. It has to be able to draw somebody in and say, "This looks cool. I'm going to check this out." And then down the road, the second part is giving them pride of listenership to be able to say, "Yah, I can share this with somebody. With my friend who likes podcasts, I can pull this up and show them the artwork. And I don't have to say, don't worry about the artwork, it's a great podcast." It is kind of that first impression, and you only get one chance to make a first impression. So we really are judging a book by its cover.

Carl:
So the more you can come to the table with, in terms of what you want up to a certain point, the better, because that helps me help you. To put it simply, the better we communicate, the better the end product. That's pretty much always been the way that I've worked is the communication is the best. If you come with something and it's just a really nebulous idea, and you say, "Come up with something," I'll say, "Well, what do you think about these ideas?" before I even start doing actual design work. Or I may do something really, really simple, like a little thumbnail sketch or something like that, just to say, "Is this even in the right ballpark?"

Carl:
That can be very informative and effective way to start the process to kind of start the ball rolling, because a lot of people don't know what they want, but they know what they don't want. So sometimes you kind of have to prime the pump a little and give them something that they can say no to just to eliminate that kind of option, to help them formulate an idea of what they might actually want.

Matt:
Yeah. As you described that process, I'm thinking about what we went through making the artwork for Podcast Better. It's exactly what you're saying. There are a few things I knew I wanted, like I had the title, I had a few things in mind, but until you gave me a visual to look at, I couldn't have told you like, "No, that's not what I'm going for." But that almost instantly gave you a better idea of what I might like too.

Carl:
Right absolutely. We went through several rounds of revisions and development, and that's a totally normal part of this process because it's an evolution. You start with concept A and you may end up at concept G or H or something like that by the time it gets to be a final design. And that's totally fine because it is a very collaborative process like I said. Unless you're doing something like commissioning a piece of artwork, specifically trusting the illustrator, which is one way to do it, and then just saying, "Okay, that's fantastic. I've got go with it because I've committed to that."

Carl:
My process is much more involved with the client. I prefer to work that way. I don't like to work in a vacuum or in a cave or what have you. I like the back and forth so I can check in. And then the client also gets a sense of ownership because they get to put their two cents in along the way.

Carl:
I think for podcast artwork, that's a really good way to work because people do tend to kind of think of it as an afterthought or not think of it at all, and they just say, "Oh, I need some type on a white background." They're really letting themselves down. It's an opportunity to brand yourself. That's what you're doing really. You're not just making, "Oh, I need a podcast cover," you are branding yourself. You're becoming a brand, a logo that has a brand promise, and that promise is whatever the concept of the podcast is. So it has to be communicative and engaging to achieve its goal.

Matt:
So on average, how long do you think you spend on a piece of artwork? I suppose that could vary from podcast art, to company logos, to full website design or something. I don't know if that's in your wheelhouse. I guess just podcast art in particular, how long do you think one cover takes you on average?

Carl:
That's a very good question because it varies wildly depending on the concept of the podcast. One of my favorite podcast covers that I've done was for a podcast called Genre Vision. Genre Vision they talk about all these different types of genre movies, like horror, fantasy, action, adventure, that sort of thing. They had this great idea for a cover. I worked on it for a while. Poured a couple of hours into it. Said, "How do you like this?" And they said, "Well it's okay, but it's not quite what we're thinking." And through this development process, it took on a whole different look and I put so much time into it, but I'm really proud of what it turned out to be.

Carl:
On the flip side of that, I've done podcast artwork where I've actually taken a resource that I've already developed and never used for something that I can just kind of pick up and say, "Oh, this is perfect for this." I did one that has a VHS tape on the cover and the word rewind. That took me about half an hour, 45 minutes, maybe an hour to do. So it really, really varies depending on the scale of the project. And that's why I generally personally, I bill per project, not per hour, because I have the flexibility to be able to work like that. Some people may not. They may need to do a per hour thing and that's really up to the designer. But it can vary intensely depending on how demanding the client is, which is totally within their right, because they need to have pride in their artwork.

Carl:
Or I've had people say, "That's perfect. I love everything you do," which is a great feeling, but it's kind of like, "Are you sure? You don't have any changes? You don't have any notes or anything like that?" You get kind of gun shy about pulling the trigger on it because they just say, it's great. Let's use it. It's a weird feeling to have something go that well that quickly, because I'm used to the collaboration, I'm used to the back and forth. So time is kind of immaterial to me because I have a lot of free time right now to pour into these projects, so it works out okay. I can't really give a straight answer to that. It's just, it depends.

