Good design informs our decision making. It is often the most influential factor when we are deciding what we buy, where we go and what we do. This is because the way objects, systems and services work and look, throughout their evolution and life cycle, are the result of people designing the underlying plans, processes and build specifications.
Our individual experiences with the functional and aesthetic qualities of objects, processes and services, consciously and subconsciously, acts as the basis for our personal benchmark for what is good design. And that benchmark not only evolves because of new experiences, it also changes depending on a wide range of variables, including environment, mood, whether we are working or relaxing, etc. When we are faced with a new experience or a purchasing decision we refer to the logical and sensori-emotional (aesthetic) values we associate with our most relevant benchmarks for what is good design.
This means that there are no hard and fast rules about what makes for good design. There is good design, bad design and ‘that’ll do’ design. However, designing your product and/or service and support systems should always come at the end of the development process, not the beginning. This is true whether you are designing a product/service to sell; logo and stationery; website; brochure; tender submission; etc.
Pre-Design: Research; Evaluation and Concept Development
There are many ways of approaching the pre-design stage of any project but it can be simplified down to three steps: Research; Evaluation and Concept Development. By thinking in these terms you can make the process as straight-forward and fast-moving, or as complicated, as you want.
A good designer/developer will do the heavy lifting for you, and steer you through the process in round table discussions and by asking key questions. If you decide to take it all on yourself, you should find a friend or colleague who can offer you a client’s perspective, and is willing to ask difficult questions, as you progress.
To make the most of the pre-design stage you should use a range of decision making models. Among the most widely know analysis models are ‘SWOT’ and ‘PEST’ but looking at resources like ‘The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinking’ by R. Tschäppeler & M. Krogerus will help you find models that are a good fit for you. By evaluating the existing service/product providers and the service/product alternatives in diagrammatic form you can quickly see shared traits and trends. It also means you can easily update the profiles as products, services and the market adapts and evolves.
As part of the Evaluation and Concept Development steps you should look at Design under two key headings: Functional and Aesthetic.
Under the heading Functional Design analyse how the products/services work throughout their lifecycle. How intuitive, robust and enjoyable in the user experience (UX) from the perspective of the target user? How intuitive, reliable and flexible is the UX from the perspective of the people building, maintaining and evolving the service/product?
If you are looking at Logo Design you should be asking how legible the logos are when reproduced at different sizes, in different contexts and on different materials, and the inherent production costs. If you are looking at Website Design you should be looking to identify the target audiences; how easy the sites are to navigate and, in terms of structure and content, are they optimised for the UX of the target audience or for the site owners and managers.
Aesthetic Design is all too often dismissed as being far less important than Functional Design. This is not the case. Our initial reaction to any proposition is a sensori-emotional one and a negative reaction will inform all subsequent decisions. Research has show time and again that people make their mind up about products and services within seconds, often ending the interaction there and then. An existing relationship with an owner or advocate of a product/service can alleviate some of the negativity but a sense of doubt will linger.
An analysis of the effectiveness of the Aesthetic Design of the products/services under review should look at how their sensori-emotional values compare to those of the products/services that are the most likely benchmarks for the target audience. It is about drawing up a mental model of how people would expect, and want, the products/services to work and then comparing it to how products/services actually work. The analysis should also include an exploration of the visual language, including the underlying semantics, of the services/products.
If you are looking at Logo Design, Website Design, etc. you should be looking at the balance achieved between friendliness, familiarity, surprise and professionalism, with the hierarchy of these traits being informed by the sector and type of product/service. Additional traits such as angularity or roundness, hardness or softness and solid colour or gradients should also be considered.
The attributes of the typefaces used are very important. Do you think the typefaces were chosen because of a then-current trend or are they appropriate for the product/service and the target market? Following a trend can prove to be a very costly mistake. In 2010 the Waterstones launched a new logo, presumably to convey a more modern, dynamic identity. Only 25 of the company’s stores were rebranded before January 2012 when the company launched a new new logo – the pre-2010 logo without an apostrophe – because they realised the sensori-emotional values of the 2010 logo were not in keeping with the company. James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones said: “Waterstones is an iconic brand deserving a capital W, and a font that reflects authority and confidence — Baskerville does just that.” (see http://www.logodesignlove.com/waterstones-logo)
Colour is also a very important consideration as in certain contexts and cultures it can have significant meaning. In some sectors dominant brands are seen as ‘owning’ certain colour, e.g. Vodafone is Red, O2 is Blue and Meteor is Orange. You should also be looking at the tone of the language, use and type of images, the hierarchy of images and text, etc.
Concept Development: Setting the Design Brief
As part of this final pre-design step you should review your evaluations and map out the desired Functional and Aesthetic traits of your product/service. The resulting Design Brief should establish guidelines that you believe will ensure your product/service will appeal to your target market while at the same time differentiate you from your competition.
A guiding principal is that you strive to compete on your own terms while ensuring the payoff to your target audience, from their perspective, is at least equal to the payoff they get from your competition. This applies to all stages of the interaction between you and your audience, starting with the payoff they’ll get for giving you their time and attention.
The Design Brief should set guidelines and minimum standards for the Functional Design of your product/service. How do you approach delivering an intuitive, reliable, flexible and enjoyable UX for all stakeholders, within the constraints of your budget? What is the realistic lifespan of your product/service? What aspects of the functional design can you carry through to other products/services to help you move people from being product/service advocates to being brand advocates, open to other products/services?
When deciding on your approach to the Aesthetic Design of your product/service you should look at the pros and cons of designing to your audience’s mental model of how your type of product/service works and the visual language, including the underlying semantics, employed. Challenging these preconceptions so as to create a sense of surprise and personality can work to your advantage. It can establish a reputation of being ahead of the curve, not following it, and – as in the case of Apple, Google and Facebook – allow you to make changes without needing to firstly get the buy-in of focus groups. At the same time, the majority of products/services rely on communicating an impression of ‘responding to the market’. As both approaches work you need to decide which is the best fit for you and then just go for it wholeheartedly.
The Design Process
All design projects are subject to constraints but leveraging Functional Design and Aesthetic Design has been proven to pays dividends. Throughout the Design Process you should alternate between focusing on developing and testing the functionality of the component elements and building in the desired sensori-emotional triggers, until you have achieved the optimum balance possible.
Enthusiasm, inventiveness and attention to detail will ensure the Design Process is enjoyable, and the resulting sense of achievement can be immense, if you trust yourself and your approach. And remember, there are no hard and fast rules. There is good design, bad design and ‘that’ll do’ design.