Improvements on design processes – EMBL Communications

EMBL Communications

Informing, inspiring, and engaging society with EMBL’s research, services and training

Improvements on design processes

This blog post is about how my team handles design and production requests and about the new processes, routines and workflows we have put in place. While things are far from perfect, it’s a chance to blow the trumpet for my team and share how we are working.

Structured briefing process

First, we structured how work is requested from us. Most of our stakeholders do not have a marketing or communications background and thus are not aware of how to place a work request. We ask people a list of questions, which they need answer before we meet for a proper briefing. These include:

  1. Contact details, including group, team or service
  2. How can we help you?
  3. What is the deadline?
  4. Who are you trying to reach?
  5. What are you trying to achieve?
  6. Anything to say about the format, such as dimensions?

Team structure

We re-structured the team and built a strong network of external suppliers. We now have two graphic trainees at any given time. We all work together in one room, which we call the Design Lab. Trainees profit from insights in my day to day work as well as supporting and inspiring each other. Trainees are highly involved in all projects, integrated in the team and are motivated to own projects early in their tenure, which is usually six to 12 months.

We have a Design Lab stand-up meeting every day at 9.15am to help us to align on tasks and priorities to agree special support when needed on specific tasks.


We changed the way that we share work within the team, not only based on capacity, but also related to talents, objectives and needs. We are lucky to have experts in each field from illustration, editorial design, corporate design, prepress production, which helps to constantly improve the quality on ALL products which are delivered by Design Lab.

Monitoring and evaluation

We began to actively monitor how much time we spend on every design request. These are averaging around 60 per month and can range from creating a web banner, or brochure, or newsletter template to creating a journal cover illustration to accompany high-profile papers. Most of these requests are significant pieces of work and are not, say, cropping an image of giving quick feedback on a graphical abstract.

But this is only one little part of what my team does. We also:

  • support around 250 products per year for the EMBL Courses and Conferences team, including the creation of specific key visuals;
  • develop the EMBL design system;
  • manage projects;
  • oversee production of a whole range of products, from printed brochures to signs on campus;
  • train and coach others in good practice;
  • produce merchandise;
  • provide illustration support.

In short: the Design Lab is highly productive!

Cover pitches

Working with our scientists, we have won 5 cover pitches for major journals over the past year. Through this, we have structured the process of cover submission. We’ve also built good relationship with prestigious journals such as Nature and Cell. This has been really appreciated by our scientists, and contributes to Strategy and Communications’ team goal of raising EMBL’s profile.

Getting systematic

There is no shortage of work: we could double or triple in size and still we wouldn’t be able to fulfil the demand for Design Lab services. So we need to get systematic. Our collaboration with one of our main stakeholders, the Courses and Conferences marketing office, headed by Julie Heinecke, is a good case study in how we are trying to do this.

Streamlining of the design process to support design requests for Courses and Conferences was important, as the number of events happening in the ATC has steadily increased over the years. For example in 2010 when the ATC was opened we only 16 events that needed artwork,  but we are now regularly producing artwork for 25-30 events a year.

We worked  with our graphic design colleagues from EMBO and the Courses and Conferences marketing team to define a completely new process. Here’s what we did:

  1. We moved all data and files to a single server that can be accessed by all stakeholders. We created a standard folder structure for each conference, sorted by type. Each conference has its own code, and within the event folders these subfolders: input, layout, files for approval and final files.
  2. We created new InDesign templates linked directly to a central spreadsheet, enabling the conference organiser to manage the relevant information for posters. This means, for instance, that we can update the speakers list on the InDesign-poster-template with only one click.
  3. We aligned fonts, software, image style guidelines and process guidelines with EMBO. Every scientific organiser receives this information early, during the kick-off meeting for the conference, which happens about 1 year ahead of time.
  4. We have a status and ownership excel sheet, which is weekly updated by all of us. In addition, we have a biweekly stand-up meeting where we double check the spreadsheet and discuss bottlenecks as well as other projects.
  5. We optimised the whole revision and production process. We trained some of the marketing officers in how to apply and work on the templates. From now on, CCO will do the revisions for all products by themselves. When finally approved, the Design Lab will export the final production files. For print, EMBL’s Photolab is doing a last quality check and produces all most of the onsite print materials.
  6. We keep testing our templates, in real life. For example the colour mode testings for screens in different test environments: projections in our Klaus Tschira Auditorium (where most conferences take place) plus smaller rooms with bad light conditions.

Open hours for support

We prioritise the support we offer to scientists. However, as we serve all sites, labs and departments, we unfortunately can’t offer design services at the level of PowerPoint slide design or the illustration of every scientific figure or graphical abstract. We are therefore working on a specific training course on design skills for scientists and will pilot this in the summer.

In the meantime, we also offer “open office hours” every Monday, between 10am and 12pm. Scientists can either drop by the Design Lab in the ATC or contact me via skype tabeaatembl. Within these hours, we provide individual design consulting, feedback and advice on design. In most cases, a few small modifications can really improve the look and feel of a poster or graphical abstract.

Better collaboration within Strategy and Collaborations

The collaboration with other teams within our department has increased tremendously. I have a weekly status call, for example, with Spencer, graphic designer at EMBL-EBI as well as with Mark, our Digital Team Lead. The collaboration with Ed, responsible for Core Content, is fruitful and we produce sustainable visual artwork. From our Press Officer, Iris, we receive very early insight, right when we know a scientific paper has been accepted. This gives us enough time to create appealing images, always in collaboration with first and second authors. I would like to list every single team member of the Stratcom team as ALL of them are amazing collaborators and help a lot to make our artwork and design thinking processes visible, successful and appreciated.

We also involve our joint heads of StratCom are highly supportive, support us in every decision making process and trust our skills. Both make sure that all senior scientists, all important committees and all other important stakeholders know what we do, why and how. Over these 1,5 years this helped a lot in order to create awareness for design in the scientific field and to appreciate our support, skills and thy way we think and work.

In conclusion

We are lucky to love what we do, and we approach our work with a lot of enthusiasm and joy and a good sense of humor. Plus: whenever an outstanding creative idea is needed, we’ll try to give our support and input. And thus,  we hope to inspire not only our team, but the whole of EMBL and beyond.