Beyond ‘I Don’t Like It’ (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here

Putting it into words

This is the hard part for many people. It really often does go back to what you like and dislike and being able to find the words to describe what you want. The trouble is, the visual language of creatives is by necessity more developed than most clients.

What does it mean when you say that you want your site to be modern? And how is modern different from contemporary or trendy?

For the love of all things holy and even some things that aren’t, don’t ever say “I don’t know what I want, I’ll know it when I see it”. That just wastes everyone’s time. Clients are as responsible for the success of a project as the creative team. Giving good direction is the client’s responsibility. Without good direction, you have no one to blame but yourself when the design doesn’t meet your needs. We can’t read minds (although that won’t stop us from trying!).

Design is a process and it takes requirements analysis, objective research and goals that need to be met to really achieve success. If you haven’t set any goalposts at all, but instead just want the designer to noodle, that’s all well and good–but don’t expect that noodling to come in on budget or on target. There is no target in this situation.

Words we loathe

If you’ve ever had a conversation with a designer and used any of these words as creative direction, you’re not helping them achieve your goals.

  • Edgy
  • Cool
  • Make it pop
  • Push it
  • Think outside the box
  • Have fun with it

Now, of course you want the designer to have fun with it, but unless you have given additional direction on top of that, they’re not going to be able to take that anywhere. These words are completely devoid of meaning when used as direction. The only time they’re useful is when describing something that has already been created.

Getting the Context Right

Everything in communication design needs to be pragmatic. In other words, it needs to understand the context in which it exists.

For example, a bed and breakfast, located in an historic part of the city, housed in a hundred year old Victorian mansion might use the following words to describe their desires for a website:

  • Classical
  • Traditional
  • Ornate
  • Retro

Whereas, a startup business providing software as a service to twenty and thirty somethings might look for an interface that is:

  • Fresh
  • Contemporary
  • Fun
  • Simple
  • Current

An architecture firm that specializes in creating buildings for progressive clients might need a website that embodies these qualities:

  • Modern
  • Technical
  • Clean
  • Swiss

And lastly, a site for a bar/club that organizes late night live music shows might look:

  • Contemporary
  • Trendy
  • Grungy
  • Playful

The great thing about all of these terms is that they immediately create a mood. When combined, they help to build a persona for the site, similar to the way that UX designers will create personas for people who might visit a site. You’ll note that many of these terms cross boundaries and are quite similar.

For example, contemporary in the context of the bar site would mean in keeping with styles as seen in the music industry, but in the context of the startup software company, it might mean to make it more like the look and feel of the 37Signals site, a leader in the online software business.

Although they sound like they mean the same thing, Modern and Contemporary, to a designer are very different. Technically, Modern refers to an era in the late 50s and 60s, a period that brought us the Bauhaus and the Eames chair. At this point in time, both of these ideas of ‘modern’ are decidedly ‘retro’. Yeah. I know.

However, all is not lost. It’s important when dealing with a designer to explain what your idea of ‘modern’ is. This is where the creation of a solid brief at the beginning of the project comes in. It’s perfectly acceptable to call something modern, as long as you explain what your version of modern looks like by showing examples. Opening the lines of communication early and making sure you’re on the same page from the very beginning will ensure that you get exactly what you’re looking for, and will make it less likely that you’ll end up on

[Update: Mike Monteiro from Mule Design has written a great and concise post on this very topic that does an even better job than I did. Read it here.]

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