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M2M: Don Harder on his Creative Process
October 26, 2017
M2M: Don Harder on his Creative Process
Zhana Veleska

This week’s Marketer to Marketer (M2M) blog features Don Harder, CBD’s Associate Creative Director (ACD), who has developed a reputation for his undeniable graphic design skills that are behind some of the agency’s most successful client work.

Sitting in the same room as Don Harder, his easy-going attitude might lead you to believe that he’s a fresh face in the industry. In reality, he is among the chosen few with a final say on creative work at CBD, and that is no small responsibility. Before he was an ACD here, Don spent several years working for other agencies, co-owning a printing company, and honing his talent for graphic design.

Q&A with Don Harder

What is an average day in the office like for you? What can you usually expect to do?

As an ACD, I’m responsible for managing four people — two copywriters and two graphic designers. So, I always have to be aware of all client work that needs to be done on any given day, and make sure we’re all on the same page. Lately, I’ve also been more deeply involved in new business pitches, leading brainstorms, and client presentations. I’m in front of people a lot.

Associate Creative Director Don Harder presents to the account and creative team at CBD Marketing.
Don often presents to CBD’s internal team to keep them inspired.

What is your creative process like? Take me through your mindset.

My process starts with research. Whether it’s given to me or I need to find it myself somehow, I always start by immersing myself in the world of the intended audience. I try to challenge what is acceptable and what’s a given. I see what the competition is doing, what industry leaders are doing, and what leaders outside the industry are doing. A combination of those ideas is a starting point. I also do a lot of sketching (on paper!) and then make, make, make. Quantity versus quality is more important in the beginning. Then I get into narrowing down and polishing my ideas.

Don Harder's creative process starts with pinning up creative research and images on a bulletin board.
Don’s creative process involves research, brainstorming, and a lot of paper.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to someone who wants to be a graphic designer?

Do one for yourself. It’s not new advice, but it’s something I share with everyone I mentor. Sometimes the best ideas are those that you think will never get bought or will never fly with the client. But that journey you take with the offbeat idea will always help to make your other designs stronger and more unique.

A photo of a downtown Chicago crosswalk taken by Don Harder, Associate Creative Director at CBD Marketing.
When Don isn’t in the office, he enjoys developing visual works that are out of the ordinary.

In your opinion, what is one of the most critical traits of a successful graphic designer?

Listening. A lot of people can do a beautiful job of designing, but you need to have a good understanding of who you’re designing for. Without that, it won’t make a difference how excellent [your work] is. If it doesn’t work for your audience, it’s not a successful piece.


Where do you look to for inspiration when you get stuck on a design for an important project?

I usually try to do something completely different than what I am doing. Sometimes it’s a walk down the street, or eating in a new place. Sometimes it’s just going home and thinking about it, or not thinking about it. Sometimes it’s a matter of grabbing pillows and laying on the floor. Any combination of those things allows me to switch perspectives.


What would you say is one of the most common mistakes that young creatives make?

The first thing that comes to mind is not being authentic. It can be tempting to take on projects that you aren’t ready for, and you should always strive to step out of your comfort zone, but it’s important to be honest about your skill set. Especially when it comes to clients. It’s never a good idea to set their expectations so high for a project that you can’t achieve those results. That can be a challenge for young creatives, since they tend to think they can accomplish anything, and they can. It just takes time to develop certain skills.


Last but not least, what is meaningful to you outside of your role as a designer and associate creative director at CBD?

The biggest challenge I have had over my 20+ years as a designer was finding a balance outside my professional life. Then one day I decided that the line [between my career and personal life] should be a lot blurrier. While I don’t work 24/7, I’ve learned to integrate my personal and work life in a way that inspires creativity and leaves room for friends and family.

In terms of my personal life, I derive meaningful experiences from spending time with my 3-1/2-year old daughter, going to classic car shows with my dad, or simply walking from the train station to work.

A photo of classic American automobiles taken by Don Harder, Associate Creative Director at CBD Marketing.
Occasionally, Don and his father spend their weekend appreciating classic car designs.

Want to know more about Don? Follow him on Twitter @cbd_dharder for more tips to inspire phenomenal graphic design work. Next up in the M2M series, CBD’s branding expert, Mark Shevitz

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