12/07/2024

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Why Design Matters

8 min read
Why Design Matters

You should see this guy work. It’s inspiring. Let’s keep this between us, but I’m extremely jealous of his talent. While I articulate and “connect” in words, he enduringly and quickly bonds with the mind’s eye and who-knows-how-many-other senses when he unveils his work. Pow! With the speed of thought!

My buddy is a graphic artist, a truly gifted visual communicator.

Don’t get me wrong. Words can, indeed, convey the desired picture. The inspired writing talent paints with a broad brush on the fabric of our consciousness, indelibly creating images in the mind, inspiring emotion, engagement and action.

As talented as they might be individually, the marketing writer, the PR practitioner and the ad man all have a dirty little secret. The honest ones amongst us know that we can’t hold a candle to the truly gifted visual communicator in getting across a message. It’s true! And, Lordy, do we crave such a talent for our team! After all, the graphic artist or designer is the one who literally controls that brush (or pen or computer program)! For every wildly successful campaign or business initiative there is a creative artist behind the scenes helping put the oomph into the winning concept and the message.

Why are these talented professionals so important to your business canvas? Simply put, a story can be made more compelling with strong visuals.

Look, we live in a highly visual society. That’s the good news. The bad news is we are victims of the very culture we have created. Inside and outside of our homes, our capitalist culture squeezes us with the kind of pressure that turns to coal into diamonds.

Research indicates that every day each of us is bombarded with more than 3,000 advertising and marketing messages designed to inspire us to part with our hard-earned coin or do … something. They tell us what to drink, where to eat, what to wear, how to communicate, where to put our money, how to be healthy (and easily lose those extra pounds) and, yes, even how to smell. Amongst these thousands of intense, urgent messages, what truly sets one apart from the horde?

I humbly submit that the defining difference, for the writer and the visual artist, is The Story.

We all have a story to tell. Your business certainly has story to tell. You have to approach your promotional efforts by knowing that good stories breathe meaning into our otherwise mundane lives. Clearly, every good story and idea shapes the world around it to some degree. Ideally, the message you are trying to convey — the all-important story that you or your company have to tell, the little idea jumping up and down, crying out for attention in a seething crowd of ideas of similar importance (to your competitors) — stands on its own merit and requires no assistance. But probably not. My website (www.polishedimage.com) speaks voluminously (and hopefully convincingly) to the value of good writing and the importance of using the right words to tell your story distinctively, intelligently, attractively and effectively. (Okay, I’ll say it: so as to beat your competitors into submission.) But what about visuals? Can good, solid graphic design tell a great story?

My buddy would answer that question by stating that the tricky part for the artist is in telling your story without the benefit of all those maddening little words filling in the gaps in meaning. That in the absence of outstanding visuals, your message might well amount to nothing more than Morse Code, church bells, a distant train whistle, a soft Summer breeze, a spray of orchids, a glass of milk on the counter. Just pieces. White noise. And you know what? He’s right. Think about it. Geico is just another cut-rate insurance broker without talking geckos and introspective cavemen. Remember the question, “Where’s the beef?” That campaign is ancient history, but we still recall that crotchety little old lady with her tiny burger and oversized bun. And we can thank Coca-Cola for turning the tall, lean, dashing Santa Claus atop a magical white horse into a short, overweight old man in a reindeer-powered sled. Didn’t know that? In 1931, Coca-Cola hired an artist named Haddon Sundbloom to illustrate their Christmas campaign. Under Sundbloom’s magical brush, Santa Claus assumed his present, adult dimensions, clad in brilliant red and white — a truly unforgettable visual.

Because every good story has character, conflict and resolution, really good stories invite an audience to participate in a resolution or transformation. For graphic design, this formula can result in persuasion or at least clear the path to it. From watching these talented individuals work their magic over the years, I submit that an outstanding graphic designer will:

Know where to go. — Like any good marketing mind, a solid designer listens. The proven, experienced designer or illustrator will understand where you want your audience to end up. He’s driving the bus with the visuals. You talk. He’ll listen. He’ll have the trip mapped out soon enough.

