This may seem like a rather mundane question, but the truth is that most people I have talked to are intimidated by design. It is almost as if it’s some untouchable Excalibur-type of skill that only a specific mind can handle. In this post, I hope to clear this up, make the average person comfortable with the process, and even present my own definition of what I think the term should mean (and what I do as a “designer”).

So, what is it?

There is a common discussion about whether or not “design” and “art” are one in the same. This has been hotly debated, and both sides have equally good arguments. I don’t have a solid stance on this topic, but I typically separate the two with this common explanation: design is doing work for someone else, and art is doing work for yourself.

This is certainly oversimplified, but it helps to make sense of this whole thing. Essentially, since art can be highly conceptual, it tends to have different interpretations based on the viewer. The communication here is between the artist and the viewer, but if the artist doesn’t communicate their idea with every viewer, it does not make the piece ineffective. Being a frequenter of the MFA and ICA here in Boston, I am sure I misinterpret a large amount of art I see, but I can still love it even if it isn’t always the artist’s interpretation.

When we are dealing with design, the concept needs to be easily recognizable both for the success of the campaign and for the comfort of the client. This means that the communication is dependent not on the intention of the designer, but in the interpretation of the end-user. The success of design is solely dependent on how it is perceived and whether it effectively communicates the correct message. Why is this important to note? Because the viewer becomes the expert on the design, and is actually what drives the entire process.

Are you a designer?

I may stir the community a little with this, but yes, you are a designer. Everybody is a designer, and everyone has valuable ideas. I am not saying that my role isn’t important here. In fact, the reason you need a trained designer is because we are experts, not at designing ideas from scratch (although that is sometimes the case), but at interpreting your ideas and putting them together into a cohesive format. We are experts on layout, color, hierarchy, typography, and a slew of other things. To actually turn an idea into something effective, you do need a professional designer, but it doesn’t devalue your input at all. I think most designers would agree with me that a lot of our ideas do not come from thin air, they come from listening to our clients and taking notes. The most important thing in the client-designer relationship is this communication and comfort level, so there is no reason to be afraid.

Trust, and what to look for

All of this being said, the thing I try to find with my own clients is a strong level of trust on both sides. A client should feel comfortable trusting me with their communication and I should trust their judgement. When this relationship is not built on trust, it not only runs the risk of being a failure, but the collaboration really begins to suffer. Just like picking the right car at the lot, choosing the right designer to make your dreams a reality is key to success, and as designers, we search for the same thing with our clients. I could go on and on about this relationship, but I will save that for a dedicated blog post in the future.

What about me?

In looking at design from the end-user’s perspective, what truly creates a successful communication is an integration of the message into the normal life of the viewer. This concept is certainly not new, as it is the principle basis of UX design and inbound marketing, but I feel its importance has been greatly overlooked. In the end, design is merely a way to expand the human experience. In my mind, a true designer does whatever it takes to get the job done, and they know that sometimes it means going outside their comfort zone. If you dine in a restaurant, it isn’t enough to just have a good meal, you are there for the experience. Restauranteurs spend a lot of time creating this, and it doesn’t happen by accident. The way the food looks, the way it tastes, the way the staff communicates with you, the scents of the dishes as they pass by your table, the décor; the list goes on. At its core, this is what I think design truly is. Not being an expert in the visual field or typography, but being an expert in experiences, no matter the medium.

When design is approached as an expansion of the human experience (notice, not the creation of the experience), the focus is solely on the best way to communicate to the end-user. As a designer, I have resources and data to observe the patterns of your viewers, but these are just numbers. You, as the person who deals with your clients every day, know your audience better than any data can predict. This information is crucial, and collaboration is key to creating a successful campaign. Designers know how to communicate, and our clients know their audience and their business better than we ever could. Since knowing your audience and the business is a crucial part of design, our clients usually play a big role in the process, and we need them to. Without this interaction, your communication may still succeed, but it is much less likely. And when it comes to your business, it is worth it to invest in the more probable approach than the least probable one.