Good design is not a personal opinion. What?
Wait a second here. Everyone has a personal opinion about design, right?
Sure as rain, each of us will perceive works of art, or sculptures, or even color palettes in at least slightly different ways. Personal opinions will vary invariably over whether a design is pleasing to the eye. However just because one, some, or all people in any given room decide something is aesthetically good does not necessarily mean it is a good design. Whether any creation is a good design is another matter altogether. Here's why.
Does this design meet the criteria for being "good"?
First we need to define objectives before assuming a design tack. Ask, what are the objectives for this (or any) endeavor? Whether creating a new product, an office building, a chair, a new brand, or brand loyalty initiative that will evolve and grow in perpetuity—those objectives need to define everything we do on every level from engineering, to customer engagement, to the building architecture in which a company inhabits, to the design of product packaging, or the product design itself, and more. Those objectives need to permeate every possible aspect of an endeavor and every possible touchpoint to be successful.
If we have a solid understanding of what we want to accomplish, then we can create equally solid design objectives that meet the desired accomplishment objectives—and an equally good design to follow. Below are examples of a few accomplishment objectives:
That's right—form (design) must follow function (objectives). Sometimes that objective happens to be an aesthetically pleasing design on some level. But in the end, a good design is that which fulfills the desired objectives. No more, and no less.
If something does not need to be in a design, it likely should not be. Less is usually best. Can you justify adding something other than gasoline to your gas tank? So repeat, "form follows function"! But what does it mean when we talk about aesthetics as an objective?
What about design aesthetics?
You might ask, if the objective is a design that is aesthetically pleasing, then aesthetically pleasing to whom? Interestingly just because a certain design is perceived as "ugly" aesthetically today, does not prevent that design from being perceived as beautiful or pleasing in some way next week.
Take the Volkswagen Beetle. During the 1960s official en masse introduction to the US driver market, the initial outcry over the car's ugliness became iconic. It was a goofy little machine introduced to drivers accustomed to large or "sleek" or "beautiful" luxury cars. Hot rods, sedans, roadsters, American and Italian cars captured Americans' imaginations and pocketbooks. And so, in a stroke of marketing genius, Volkswagen proffered its wares as the ultimate anti-brand, actually highlighting the perceived faults—including the "ugliness" aspect—as well as that the car was reliable and economical. Sales skyrocketed.
Since the 1960s, the Beetle has become so pervasive a car in its various incarnations, that perceptions have changed toward essentially the same basic design. A cursory inspection on the Internet testifies to a large number of people who now think the Beetle is not ugly. Times change, yet the Beetle is one of the longest lasting car designs on the planet. That's not just a good design, that's a great design.
Is good design a popularity contest?
Is good design a popularity contest? No is is not. Why? Because the measure of a good design is not whether it is popular—initially or ever—aesthetically or otherwise. Instead, the measures of a good design are whether it (1) distinguishes and intrigues; (2) is relevant to the environment in which it lives; and (3) is true to its function. No more, and no less.
The day a design succumbs to a popularity contest, is the day the design becomes driven by a lowest common denominator consensus, and fails to succeed. Such a design will never lead or inspire, and will instead become vulnerable to daily trends and fads, current-day thinking, and ultimately fading into a sea of other similar/ forgotten/ challenger designs.
Know this and live by it: Most enduring designs of our time did not make sense when they first appeared. Apple? Nike? Volkswagen? Velcro? Impressionist painters of the 1800s like Monet, Matisse or Morisot?
In great design, or even good design, personal opinions do not matter. Period.
Whether someone has the talent, genius, knowledge and expertise to create a good design—that's a topic for a future article.
Russell Volckmann is an award-winning designer, producer, creative director, ad & brand & marketing strategist. For 17 years helping global agencies and companies tell their stories and make meaningful connections. Contact Russell at VÖLCKMANN & FRIENDS for more ways to connect.
Three of the top Rebrand.com 2009 Award Winners. As you will see, some make more sense than others.
(1) Client: Love 146
Agency: Brains on Fire
A rebrand with a story; huge improvement in naming + visual + differentiation. The strategy was based on a story of a young girl in Thailand (child #146) who maintained a shining brightness, despite all hardships she had been through: a story that continues to inspire the organization.
(2) Client: International Center for Journalists
The before & after here is striking, with the end result of a great new visual ID: natural, earthy tones + an intertwined human type treatment to reflect multiculturalism.
(3) Client: Cisco/ Webex
Agency: Cisco (internal)
Following last year's (2008) Cisco ID makeover, Cisco self-re-designed (no outside agency) its own ID for Cisco's Webex. Honestly not sure how they garnered an award for this, and an outside agency would have been a much better idea.
Design. I love design, and like Peter Knapp, Executive Creative Director EMEA at Landor in the video presentation below... I am absolutely passionate about it. See why design is imperative, not just a 'nice to have' in building a successful brand.
