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I recently acquired a bottle of Method hand soap. I spent two
dollars more than I would have on the generic brand—why?—because I
liked it. I liked the bottle shape, the minimalist design
aesthetic, the embossed brand mark, the color palette. The fact
that Method produces a responsibly made product was a perk, but
(please don't judge me) this wasn't the foremost factor in my
decision to make the purchase. I simply wanted something I liked.
As you might have guessed, this decision was driven primarily by
formal design considerations.
The Sound of Music's Maria (Julie Andrews) sang of her favorite
things, which were arguably more visceral than logical.
Historically, graphic designers have been commissioned to
communicate messages in an attractive and desirable way using a
combination of type and image. While this is still very much a part
of what we do, the role of “graphic designer” has become
increasingly strategic, resulting in a conscious move away from
anything that could be perceived as simply decorative. We have
worked hard to hold a seat at the table, and fear that recognizing
the persuasion of aesthetics will relegate our professional
contributions to that of a technician adorning someone else's
thinking. But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far the other
Academia has made a significant contribution to this way of
thinking. During both my undergraduate and graduate tenures the
word “like” was never to be verbalized during a critical review.
However, it was not uncommon for a young student to temporarily
lapse and speak the forbidden “L” word, only to find themselves
swiftly reprimanded by a professor stating, “I don't care if you
like it. Why is it successful and how does it solve the
problem?” Students quickly discovered the best way out of this
uncomfortable situation was to utter something intelligent about
the typography, find a way to include the phrase “brand position”
and, if at all possible, make a reference to the Bauhaus. However,
a much better response might have been to simply state, “It solves
the problem by causing the viewer to like it.” Because, let's face
it, that's often one of the most challenging problems to solve. But
how do you know if the aesthetic will be likable by the targeted
A significant challenge to producing successful graphic design
solutions that use attractiveness as a metric is navigating the
muddy landscape of inherent subjectivity. A designer that only
creates work that she finds beautiful will only ever succeed when
the client looks and thinks like she does. To transition into an
objective assessment the designer must gain a clear understanding
of what will resonate with the target audience by conducting
qualitative and/or quantitative research. From a macro perspective
this is accomplished in one of two ways.
At the onset of a project the designer will gather as much
information from the client as possible regarding the target
audience, conduct additional primary research if necessary and
internalize the data. This approach works fine assuming the client
is wiling to make the necessary monetary/time investment in this
phase of the project.
A second method—and the one implemented by my studio—is to
consult with a narrowly defined clientele so the process of
conducting research, internalizing the results and refining the
conclusions is ongoing. Our client base is primarily composed of
product designers and manufacturers wishing to connect with the
architecture and interior design trade. Because of this specific
position, we spend a significant amount of time speaking with
individuals from the A&D community, reading trade publications,
blogs and newsletters that target this audience, and attending
industry conferences, workshops and trade shows. The resulting
depth of knowledge allows us to objectively evaluate the level of
attractiveness in any given design solution with a relatively high
level of accuracy.
Before you go thinking I'm not a proponent of sound strategic
design thinking, let me assure you this is my default position. I
have always liked appreciated my professor's stance in this
regard because it enabled me to evaluate the success of a concept
using objective criteria. I also believe a repeatable design
process that is based in research will result in a clear
understanding of the problem to be solved and is critical to
maintaining successful design solutions. However, strategic
thinking and formal beauty should not be mutually exclusive. It's
time for designers to become comfortable with justifying their
solutions—in part—by verbalizing the inherent value in crafting an
artifact the target audience will like. Generally designers invest
a significant amount of time consuming articles/images/videos that
reflect and define popular culture. In our studio this is an
ongoing exercise, so the opinions we offer in support of what is
“likable” are largely informed.
While the visceral reaction “I like it” might not be a
satisfactory answer in the classroom, it very well may be the
reason a person decides to purchase a product or educate oneself on
a specific topic or volunteer time toward promoting a cause. The
influence of “like” is not easily measured, but there's no question
it exists—I'd be willing to bet my hard-earned money on it.
How do you test the effectiveness of design? Millman and Bainbridge explain how to conduct design research that will inspire creativity.
Section: Tools and Resources -
design research, user research, strategy, business, students
What do we want? Even if we don’t know, it doesn’t stop us from acquiring more. Barringer expresses his desire for self-awareness and restraint.
Section: Inspiration -
Voice, social issues, sustainability
What is it about some brands that makes people want to be their walking billboards? Caplan reflects on the lure of logos and labels.
Section: Inspiration -
Voice, branding, identity design
What influence does design have on the success (or failure) of a business or product? Simmons considers the role of the designer at the table.
Section: Why Design -
branding, strategy, business, students
Who is qualified to critique graphic design? Soar ponders the question of whether design is important enough to be a discourse at all.
Section: Inspiration -
critique, history, Voice
Benjamin Dauer is a Senior Product Designer at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. and was recently the Lead Product Designer at SoundCloud in Berlin, Germany. AIGA Baltimore took a field trip to interview Benjamin about designing in-house for NPR.
Combining the lovely photos of Julie Pierce with my design talents, we created a calendar to raise money for an animal charity.
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