What Designers Should Know About Data

Author:Roger Gimbel

If you want to make your marketing programs and design projects more effective and engaging, consider using data as your starting point. Much is written about data, and it can be a huge and anxious topic, but it need not be. Let’s look at some basics.

marketing planning
Data, when implemented properly, can increase customer engagement and responses.


Data, when properly collected and used for marketing and design purposes, can increase customer engagement and responses. The more you know about your recipients, the better you can create meaningful communications. If you know your customers’ shopping history, for example, you can predict potential interest in future purchases and send them offers they will find intriguing.

If you know where your clients or other audiences live, their genders, their ages, or other pertinent criteria, you can shape and refine your message even more. Once you leverage relevant data, you can personalize the messages and offers you send to your clients or prospects in several effective ways. Personalization generates interest, engagement, and trust with your brand.

Direct Mail for Mr Humfreez by ANZ Bank


Relevance is essential in creating and designing marketing programs. You achieve that relevance in a few key ways. When you have accumulated enough data about your audience, you can segment them into groups based on criteria you think are important. You may choose gender, geographic location, level of interaction, past purchases, and so on. If you have access to a data analyst, ask them if they can recognize patterns in the data. They might find that subscribers to a travel magazine, for instance, are attracted to a particular product line (even if your products aren’t travel-related). Information like this can affect the design of marketing materials directed at a particular segment.

By analyzing and synthesizing bits of data, you can create programs that target each of those groups differently, sometimes even if you’re selling the same product to all the groups. Or you can make targeted offers to each group based on their particular needs.

Let’s say you’re selling cars. You might send customers in Arizona brochures and other marketing materials that show the desert landscape, while customers in Maine see coastal pictures. Further, you can make different pitches to each of those groups that resonate more precisely with them based on other data you’ve gathered.


Taking this concept to the next level, you can create pieces that are personalized by individual. With today’s printing technology you can create highly targeted pieces. Designers can change almost all elements on each sheet that comes off the press, including fonts, text, images, graphics, and positioning. This is called variable data printing — VDP — and several studies have proven it increases recipient engagement. One study by research company Infosys, for instance, revealed that 86% of consumers said personalized marketing led to a buying decision.



This requires some careful thought. Ask the IT people to collect any piece of information you feel is crucial for understanding the client relationship and creating relevant programs. This may include individual buying histories, engagement histories, demographic data, complaints, and so forth. Focus on information that will help sell the product or service. Work backwards by thinking about what you want to achieve, then consider the information you need to reach your goals.

Be aware that some backlash is brewing against brands that use information indiscriminately. Your data may include an individual’s credit score, for example, but you probably shouldn’t print the scores on marketing pieces. Instead, use the credit score to segment your audience and adjust offers accordingly, using variable text and images.

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Before deciding to use data explicitly, ask the IT group how they keep the data current, accurate, and consistently formatted. Personalization is great, but sloppy personalization will kill your campaign quickly.  Addressing someone as John, Jonathon, or Jonathan might make no difference to you, but it will to John. Do you want to address recipients as Dave, Mr. Smith, or Mr. Dave Smith? Has IT cleansed the data so some records aren’t listed as Dave Smith and others as Smith, Dave? All this and more influences how you set up and deploy data. The state of the data needs to be considered in advance.


When creating documents with variable content, you’re merging an artwork file from inDesign with a spreadsheet or database file in programs like Excel or Google Sheets.

A good practice is to begin by outlining your goals, assembling the data necessary to reach your desired outcome, reviewing the data in the spreadsheet, and then creating the design. It’s best to let the data determine how to design a piece. Let the design adapt to the data. Talk with the print service provider as early as possible. Experts on staff will give you valuable direction for setting up your files and other guidelines that will save you time and money and increase the odds of success.



Follow a basic spreadsheet setup. Each row of information corresponds to a different art file, while each column represents a field corresponding to a space on the artwork. Your print service provider can give you specific set up instructions, such as whether they need comma delimited files.

Use a simple and consistent naming system for the columns, such as first name, last name, address, city, image one, image two, and place the name of the images in the appropriate columns. Use the exact name of each image. You can use .jpg, .esp, or .tif extensions. You can include variable text in the spreadsheet to correspond to its position on the artwork.

If you’re doing more complex variable documents, printers may use VDP applications that can work with a relational database and extract the data you need to use. Again, your print service provider will have an IT team to help with this.

Your art files will also have some requirements regarding fonts, size and resolution for images, image formats, size of text fields, or how to use special items like barcodes or QR codes. The IT team or your print service provider may relate specifications necessary for taking advantage of favorable pre-sorted postal rates.

data driven marketing
With today’s printing technology you can create highly targeted pieces


Variable data printing is done on highly advanced digital or inkjet presses. Traditional offset presses cannot print variable documents, though some shops use hybrid presses that apply variable data to offset pages as a second operation. The advantage of digital or inkjet presses, aside from the variable capabilities, is they make it economical to produce shorter runs. A campaign targeting several groups with different messages becomes affordable to print. Take advantage of the economies of VDP to design materials that appeal to the different segments of your audience. You’ll notice an improvement in response over a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Data requires some expertise to master properly, but it produces proven results.

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