What is design

What is design?

Whether it’s a logo, branding, print or web, what exactly is design?

Design is unlike anything else (in my humble opinion) as you are selling (or buying) something that does not exist until you buy it.

This is a lighthearted look at design and isn’t intended as an academic piece. Neither is it client-bashing; I like clients. Most of the time.

You don’t know what you will get when you commission a designer to produce some ‘design’ for you, even if you have an extensive set of brand guidelines; you don’t know what it will look like until it arrives.

In one sense, it could be likened to expectant parents eagerly awaiting the arrival of their new baby; what will it look like? Will she or he be the gorgeous bundle they hope for or something else? No one wants something else.

So this is what happens when you ask a designer to create something for you.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a website design, infographic, logo or illustration.

You brief the designer, they go away and think about it and then, ta-dah! Here is your design.

But, you don’t like it. Actually, it couldn’t be further from what you’d imagined, and it’s the designer’s fault: they are not good enough, or they didn’t follow the brief, or even worse, they didn’t understand your vision for this piece of design should look like.

Are you a designer?

When my car makes a funny noise, I take it to a trusted mechanic.

If I need legal advice, I go to a solicitor.

I’ve employed both of the above relatively regularly on various issues, but never once have I told them that I don’t like the solution: I may question the reasoning or work, but I take their advice.

My car is fixed, and my copyright infringement issue is dealt with.

Job done.

But design is different.

It’s subjective.

It’s not about fixed or not fixed, solved or not solved; it’s about like or not like.

You, the client, with the utmost respect, are often not a qualified designer. So, just like you need a qualified mechanic to fix a car or a qualified solicitor to solve a legal issue, you need a professional designer to design stuff.

Note that I use the term professional rather than qualified when it comes to design.

You don’t need a Degree to be a designer; you need talent, which can come from University or life experience.

There are two types of clients.

Those who commission a designer to solve a problem and those who ask a designer to create the vision they have in their head.

Which one are you?

Designers are problem solvers. You need a logo for your new venture; they do their research and suggest ideas that work both aesthetically and appropriately for your market/sector/vertical or whatever.

When you ask a designer to guess what is in your head, it leads to problems.

Client type #1.

I once had a meeting with a client, a small Chartered Surveyor, that said to me in our initial meeting:

I’ve worked with loads of ‘you designers’ over the years, and you never manage to visualise what I am thinking.

That’s a red flag from the off.

They didn’t want me to design something unique and appropriate for their market; they wanted me to endlessly create things until the ‘boss’ liked it.

The criteria for success were not about the thinking, the rationale or the design; it was simply about whether I could design something that they ‘liked’.

Fuck whether it’s appropriate or not.

Fuck the fact that we’d have placed them, with their branding, in a position to compete with others in their field: he wanted something he liked.

Fuck also the fact that the current logo and branding looked like something designed in the ’70s.

Into the mix, I also had to deal with this gem:

I know we are about property, but everyone shows pictures of buildings. We want to use pictures of animals.

Firstly, these are not pictures; they are images (classic tell of someone to avoid) and secondly:

What the actual fuck.

On a side note, vocabulary is essential in design – clients need to articulate their feedback. If a client uses the word ‘pictures’ at the start of a project, you can expect feedback on the design to be similar: ‘bad’, ‘awful’, ‘poor’ etc. Limited vocabulary.

Client type #2.

Designers like clients like this.

This type of client understands that design is a research, creation, discussion and development process.

Showing initial designs to clients is always an anxious moment, and they are not always what was ‘expected’.

This is the designer’s work – they’ve poured thought, time and effort into this and can get naturally nervous about the first ‘show’.

If you do this in front of Client #1, it’s going to be something you never want to do again.

Doing this in front of Client #2 is much more relaxed.

They understand what you’ve got, what you’ve done and how you’ve reached this point.

It doesn’t mean the design is 100% correct; it means there is a discussion with meaningful and articulate feedback and mutual respect for getting to the end goal.

We are working on this together; that’s far more fun AND gets a better result (in all circumstances).

It’s very rare that anyone signs off on a piece of design after the first presentation, and designers know this, so whilst they’ve presented what they see as the best solution to the brief, they expect constructive feedback. and that’s where you come in Client Type #2.

Design is a process.

Brainstorming, sketched ideas, presentations, development, refined ideas, feedback, tweaks and approval.

Design is not a process that gets everything correct in the first round.

Depending on the brief, the initial design work can be a bit of a guess.

Before we have the first set of concepts, designers have nothing; you may have discussed the brief and looked at some design reference material and the visual identity guidelines, but there’s nothing to look at until the concepts are delivered.

Initial design concepts consider everything you have told the designer or agency in the project brief.

The concepts will be on-brand if you have an existing visual identity or other collateral.

However, the initial concepts will be the designer’s interpretation of all the above, so a considered, planned and executed guess into what the client had envisaged.

I don’t like it.

A seven-year-old says this when you try to make them eat Broccoli.

This is the sort of feedback that drives designers around the bend, as it is not constructive in any way.

Designers are not Prima Donas, but they can take feedback personally.

If you are presented with a design concept you don’t like, be sure to articulate why. Otherwise, the following design concept may not be an improvement.

These are ideas, and they’ve been designed to meet the brief, not your personal taste; this can often be tricky for clients to take on board.

If, as a client, you find yourself continually going back to the design team, time and time again, with this sort of feedback, your project is going to go south.

Firstly, the designer(s) will lose any passion for the project very quickly.

Secondly, you will get frustrated that the designer(s) ‘just don’t get it’.

If this starts to happen or looks anyway near happening, get back to the brief ASAP and review to get things back on track.

Every designer has worked on a project that’s derailed at some point, so they know the signs and watch out for them.

So after all that, what is design then?

I’ve worked as a designer for over 25 years, and I would say that:

50% of design is basically trying to work out what the client actually wants and the other 50% is getting it all sorted when you have finally worked out what the client wants.

The best design solutions are always reached when the client lets the designers get on with what they do best, provides constructive feedback during the process and works collaboratively with the designer(s) towards the goal.

A design is nothing; then it becomes everything, making design a fantastic industry to work in.

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