My Favorite Things

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.

Screenshot from The Sound of Music

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 direction.

My teacher made me do it.

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 audience?

Objective beauty

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.

Project basis

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.

Ongoing basis

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.

Both/and not either/or

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.