Good Design is One Simple Observation

Effective design is rooted in an understanding of how a brand’s perceived value is acquired.

Nothing unsettles a designer like a blank artboard, but not for the reason you might think.

Twentieth-century Western culture nurtured the myth of the tortured artist, a creative individual expressing inner turmoil through colour and form. We have grouped designers into that category, and in doing so, accepted the fiction of ‘designer’s block’, a state in which a designer loses touch with their muse.

Contrast a columnist with a journalist; the fundamental distinction is that a columnist writes self-initiated opinion pieces rooted in their own experience, a journalist reports facts. A columnist may misplace their muse; a journalist (one hopes) does not misplace facts.

A designer works with facts, not opinions. Certainly, designers are creative, and leverage that creativity to tease out human interest, to present the facts engagingly. But a designer doesn’t embellish or mislead; a designer is steered by facts.

Those facts are defined in a design brief, a single source of truth from which all decisions can be extrapolated.

Nothing unsettles a designer like a blank artboard because it signifies a design brief lacking the facts necessary to make informed decisions.

A design brief comes from the client. Most decisions are arrived at in that document: restrained or open, broad or niche, energetic or calm. The designer interprets the decisions in visual form, but all good design can be traced back to the decisions themselves.

Most clients do not know how to write a design brief. Guiding a business means looking to the future, and it’s difficult to see the spot you’re standing on when your eyes are fixed on the horizon. I’ve sat down with seven-figure-salary executives, who speak eloquently about their industry, and yet are unable to define their own company’s elevator pitch.

Any half-competent designer is capable of extracting a design brief from a simple conversation. It’s not an uncommon approach for a designer to discuss a project at length, and then write their own design brief. The flaw with that approach is that the brief, while not necessarily wrong, is one step removed from the facts.

Fortunately, there is a secret to writing a successful design brief. All you have to do is correctly answer one simple question: how does your brand acquire its perceived value?

Perceived value is the value a consumer places on your service or product, whether that be measured as desirability, utility, material worth, or some other factor.

To determine how your perceived value is acquired, ask yourself how established your company is in its field. (The essential part of that question is in its field. For example, if you manufacture cars, an established company would be a household name; if you manufacture stethoscopes, an established company is unlikely to be known outside of the medical profession.)

Enterprises tend to be established by virtue of the fact that they can sustain their size relative to their industry. Large companies often define their industry norms, and their perceived value is acquired over time.

SMEs, especially startups, tend to be disruptive — this also holds true for enterprises making a horizontal move into a new field. Consumers’ lack of prior exposure means that disruptive companies have little acquired value. Instead, disruptive companies gain their perceived value by association.

There is a constant push and pull between acquired value and associated value. Enterprises will try to differentiate themselves from their industry to defend their acquired value; SMEs will link themselves with their industry leaders to inflate their associated value.

The nature of business is that most companies are disruptive by virtue of not being established. This means that their value is by association. A new banking product may talk about innovation, but the underlying visual language will reflect industry norms to gain brand value by association.

All strategic organisations, regardless of how they actually gain value in the eyes of their customers, present themselves as the thing they are not. Enterprises want to be seen as innovative and original; SMEs want to be seen as stable and reliable. Like human beings, businesses talk up the areas they believe are lacking in themselves.

There are two axes along which a designer can position a brand. One is how the brand actually acquires its value; the other is how it markets itself.

The two axes aren’t equal. The primary of the two is how you actually acquire brand value because this is fact-based. The primary axis dictates fundamental design decisions, such as rhythm, tone, and overarching strategy. The secondary of the two is the marketing strategy because this is flexible. The secondary axis governs more superficial decisions, such as colour, typography, and imagery.

The best design solutions place a brand in one of two positions:

Primarily established, and secondarily disruptive;
or primarily disruptive, and secondarily established.

The most impactful designs play on this contrast.

A diagram shows the relationship of the primary axis to the secondary axis.
Effective design can be found along the diagonal where the primary and secondary axes meet.

Effective design communicates value to consumers. To do so, it adopts an approach that accentuates either acquired, or associated value.

When creating a design brief, be clear about how your brand acquires its perceived value. Your designer should then be able to position you correctly, and from that position, all design decisions will flow.