Matt:
Fair enough. Yeah. That back and forth that you keep talking about is something that I greatly appreciate in the process so I'm glad I stumbled across you on Twitter. It's a part of the process that you don't always get depending who you hire, where you hired them from. I've seen a lot of Fiverr artists. You hire someone off of Fiverr and the package you buy might come with three revisions or something like that. I understand why they do that, but it always feels very limiting to what the final product might actually be able to be if they would give you unlimited time. I'm very glad to hear that you are the type of designer that loves to go back and forth with your clients.

Carl:
Yes, absolutely. It's an interesting thing that you bring up about Fiverr and the limited number of revisions, because how can you predict what it's going to take. In some senses that is intended to force the client to make decisions, which can be good, but it's also just to, in a case like Fiverr and other really cheap design sites, it's to limit the time that the designer puts into it so they can go onto another project.

Carl:
Now I will do something like ... I have had requests in the past where I've had to say, "This goes above and beyond," is the terminology I usually use. "This goes above and beyond the original ask. I'm going to have to talk with you about an additional fee to continue on this, just because people have been 90% of the way there, and then they 180 and completely changed their tack, and that's not fair to me as an artist."

Carl:
Now on the flip side, if a client is working for themselves, like if somebody who has a podcast is trying to make their own design, which is completely fine, and we can talk about that later. They may lack that outside opinion, that kind of visual experience of somebody who is a designer, or just somebody else to have another set of eyes on it. You can get really myopic when you're working on your own stuff for yourself. So I like to be there as kind of a counselor to walk people through this development process. I've mentioned it a couple of times, but it really is one of the most important parts of the whole process.

Matt:
That's true. Just getting another set of eyes on anything can be a wondrous thing to have. I'm a part of various Facebook groups about podcasting and stuff and that's one of the most common things you see is people post their artwork from their designer and say, "What do you think of this?" and just floods of comments, of course. People love commenting on that type of thing. Like I said, even just one other set of eyes, whether you're the designer or the friend of the designer or the client or whatever, it helps.

Carl:
Absolutely, because that goes in line with you can't design in a vacuum. You get inside your own head, you say, "This looks great. It's the next Mona Lisa." And somebody else notices that you spelled your podcast name wrong, and you didn't even think of that because you were so in your head about it. So yeah, other eyes on projects are always good.

Carl:
One of the jokes in the design world is the client shows their spouse and their spouse's kid, who is a freshman in art college, and they come back with a thousand changes. And it's like, "Okay, that may be a little too much feedback." But it's definitely show your artwork to people before you give it the final okay because other people are your target audience, so other people should see it and review it.

Matt:
Indeed. You mentioned if people are working on artwork themselves, is there anything that they might need to focus on for podcast art specifically? What areas do you focus on when creating a new piece of podcast art?

Carl:
Well, that's an interesting question because there are a couple of strategies for creating effective ... again, I like to use the word effective, which means persuasive in this instance, podcasts art. The strategies include viewing it at a small size, like a thumbnail as if somebody were scrolling through a bunch of podcast lists and then viewing it at the large size where somebody might see it if they're only looking at it on their phone, or if they're on the podcast website, something like that. So you have to take into account a small size and a much larger size. And to do that functionally, you need to have a combination of elements, and those elements are generally something like really clean, crisp graphics and bold colors that scaled down really well. Simple graphics. They don't have to be just clip art, but they should be simple enough to be identifiable at a really small thumb nail size.

Carl:
And your type needs to be clean and legible. Legibility is huge. If I can't read your podcast art name when it's a thumbnail, I'm not going to look at it because I tend to look at the artwork of a podcast rather than just reading the name of it underneath it, or wherever it shows up.

Matt:
I totally agree with that.

Carl:
You have to have that strategized. You can't just use Times New Roman and a small font up at the top, and then have the rest of it be a photograph, again, of your cat or whatever. That's just not going to be effective. But that doesn't mean your artwork has to be simple. It should be clean, but it doesn't have to be boring because people do have the opportunity to view it at a larger size, and you may use that same artwork asset for other applications. You may, like I mentioned, put it on a website.

Carl:
A lot of my artwork will have clean details, but when you view it at a larger size, there's a lot of extra things like texture or small details that may get lost at a thumbnail size, but they're there to reward the viewer at a full-size.

Carl:
You do have that opportunity. You don't have to sacrifice quality for small legibility. There's a happy medium where both work. That's something a designer, or just somebody who has a podcast who's making their artwork needs to consider. It all goes in the kind of melange that comes together for the podcast artwork.

Carl:
Number one, legibility of the podcast name. Number two, have a color scheme in mind. Don't just use random colors and hope they gel. You need to have a color scheme. Something like maybe two colors that are kind of complimentary and a key color. When I say that, I mean like a highlight color that kind of pops out that may be used less, but it's very bright or bold, something like that.

