Design talk

When people ask me what I do, I like to pretend I’m on a game show where I can use any string of words I want, but if I say “design,” I’ll lose. Here’s why: each person has a unique definition for design, so although we’re using the same word, we often aren’t talking about the same thing. Acquiescing to the necessity of the term, I regularly remind myself what design is and approach projects from this perspective. 

  • Design is not just decoration; it solves problems. A common definition of design is “making things look good.” If not-looking-good is a problem (which it often is), I agree with that definition… to a point. Unfortunately, many design jobs are won or lost when a portfolio is reviewed and people decide whether they “like” the work or not. But visual appeal is only a small piece of successful design. The pretty brochure that doesn’t result in increased sales is a failure. An attractive presentation that bores the audience and doesn’t prompt them to act is worthless. It may need to look good, but it definitely needs to work.
  • Message is integral to design, especially in communication design (my field). For maximum impact, visuals and content should be developed in tandem. If one gets too far ahead of the other, they end up disconnected and the effectiveness of the result is diminished. Consider the well-known “HOPE” graphic from the 2008 Obama campaign. If it had said “Vote for me!” it would have been a failure. Alternatively, if the portrait had been drawn in crayon by a 2-year-old, it also would have failed. 
  • Good design is critical to success, because solving a problem almost always requires delivering a compelling message. In today’s culture, we all absorb communications from all directions. If your success depends on connecting with an audience and motivating them to act, you can’t afford not to utilize good design.

Conversations are more productive when, instead of talking about design, we talk about solving problems by delivering messages. Starting from there, the work can be discussed in objective terms of working or not working. And if we’re not talking about that, we really do run the risk of losing.