Given the proliferation of digital design tools, the term graphic designer has been expanded well beyond a job title; everyone is a graphic designer, and maybe that’s not so bad. There is, however, a big difference between designed graphics and “graphic design”.
Design, like art, is meant to communicate more than its face value. It connects emotionally with its viewer or user; and all graphic design does this to some degree. Your audience is looking for connection (whether they know it or not) and is more likely to engage with brands they feel connected with – we touch on this here.
Good design is aspirational, pulling the viewer into a world they need, want, or could have; in that way, emotional connection is formed. Great typography, photography, and elements in combination make you feel something – or is that just me?
By making a few simple choices, you can define whether the viewer feels calm, shocked, frantic, confident, excited, or any number of other things.
So what does this mean practically? It means that every piece of printed, digital, and physical communication matters – no pressure! There’s no silver bullet when it comes to design, but there are a few things you can do to make sure what you put out there returns with bells on.
Design for your audience
Seems obvious, right? Know who you’re talking to, what you’re saying to them, and why you’re saying it. There’s no use in designing something cool and edgy if it doesn’t do what it’s meant to do. (I guess I’m speaking specifically about consumer-facing design — if you’re designing for art’s sake, go for it).
Your audience wants to see something that makes them feel like there is a person on the other side of the design, brand, or business. Someone that reassures them, informs them, comforts them, encourages them. Someone that knows them.
Design for connection
I received an email from Tobias van Schneider this week. The subject line read: Why do all brands these days look the same?
At first I was offended, on behalf of all my fellow designers, however, his contention was not to condemn the fact, but in a way, justify it.
“Look at any tech or direct-to-consumer company today and you will quickly notice a visual trend: Simple, sans-serif logo. Short, punchy tagline. Clean, approachable branding. Companies like this are popping up left and right, offering different products or services to the same demographic. While our assumption is that a brand wants to stand out, these do the opposite.
Designers may sneer at the lack of originality, but the creators of these brands and products have discovered a fascinating approach: Why stand out if you can fit in?”
Sidenote: read his article on the Kawaiization of product design.
Van Schneider goes on to connect the dots on how familiar design creates connection and pathways for consumers to follow. This is not an encouragement to rip off other peoples’ work. Please don’t. But if there are things in your industry that you know work, use them, especially if you’re just getting started.
Admittedly, there is something fun about using conventions that you know people are familiar with, in a way that they’re not expecting. Lifestyle photography for a real estate agent, or large bold type for a health clinic. In that way, you’re using styles they might have originally associated with fashion, or architecture (often aspirational) and applying them to the everyday.
As I said, there's no silver bullet.
Design for clarity
Okay, maybe this is also an obvious one, but nothing bad ever happened because someone was too clear. There’s something about clarity in design that builds trust. Give your viewer an image and a tagline and that’s good, but offer a clean grid, hierarchy, and something that you can understand at first glance and you’ve got yourself a winner.
We’re complicated beings — we love to be curious, discover, work things out, but we’re also more than likely to become frustrated with something we don’t understand.
Designing for clarity means we put as little barriers as possible between the consumer and the action we want them to take, or the message we want them to hear. It also has the added benefit of communicating authenticity, transparency, and a genuine voice.
Graphic design is about creating an emotional connection. Designers have the choice to do this to any extent they like; create for screens or create for humans or some hybrid of the two.
This may be the ultimate difference between designed graphics and graphic design. The depth of connection you make is up to you.