Carl:
With your podcast logo and artwork, we used two shades of green that really gave it a good vibrancy to really help it kind of pop off, and we used clean, simple graphics to help it be easily read at a small size. So that's great. But when it's viewed larger, you can see there's kind of a grid in the background for the chart that goes up. There are elements there that work at both levels, and that's an easy thing to do if you just spend a little time strategizing and kind of sketching things out can help a lot.

Carl:
Yeah, I think that's the way to go is make sure it's legible and make sure it's clean.

Matt:
Beautiful. We're probably going to start wrapping things up here. Any final tips for podcasters out there who are looking to get their artwork done?

Carl:
Sure. In terms of getting your artwork done, find somebody that is a good communicator. I've kind of hammered that home a bunch during this talk, but you need to have somebody that you can work with. If somebody is not getting back to you, or if they're aloof, maybe they're not right for you because you're going to need to communicate with them. Be flexible on the budget. Have a budget. A lot of designers will say it's, "X amount of dollars," or, "X amount per hour," or something like that. "Can you afford that?" To some extent you get what you pay for. It's frustrating when somebody says, "I don't have any money, but if you do this for free, I'll mention your name." That doesn't really ... this is how I pay the bills. A shout out is great and very helpful, but I am a professional. So be prepared to pay for it and something reasonable. Ask a couple of different places, a couple of different designers. And you can shop around, absolutely.

Carl:
If you're trying to do it yourself, there are little tips and tricks. Things like having the type at an angle or skewed a little can give it a little more emotion, just a little more kind of fun and action, energy to it. Definitely explore fonts. But again, make sure that you're doing something that's clean and legible. Everybody likes a really fun font, but if nobody can read it, nobody's going to listen to it.

Carl:
Think about contrast. Look up the current podcast artwork size. I think off the top of my head right now, it's 3000 pixels a square. You don't have to have the Adobe suite of products. They're the professional standard, but they're obviously very expensive and have a high learning curve. There are free alternatives, such as Inkscape and GIMP. I don't have personal experience with them, but I know a lot of people use them in lieu of the Adobe suite of products.

Carl:
There are definitely ways to empower yourself to create your own podcast artwork, but if you have the opportunity and the available budget, definitely seek out a professional because that's what they're there for. They can really lend a severely professional eye to creating the podcast artwork, which is just going to benefit you in the long run, because again, you're judging a book by its cover when you're scrolling through an endless sea of podcasts and you want something that's going to catch people's attention and effectively draw them in.

Matt:
Wonderful. Yeah. Thank you once again for joining me on the show. If somebody wants to get in contact with you, what's the best place to do that?

Carl:
Great. Yeah, it's been a lot of fun.

Carl:
You can follow me on Twitter @natural20shirts. I'm there pretty regularly. My DMs are open. Feel free to slide on in. A lot of the side stuff that I do is I design t-shirts and mugs and things like that. Very nerdy stuff, which is a lot of fun. You can view those at natural20shirts.com. Check that stuff out. I have a lot of Dungeons and Dragons designs, some Rick and Morty stuff, some Bob's Burgers stuff. It's a lot of fun. So check that stuff out. And if you're interested in my professional portfolio, you can view that at carlh.com. That's just C-A-R-L-H.com. I think that's all the important stuff.

Matt:
Sounds good. Thanks once again for joining us and I'm sure we'll be talking soon.

Carl:
Great. Thanks for having me, Matt.

Matt:
If you don't have a website for your podcast, or if you're looking for a simpler solution than what you're currently using, I have the answer; Podpage. Podpage takes all the hassle out of a podcast website. The site is built and automatically updated based on the information in your RSS feed. This means that as soon as you publish a new episode, there'll be a corresponding page added to your website automatically. Even though the bulk of the work is done automatically, you still have the freedom to change the look of your site, or add additional pages or a blog or a merch store or videos, or just about anything else you can think of. But the best part is you don't have to worry about updating the site each time you put out a new episode. It's all done for you.

Matt:
To see what your site could look like go to thepodcastersguild.com/podpage. That's thepodcastersguild.com/podpage. You can have a podcast website up and running in less than five minutes. If you like what you see, don't hesitate to sign up; prices are increasing on February 1st, 2021. So this is going to be your last chance to get in on the ground level and lock in your price for life.

Matt:
If you have any questions, I would be more than happy to answer them for you. I hope to see your new website very soon.

Carl Huber

Graphic Designer

Carl Huber is a graphic and web designer with over 18 years of professional experience crafting branding, packaging, websites and more. His expertise lies in combining brilliant visuals and communication into compelling marketing creative that engages, educates, and entices clients and customers.

Carl is also a huge Dungeons & Dragons nerd. Visit Carl's professional portfolio website (linked below) to check out some excellent graphic design across myriad format applications and genres of art. Carl is available for freelance design work!