How to achieve swag/life balance

As designers, we have a responsibility to the planet.
As designers, we have to pay the bills.

How can we deliver for our clients without having to print their logos on lanyards? It’s a challenge many designers and agencies face. We grapple with how to create meaningful, useful things to amplify our clients’ presence in the places they need to be. This isn’t limited to ethical swag. It means reckoning with whether our clients need swag in the first place, which can be more challenging than trying to solve a ‘Your Logo Here’ Rubik’s cube. But it can also be a fantastic creative challenge, as we find new ways to tell a company’s story. How to start the process? We have some ideas:

Let the Client Own it

Clients know what good quality is, and understand the value in making fewer, nicer things. They can answer the questions that matter, and decide for themselves how to best represent their brand. Ask:

  • Would someone not affiliated with your organization or company want this?
  • Does the item elevate or lower your brand?
  • Is it likely that the intended recipient already has this item?
  • Is there a better way to promote your brand?

There are so many examples of companies doing great things to promote themselves that don’t involve discount water bottles. It’s just a matter of finding the example that will resonate most. How about a digital coffee coupon? A sponsored podcast? An interpretive dance? A promise never to do an interpretive dance?

Research tells us that giving your customers the ability to offer something to someone else is even more valuable than just giving them something. What’s better than a free coffee? A free coffee you can gift to someone else! The idea that a branded item will last longer in the client’s memory is also unfounded: A good experience can live on in the minds’ of members or customers long after the swag has worn out.

A pennant that reads 'I Don't Want No Swag'

Future Perfect

The future of swag is precarious. As we begin to charge producers for the full environmental cost of their products, the cost of these products will begin to rise. The days of unfathomably cheap knock-off Swell bottles are numbered. How do we prepare ourselves and our clients for this healthier future? For the sake of the planet, designers have a responsibility to illuminate these impending realities for our clients, to show them that there are innovative ways to live in customers’ minds, without wasting valuable resources, and producing stuff no one wants or needs. Making these ideas salient to clients has the power to help them establish a path for transforming their brand marketing.

Make it Unique and Valuable

It’s only a piece of paper, but our visual guide to everyone at an event was our way of giving the attendees of a TEDxToronto Innovators dinner something truly memorable, and useful. The same goes for our Pilot holiday cards. If we’re going to use paper, we want our clients and colleagues to want to hang that paper on the wall. It’s okay to make stuff sometimes. The key is to make something lasting, durable, and keepable.

A picture of a card with 100 drawings on it.

Save Big, Win Hearts

Large amounts of things cost large amounts of money. An event, a donation, a blog post, an email that explains your company’s decision to go swagless can win customer hearts without a big spend. What’s more, people are thankful to not be burdened with stuff they don’t want. I recently tried to gently refuse the referral gift my dentist effusively bestowed upon me, without success. It’s a not very nice mug in a not very nice tote bag that I will never use, and now have to get rid of it.  My dentist might as well have lit money on fire and then handed me an extinguisher. Designers can’t let clients waste money on garbage.

We Both Like Soup

The Stuff Solution hinges on our fundamental humanity. Clients want things because things make a brand feel real. It’s about finding something that everyone values. How can you offer something (an experience, a gift certificate, a message) that feels authentic and universal? Find common ground, and build from there. And when you do send stuff, make it deeply thoughtful and highly personalized.


Here’s a challenge: Encourage clients to pledge themselves to a swag-free marketing plan, and help hold them accountable. They can talk this challenge up internally, and amplify it externally. Everyone loves a commitment, a pledge, a challenge, and a good narrative. Help your clients find their stuffless story! And help them convey this story transparently and engagingly.

Tote bag that reads, "this is my 39th favourite tote."

None of this is easy. It’s hard to say no to free hoodies. It’s harder yet to convince paying clients to say no to free hoodies. But as designers, thinkers, and citizens of the earth, it’s the stuff of our work. Has swag/life balance been a challenge for you? Let’s talk about it.