We perceive visual design unconsciously. Our brains are very fast to classify and judge input. Sometimes we can rely on this intuition (that is what we call “immediate judgement”), but in some situations we are better off reflecting and considering a few aspects.
Our individual viewing habits differ as well as our personal experiences and cultural backgrounds. Therefore, everybody judges design slightly different. Nevertheless, there are always common perceptions we as designers need to identify and address, and there are always more questions to consider besides formal aesthetic criteria.
In branding we need to think from the perspective of the brand we design for as well as the respective target audiences. Not every design is meant to fit our personal tastes and needs, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad design. As a brand designer you need to be able to change perspectives, and you need to trigger the right questions.
Especially in complex brand design processes, where you have to convince a broad and sometimes diverse range of people, it’s not about your personal taste. And it’s not about the client’s tastes, and certainly not the tastes of your project manager. It’s about asking the right questions and giving the right answers by means of design.
Let’s try to make our design discussions more reasonable by considering a few superior guiding principles and must-ask questions.
- Reflecting the brief; problem and goal definition
Of course, we as designers start off with a fair bit of idealism. Which is a good thing since we always need to find new ways to solve problems. On top of that we are always trying to create unique brand experiences that are led by a strong visual idea. Therefore, it’s important not to have too many restricting parameters in the early stages of a process. Nevertheless, we have to reflect on the brief from time to time and face questions including technological implementation and economic profitability sooner or later.
What was the initial briefing? What were the specific requirements of the client? What was the goal definition? How does the new design affect the changeover of all applications? For example, how profitable would it be to change all current means of communication from a white to a colored background?
Semantic Translation Quality
- Strategic foundation
Brand identity is your guiding compass and in the best case source of inspiration. Remember that visual design is only a tool to translate strategy into experience. The following questions can help you identity whether it does so accordingly and precisely.
Is the concept of the design a coherent derivation of the (new) brand positioning and identity?
What is the proclaimed objective? To develop a cautious “improvement“ of the current design or a radical re-perception of the brand? Does the design have to build a bridge between heritage and future, or does it introduce a disruptive new beginning?
Especially in branding, the semantic quality is most important. Visual design represents meaning and triggers emotions that are dependent on the strategic foundation — conscious or unconscious. So these questions are key:
What does the new design stand for? What associations does it trigger? Which emotional attributes can I assign? What symbolic value does it represent?
- Functionality and objective
Ask yourself what the design has to accomplish. For example, does it have to be loud and exciting, or does it need to be informative and restrained? Considering color, this could either mean choosing shrill neon colors or discreet, muted colors with better-reading contrast.
In fact, functionality in design is always about legibility. Some typefaces offer a lot of personality (which can be good from an identity perspective) but suffer a lack of legibility. Some typefaces work the other way around. Corporate typefaces, however, usually have to fulfill both criteria.
- Adequacy for specific target groups
Design obviously always aligns itself with human perception. Hence every judgement is dependent on the individual perspective. As brand designers we don’t only think from the perspective of the brand we design for but we also need to think from the perspective of the respective target audiences. Accordingly we have to ask:
Is the design relevant for the respective target group? Is it specific? Does it reflect their lifestyles and needs? Does it consider regional and cultural circumstances?
- Content and formal credibility
Certainly one of the most important objectives for every brand nowadays is credibility. For example, are the claimed messages and images reliable and coherent referring to the overall impression of the brand and the identity?
Formal Implementation Quality
- Aesthetics und craftsmanship
Is the design well-crafted in regards to common viewing habits? For example, does the combination of colors harmonize? Are the proportions fitting? Does the editorial layout have a good rhythm? Does the image movie have an exciting narrative arc of suspense?
Is the design system coherent at every touch point and accurately adapted for all media?
- Persistence and expandability
Is the design a long-term investment that will last over the next couple of years, or does it only serve contemporary trends?
Despite being consistent, does the design offer easy-to-use and easy-to-adapt principles to solve future design challenges?
- Distinction and originality
Referring to the competition, does the design provide differentiation and is it memorable?
What I want you to take away from this catalogue of questions and things to consider is that design is not meant to fit the personal tastes of a few, but to satisfy a complex set of qualities that eventually create added value for your client. And whether or not you can judge (your) design decisions “right” or “wrong” doesn‘t merely depend on formal aesthetic criteria.
Given these considerations, your job as a designer is not only to make the design fit the brand or make it look good or easy to use. It is also about arranging your design process in a way that makes your decisions comprehensible and strategically justifiable to avoid irrational discussions of personal taste.
_Jonas Husemann is a designer at MetaDesign Berlin.