Why research lead to better design.
In my professional work, when planning projects, it is not unusual that the initial discovery phase many times can constitute as much as 80% of the total project time while only 20% being actual production. This is quite a big change from when I started as a designer in the mid-1990’s when my work usually consisted of 20% planning and 80% production. What I have learned through the years, though, is that doing your homework in the research phase always pays off. Instead of having to create many iterations of creative proposals to a client or stakeholder; by really understand the problem and also involving the client in the research process; when it is time for the actual production, usually, you then have a solution which everyone agrees on which means less friction, quicker production times and a better end-result.
Indentifying the problem
In my work, the discovery phase consists of two parts: identifying the problem and finding the solution.
Identifying the problem is about understanding what the client wants to achieve with the project by interviews with stakeholders, staff and customers; in addition to researching the history of the organisation, analysing written documents including sales brochures, annual reports and internal memos, and also to build an understanding of marketing strategies and previous campaigns. The process of finding a creative solution to the problem, on the other hand, is an iterative procedure of testing ideas often generated through inspirational studies of historical- and current marketing campaigns of the organisation and its competitors.
While many of the designers I work with find most of their inspiration by studying contemporary design and winning work in competitions like the Cannes Lions (2017); what I have come to realize more and more is that very little of today’s prize winning design actually is “new” in the sense of creative discovery. Almost all quality design of today, at least in my view, is firmly grounded in the rules of typography and design of the modernist period and often bleak copies of creative work created between the 1930’s and 1960’s. Personally, I rather go straight to the source and find much of my inspiration grounded in this period and especially in the work by the proponents of the Swiss-style idiom including Josef Müller-Brockmann, Max Bill, Anton Stankowski, Tschichold and Baumberger, and of course their succeeding generation of designers including Rand, Frutiger and Vignelli to name a few.
The research process
After almost two decades working in the creative industries after dropping out from university after getting offered a job in 1996; a few years ago I decided to get my academic credentials. It has been a tough journey especially when it comes to the definition of research.
While research performed in a commercial environment, in most cases, do not need to be grounded in theoretical frameworks or sources critically examined; in academic research, each step in a research process need to be motivated and adhere to strict academic guidelines which also means that sources need to be questioned. You also can not just ‘copy-paste’ what others already have written, even though you might totally agree to the writings of an author.
At the start of my academic journey, I found it extremely tedious, and unnecessary actually having re-write findings and conclusions presented by others, which is the foundation of academic research. However, doing so forces you to really understand the problem and I am amazed how often this process leads to new discoveries and I now actually have come to enjoy it. I think most design teams would benefit from implementing a more academic structure in their research process which would help them better to understand the problem and ultimately create stronger work.
What comes after…
In my notion, the last ten years in the creative industry has seen a shift in the structure and project management of creative projects. Clients have started to understand the value of research and more importantly also are prepared to pay for it. More designers also have begun to write about design, perform project research and to a greater extent and also have started to actually test their work using platforms like usertesting.com(2017) and usabilityhub.com(2017).
This development of the creative industry is great and the fact that many successful designers of today base their work on research is an important evolvement of our industry. And who knows, maybe this new paradigm will lead to a revolution of graphic design similar to the modernist and that I in a few years instead of searching for inspiration in 50-year-old dusty books will find my biggest sources of creative stimulus in modern blogs. If such revolution would happen, though, the question is what we should call it. Post-post-modernism?
- Canneslions.com. (2017). Canneslions.com. [online] Available at: https://www.canneslions.com/ [Accessed 21 Aug. 2017].
- Usabilityhub.com. (2017). Usabilityhub.com. [online] Available at: https://usabilityhub.com/ [Accessed 21 Aug. 2017].
- Usertesting.com. (2017). Usertesting.com. [online] Available at: https://www.usertesting.com/ [Accessed 21 Aug. 2017].