Designing success

Effective design can help both creators and consumers of communications by making content more accessible and meaningful: sorting information-wheat from data-chaff; giving shape, dynamic range, and emotional depth to ideas and brands; putting new technologies in the service of increased understanding and connection.

To those charged with creating and managing brands and communications––and to those who have to make sense of both in order to make decisions and get through their day––this year has brought more and less, more or less. More websites, blogs, tweets, blasts, links, and constituent participation. Less clarity, differentiation, and time to think. More data, but not necessarily more useful information. More noise, but less trust of traditional sources of information.

Effective design––both process and artifact––can help both creators and consumers of communications by making content more accessible and meaningful: sorting information-wheat from data-chaff; giving shape, dynamic range, and emotional depth to ideas and brands; putting technology in the service of increased understanding and connection.

Proof is in our shared experiences: one annual philanthropic appeal makes you feel like you just made the mistake of answering a robo-call; another builds a sense of emotional connection. One subway map (The London Underground) gives you a sense of confidence and sends you, up-beat, on your subterranean journey; other maps engender anxiety. Some websites engage you in an experience that makes you want to buy from, or support, an organization before you’ve even gotten down to specifics; others set up impediments that seem not worth clawing over. And then there is the unexpected: a magazine ad, tv spot, e-newsletter, or microsite (formatted for your phone!) will make you stop and engage––even though you weren’t remotely looking for theatre options for Saturday, consulting help for your HR department, or a food processor for your mother. Design––from the informing strategy to decisions around type, imagery, color, and composition––can also invite serendipitous connections.

Big picture, effective design can provide a competitive advantage—influencing how people think, share, and act. For those charged with building brands and nurturing relationships, some specific opportunities (or, perhaps, imperatives):

Be seen, heard––and valued, as you’d like to be valued. How the components of design are marshaled––the specific choices around, say, color, imagery, and type, and the interaction of these choices––can help differentiate you in your competitive landscape, and generate interest and participation. There is a lot of affect-free, anonymous communication out there, but putting strategic design thinking ahead of making stuff can make outbound efforts more effective. Whether the need is for seemingly un-designed, but really highly-calibrated design (Google), or for a much “higher,” overt sense of style (Apple), design decisions can project an organization’s values and vision, quickly.

Connect your brand to the personal brands of your constituents through design. People do business with, donate to, recommend, blog, and tweet organizations that they personally relate to––organizations that they see as enhancing what they think of themselves or as consistent with their sense of personal brand. People’s sense of design––articulated or just intuitive––can play a big part. The design of your organization’s website interface / packaging / logo / product / mailer can either connect to a constituent’s personal brand or be a turn-off. And while you can’t connect with everyone, knowing, through research and listening, what key constituents do value, informs strategic design decisions and foster connections.

Create hierarchies that help. It’s great that we can Google, Bing, link, and roll over to almost anything we are interested in. And we are still on the receiving end of snailmail, print ads, video on many platforms, and billboards. But this abundance of data––and the paths to access it, can get in the way of deeper understanding and decision-making. Clear information hierarchies––translated through position, size, font, color, and timing into operational cues––can make sites easier to navigate, brochures easier to scan, ads more arresting. We often have a lot to communicate, but it’s not all of equal, pressing, importance. Only if you successfully engage people on the “thirty-second level,” will you get them to stay with you for the next ten minutes. Clearly expressed hierarchies also promote much-desired portability and increase the likelihood that what you want to be shared will be shared.

Add emotional depth. People buy, donate to, invest in, and recommend organizations and offerings that they believe in––when they have an emotional connection that goes beyond just fulfilling a need. Design choices––imagery (both its content and execution), color, typographic articulation, choice of materials, the tone of a communication––can launch and nurture these deeper connections. People believe in Method cleaning products because of what’s in them––and not in them––in ways they don’t believe in, say, Palmolive products. And the clean, transparent design––and the decisions Method has made around shapes and colors––reinforce the company’s mission-driven connection to customers.

Connect the dots. In this period of prolific pixels––on air, online, and on the go––brand diffusion is a real threat. Building communications based on a shared design platform ensures your brochure will reinforce your website, that your Twitter background will resonate with a podcast––and that others, outside of your organization, will have design cues that they can pick up and use, giving you a fighting chance to influence what you can’t control.

Get the most out of your resources. The tools to make and promulgate communications are almost ubiquitous, but the thinking to harness this hardware and software isn’t. Providing brand design guidelines to those who communicate formally (and informally) will help ensure that communications from different departments and programs cohere; that each communication and each communication dollar delivers maximum impact; and that your brand is being built strategically, tactical project by tactical project. Documentation, training, tools, and templates also enable cost-saving self-sufficiency––so you’re not beholden to outside firms for work that can appropriately be done in-house. And they help your organization to “own” its design thinking––necessary if you’re to keep your system healthy and current.

Advance your strategic plans––strategically. Design is not cake icing; it’s often the cake. Because it has the power to differentiate and position you in the marketplace, interest and engage customers and prospects, promote emotional connection, and motivate people to buy from, donate to, or recommend your organization, design––ideally, a comprehensive design system––should be looked at as an asset. An asset to be invested in, managed, and valued over the long term. Stewarded as an asset, design––both your face to the world and an opportunity to demonstrate how you and your constituent fit into it––will add value to your offerings, interactions, and organization now and well into the future.

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“Ideally, beauty and utility are mutually generative. In the past, rarely was beauty an end in itself. The magnificent stained glass windows of Chartres were no less utilitarian than was the Parthenon or the Pyramid of Cheops. The function of the exterior decoration of the great Gothic cathedrals was to invite entry; the rose windows inside provided the spiritual mood.”
—Paul Rand, Thoughts on Design, 1946