Design is an often misunderstood practice, seen as something ill-defined, frivolous, a last-minute exercise in prettifying and colouring in. Designers are often seen as eccentric artists driven by inspiration, the lone wolves, the mavericks no one understands. Well, I’m here to say that good design is none of that – but that it is a systematic, collaborative approach to achieving business objectives.
It’s about making decisions based on the problem laid out before us, and within the parameters of the situation. In the last example, it could be defined as the question: “How do I get from A to B?”; with the parameters that I want to get there: a) as fast as possible, b) as comfortably as possible and, c) within the means of transport I have available to me.
This is the heart of design – how do we solve the problem before us in the most elegant way?
Visual design extends this concept except we use a visual language to communicate meaning and function through form and colour. In this language we have certain tools to work with, such as: type, colour and space.
Typography is fundamental to design. You can take away everything else and you’re left with the fact that text is the primary way that our users digest content.
But that doesn’t take into account that fonts are (or can be) beautiful. Typography, when sized, spaced and laid out well is elegant and harmonious.
Fonts themselves communicate meaning. At Which? we use Stag Sans as our main brand font. To me, it says we’re modern but authoritative. Just look at the difference between that and Comic Sans.
Can you define that difference? It hits you emotionally, viscerally, rather than rationally.
Learn about Typography terms
Try spacing type like a pro in this ‘kerning’ game
Colour me bad
Colour is one of the key ways we convey tone and personality through design. Colour draws your eye and stimulates different feelings without you even knowing it.
There have been plenty of studies on how colours influence us. In his 2006 paper ‘Impact of color on marketing’, Satyendra Singh of the University of Winnipeg found that “People make up their minds within 90 seconds of their initial interactions with […] products…” and that “about 62-90 percent of the assessment is based on colors alone.”
As designers, we try to use colours systematically and in the right context.
Like most brands, we have a primary colour (Which? red) as well as a palette of complementary colours that tie together to create harmonious combinations on the page, whilst retaining the overall personality of the brand.
Read more about our colour palette at Which?
I just need some space
We use the space between words and objects just as much as the objects themselves. We call this “whitespace” or “negative space” and, when used well, it allows different elements to breathe so that the viewer can focus on the important content – whether that’s a Call to Action or longform article.
Designers sometimes use a ‘grid’ to help with balancing the whitespace – the grid serves as an armature or framework on which a designer can organize graphic elements (images, iconography, paragraphs, etc.) in a rational, easy-to-absorb manner.
Isn’t design just about making things look beautiful?
How ever dare you! Although, come to think of it, that’s not wholly inaccurate. Aesthetics do have a huge role to play in good design. Have you ever heard of “the halo effect”? It’s a psychological phenomenon by which we use one trait of a person or thing to make an overall judgement on that person or thing. For instance, we assume that someone good looking also has other positive attributes such as being honest and trustworthy.
We can extend this concept to visual design – a ‘good looking’ product will be perceived to have more value or be easier to use. Not only that but, by association, the organisation behind the product will be perceived to be more established, forward thinking, authoritative or of value.
Read more about the Halo Effect
Other studies have shown that good design lends real credibility to a product and organisation whereas bad design damages that credibility in the customer’s mind. It’s not rocket science. But it is science.
Design excellence in practice
Well that’s all very well in theory, isn’t it? Does this stuff actually work in practice?
There are some companies that stand out because they are “design-led” – they use design as the critical competitive advantage in a market where similar (or identical) products or services are freely available.
Apple is the example everyone always rolls out – once the functionality, performance and availability of software was comparable between iOS and Windows, Apple products stood out because of their beauty and ease of use and the company became market leader with a fanbase others could only dream of.
Spotify transformed itself from an engineering-led company to embrace the importance of design as fundamental to its product and business strategy – look at them now…
Airbnb were failing badly. They had the core product built and working but customers weren’t engaging. So they took a good, hard look at themselves and realised their hosts’ own photographs generally looked awful. By association, this made the product less than desirable. So they hired some cameras, went on the road and took beautiful photos for their listings. Changing the way those listings looked turned the company around with customers engaging at an exponential rate.
Do you seriously need more convincing? OK, so we’ve seen that visual design, rather than being some kind of artform, is actually a fundamental process for solving problems, engaging users and achieving organisational/business objectives. It does this by applying a systematic approach to building a language of communication between the organisation/product and the consumer. For it to work, all you have to do is make it feel natural and effortless.