Why It Doesn’t Matter If You Like Your Design

Design sketch book

Art and design. Two words that have been linked together by the fabric of the universe since the beginning of time. In reality, art and design are like oil and water. I believe that the terms need to be prised apart, especially in a professional capacity. Many think that choosing an artistic expression of self is the same as choosing a design that reflects concrete business goals. In reality, there are fundamental underpinnings to the way art and design are approached which lead to completely different outcomes.

The Fundamental Difference Between Art And Design

I’m here to put a strong dividing line between artistry and design. And just to clear this up before I go too far, I’m not doing so to the detriment of artists. I respect their work greatly. So, in a nutshell, here it is: art is subjective, design is objective. Art exists for itself, design exists to solve a problem. I strongly believe design actually has more in common with architecture or engineering than art in the sense that we build something for a selfless purpose. As both designers and clients, we must understand that it’s not about what we want, but what we can deliver to the user to best serve them.

Fundamental differences in both approach and outcome see artists and designers branch off onto very different paths. After 14 years in this business, I can confidently say that one of the best ways clients can make the most out of their marketing investment is to truly understand and apply the art / design difference.

Good design is aesthetically pleasing. Great design also communicates a message, appeals to the user, and works the way it needs to. Aesthetics are entirely subjective, and can be interpreted differently by the designer, the client, and the user. Design is about solving problems for the user by employing an objective approach. So, while designer, client and the user can (and likely will) personally disagree on aesthetics, they should be in lock-step when it comes to design.

Why The Creative Process Is Broken

Too often, agencies sell a creative process that basically involves the designer creating for the client, and the client passing that on to the user. This kind of workflow may make the client happy in the short term, but ultimately, doesn’t give the client what they need—which is a product that properly serves their end user. As an aside, this doesn’t give the agency what they need either. While they may benefit from the short term payment of professional fees, they will not realize the benefits that could have been gained by producing a design that performs better and generates a stronger case study by truly serving the user.

At Kula, we prefer a different kind of workflow which places the end user in the centre of every process. That is who we create for. Clients become unhappy when an artist tries to change a project based on the artist’s personal tastes. End users are equally unsatisfied when clients or artists assert their personal preferences on a functional design.

Design projects aren’t for the client or the designer. They’re for the user.

Personal Preferences vs. User Experiences

By keeping personal preferences in the equation, the workflow looks like this: the designer creates something they like, project details are discussed and negotiated until the product becomes something the client likes, and the whole thing is passed onto the user (and both parties just hope they like it).

By removing their personal preferences from the equation, everyone benefits—the design is tailored to the audience, the client provides functional and contextual input, and the end user gets something that works and fulfills their needs, helping the client better achieve their own business goals. This kind of partnership should not, however, minimize the important roles of both the client and the designer in the overall process.

It takes a great designer to remove themselves from a project and make it about the user. They must gain a thorough understanding of both the client-supplied goal and context and the user and their problems, translating this information into a visually appealing and highly functional solution. They must be objective, communicative, aspirational, and empathetic.

The feedback designers never like to hear is, “I’m the target audience, and I don’t like it!”. In fact, by definition, the client cannot be the user. However, in changing the approach and relationship between the client and designer, we can work together to challenge the design against the brief, business goals, and what best appeals to the user. This harmonious and respectful method is exactly what’s needed to keep the focus exactly where it belongs—on the user.

You Are Not The User

It is fully acknowledged that distancing personal taste from design almost feels counterintuitive. I guess it’s something you get used to doing. Unfortunately, I think I personally may have gone too far. I now find it very hard to have what I would call a personal opinion about many things, not just design. I’m always asking, what was intended to accomplish? Am I actually the user? How should I be effected by it? I look at the technical side: is the kerning correct? Is the colour balance optimized? How do the elements work together? I guess it’s the curse of the designer. We’re constantly analyzing. I’ve been asked many times what my opinion is when a new logo is released to the public. My response is normally ‘I need to see the brief’ or ‘I need to see the rest of the branding to give it context’. The logic and reasoning behind the design is what makes it right in my eyes.

Empathy is one of the core traits of a good designer: the ability to put one’s own feelings aside in order to convey a message from any point of view and in any tone. One of the most difficult things for new designers to learn is how not to inject their own desires into a design. Inevitably, it would lead to all of their designs looking the same on some level, probably not answering the brief, and missing connecting with the user. Candidly, I think this is one of the hardest things for newer client-side marketers to grasp too. That simple notion of “I am not the user” is more difficult to internalize than we often estimate at the start.

The Case For A Healthy Divide

As both designers and clients, let’s apply the same division to art and design as we should to our professional and private lives. Let design be used in a professional capacity to solve business goals, and art to decorate our living rooms when we come home after a busy day. Good design unifies ideas and communicates them effectively to everyone. Good art expresses and communicates something different to everyone. Art is an open debate. Design is conclusive. Art raises questions. Design solves business problems.

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