Know that character is key. — Character equals plot, and your plot drives the story. Visually, the company or subject is the lead character. The simpler, clearer and less ambiguous the design and imagery, the stronger your story will be. The visual communicator will bring that point home in draft after draft.

Embrace simple pleasures. — The designer will instinctively know that you must simplify. Edit. If it is unimportant or distracting, he’ll encourage you to “cut it out.” (Well … most will. But like all talents, editing sometimes comes not so freely!) If it doesn’t add something to your story, it detracts — so he’ll cut it loose. Let him do his job and watch with amazement.

Use color. — Uh-duh? Not so fast. The talented designer will use color to impart meaning, not to be pleasing. You want to be safe with color? Don’t be. A visual communicator will liberate the meaning of your message by being brave with color. He’ll buck the trend. Take a chance. Color evokes motion, and what’s a good story without emotional connection?

Be big. — You’re trying to make a point, right? A great visual communicator will let your audience in on the secret. He’ll exaggerate. King Kong is bigger than the average ape. He’s huge! The visual artist knows it works. And he knows that you don’t want to be pictured as average.

Minimize. — The designer knows you need to make your point quickly. He’ll use visual symbolism. Better yet, he’ll create or introduce new ones, weaving an implication into your message through the use of photography, graphics or illustration. A good graphic designer is capable of a sort of visual shorthand. Remember, a picture really is worth a thousand words and symbols are very powerful tools. They often tell us where to go and what to do better than words ever could. Think: milk moustache.

Embrace the Yin and the Yang. — A good designer will often concentrate on contrast. Purple never looks so purple as when it’s next to yellow. Contrast and juxtaposition — whether through type, color, size, density or even putting something somewhere it doesn’t “belong” — produce noticeable differences that can propel and enhance your meaning.

Before closing, there are two other points that I believe are important when looking for a good graphics talent for your project or team.

First, understand the importance of pace in communicating your message or brand through advertising. Believe it or not, you are in control — take your time and communicate what you want to your designer (and the others on the creative team). You can choose to swat flies with a sledge hammer by slamming your audience with information, or tease them a little and reveal it slowly. You can choose to overwhelm and entertain (confuse) the audience with a barrage of words and pictures, or get to the point through a clean, logical, orderly presentation of your message. It all depends on the outcome you intend to create. Keep in mind that graphic design — heck, storytelling in general — is like a first date: too much too soon and you can blow the whole enchilada. Despite recent trends, advertising and marketing is not about compressing your entire history into a single ad. It’s about communicating your story in a reasonable, comprehensible and, hopefully, inspiring way. Be cool and stay in control. A good designer will employ those characteristics, and you’ll work better together if you do, too.

Second, always go with experience. One who has an impressive track record of been-there-done-that might appear expensive at the front end of the project, but, believe me, rookies rarely deliver the goods to the same high degree of quality. I’m going out on a limb and a rant here, but could it be that the Internet age has led to a gradual decline in the value of expertise? Just 15 or 20 years ago, you went to a doctor to find out about the pain in your elbow. Now you Google “elbow pain,” diagnose the problem yourself and tell your doctor what medicine you need. People who once trusted stockbrokers and insurance agents now buy and sell at E*Trade and compare policies online. Simple folks who, back in the day, looked to the experts for guidance on topics as diverse as politics to pet grooming now blog their own idle punditry and postulations.

Unbelievably, I’m afraid that we are living in the Golden Age of the Amateur, and in this new frontier, suddenly experience is downright suspect.

Don’t fall for it, friend. Any hack with a laptop and a cheap clip-art CD can “do design.” What you want is a visual communicator. An experienced storyteller. A qualified graphic designer does more than go through the motions of the design process. They know all this stuff inherently. A good designer is a deep thinker, a keen observer who is influenced by individual experience. They draw inspiration from unique sources and interesting, unexpected places. They have uncommon perspective and the knowledge, training and experience to invest their distinctive point of view with a “voice.” They generally have a portfolio that’ll knock your socks off and, like you, they have something worthwhile to say.

To tell your story well, believe that good graphic design matters. Then trust a visual communicator to help you tell it.

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