The Scenario: Your account manager has just set you up with your new client contract. To the client, you have presented an outline of your agency process: scope of work, milestone schedule, definition of processes, preliminary timeline, discovery process outline, the creative direction process, asset delivery, project assessment and ultimately implementation and celebration (usually).
The Agency: Wants to deliver a successful brand experience that is adaptable, scalable, attentive, creative, elegant, professional, personable, represents solid company tenets in some meaningful and deliberate way--and can stand the test of time. A brand that speaks of integrity, assurance and quality.
The Client: Wants to build a brand, thinking all they need is a logo.
You've all been here before. You have a professional team ready to roll and do the painstaking groundwork to make sure no stone is left unturned for the sake of your client. You want to ensure the company's enduring success in part by establishing an iron-clad brand, and subsequent Visual Identity.
Suddenly you find yourself in front of the client's team consisting of CEO, COO, VP Marketing, attorneys, and even engineers and administrative are sitting around the boardroom table looking at you with a blank expression on their faces, telling you, "that's nice" but "when do we get to see some logos?"
The client doesn't get it. And yet you have assumed you are doing everything right. After all, the account manager achieved the contract, right? Not so fast...
Design Before Strategy.
To paraphrase one CEO's recent comments, "I want design mock-ups almost immediately. I want action. I want to see a lot of logos. Show my company all kinds of options. Then bring in EVERYONE from the company organization (janitor, etc.) into the process. Let the entire group choose the creative that they like. Save some time and print out a hundred logos from the web. This would only take the branding & ID company two minutes." The client wants design before strategy... We'll just call this person "Action CEO".
First and foremost, the hundreds of visual examples in the world of company graphical identities will be likely 100% irrelevant to the specific client company brand needs. The client needs a unique brand--both in visual identity and in practice--that breaks away from the pack of the other thousand companies that are in a similar business. The client needs may even go deeper. In the short-term the client company may need to rethink the way they communicate and engage customers, vendors, and employees. That's an important enough step in beginning to create brand success, and the fruition of a strong visual identity to match. It's also doable within a reasonable timeline.
In the long-term, the company may even need to overhaul its product line, services, or core business offerings--in order to maintain or improve brand awareness and brand loyalty. That may be Phase II or even Phase III in a hopefully long relationship with this client. How do we communicate these values to the Action CEO? We engage his/her objections with key questions designed to clarify the client needs, and provide relevant data and marketing justification for brand decisions.
What do you think of this as it applies to engaging a client with your brand recommendations?
Second, 20 different stakeholders with potentially conflicting interests is a potential recipe for failure. By running the gamut of 20 people with different positions, interests, tastes, color preferences, likes, dislikes, plus various levels of business/market/brand connect or disconnect--will create a situation where 20 different decision-makers ultimately will never agree, or will agree to have the agency create a combination of the 20 things that everyone likes. The end visual result, according to the aggregation of all client stakeholders, would be a sort of round-square stitched-together thing that is a mish-mash of red, yellow, green, blue, purple, gray and shows a horse's body with a bunny's head--and using 40 different fonts in the wordmark. Or worse. Throw brand integrity out the window. Forget the marketing data and the competitive analysis. Forget any possibility of a solid brand architecture that can transcend and survive new product and packaging or company growth and expansion. In other words, a Frankenstein brand that will please no one, especially the agency which is on the verge of firing their client at this point. AND, let alone the idea of organically connecting the dots between client and audience.
In a client environment such as the Action CEO example, I try to assure the client that we deliberately want take the time to discover the unique company tenets & values, markets & competition, business climate & trends, experiences & aspirations---so we can create THE perfect brand that delivers enduring success for the company--as opposed to delivering random graphical imagery without any thought about the often very deep business reasons for a particular creative direction.
On the other hand, when we are talking about a brand launch or launch of a new business, there is often a tearing hurry within the organization. Everyone is looking at numbers, the impending targets for the years. The internal stakeholders want to see that logo, the packaging, the advert designs. There is little patience within the organizations. What makes it doubly complex is that we might not end up with CEOs who are from brand or marketing backgrounds.
According to Satya Upadhya, Asst. Vice President, Brand Communications at INX News, "A successful strategy in such a scenario is to have a well chalked out plan well in advance where you have done many consumer researches (trust me there is nothing more convincing for the board members than 'market research findings'!). And then make an identity presentation which has linkages to the business, how it will positively impact the topline and bottomline and keep the identity story relevant to the business realities."
Again, engage the client with relevant motivation for your recommendations, all the while engaging the client objections.
So there actually is hope for the "Action CEO" company if we do our homework deliberately and fairly quickly; And, if we handle client objections with a true engagement. After all, brand engagement what we do isn't it? What we are doing is selling the client on brand choices (our "tribe's brand" of brand), so that our clients can sell their company products and services with integrity in their own brand.