First in a series of 20 reminders for graphic designers -- my riffs on "Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual" (Timothy Samara)
Reminder #1: Have a concept.
"If there's no message, no story, no idea, no narrative, or no useful experience to be had, it's not graphic design. It doesn't matter how amazing the thing is to look at; without a clear message, it's an empty, although beautiful shell." [p.10]
Samara's absolutely right, but if you're a new designer, you might be thinking, 'Okay... great -- what message would that be?' So let's dig deeper and figure out how.
In order to come up with a concept, you need to meet with your client. Even if that client is yourself, sit down, grab some coffee and a pen, and take some notes. What are they trying to accomplish here? How can you help them get there? Most importantly: how can you solve this problem?
Our sample problem: Your client is the head of undergraduate admissions at Wossamatta U, an expensive private university, and wants to increase enrollment , by making some shiny new viewbooks with a hip new look to send out to high school kids. Upon seeing these viewbooks, the kids will all decide that their life will not be complete unless they are Wossamatta U alumni, and apply in droves. Happy kids, happy client, and very happy bank account.
Design is solving problems. Graphic design is solving problems visually.
So how are you going to solve your client's problem with your limited tools of paper and ink, or pixels on a screen? How can you motivate people to make a decision that will affect the rest of their life, and spend serious amounts of cash on something intangible like an education? What's your concept?
First, understand what the actual problem is. Very often, it's not what the client says it is, at first -- you have to do some digging to get at the root cause. If you don't understand your client's problem, or its cause, how on earth can you come up with a viable solution, instead of just something that looks cool?
In this case, our problem is twofold: trying to convince the high school kids that this is a university they want to attend, as well as convincing their parents that spending enough cash to buy themselves a house is a much better idea than sending their kid to the public college, McSchool. So if you just do what the client asked for, and make a publication that looks hip and cool and promises parties and hot chicks, you'll alienate the parents; if you make something that looks solid and stable and safe, you've now lost the kids, who'll write off Wossamatta U. as hopelessly boring, and they'll join their friends around the beer bong at McSchool. (No, I'm not biased at all, why do you ask?)
Second, understand your audience -- who're you talking to? We have two audiences -- kids, and parents. Okay, what sort of kids? What sort of parents? What's the demographic here? Crap, I said 'demographic,' which means… Marketing. Yep, you might need to go enlist marketing people, now. Steel yourself for focus groups, lots of meetings in which data and trends are discussed, and lots of buzzwords are heard. If your client or you don't have any marketing people on hand, and you're not in a position to hire any, you will have to do your own marketing research to figure out who you're talking to.
In this case, your marketing people tell you that you're going to be talking to middle and upper-middle class people, as well as some lower-middle-class people, and a couple of the wealthy people. Then dissect that further, until you come up with a distinct group of people who are your audience, and similar enough that most of them will respond to your message.
Third, keeping your problem and audience in mind, what will you say that solves the problem? Work with your client on this, as they've got an intimate knowledge of their demographic. Brainstorm, but before you brainstorm with the client... do it on your own, first, to weed out any real clunkers, and thus avoid looking like a dope.
Fourth, how will you say it? Again, keep your problem and your audience in mind, but now add a third variable: the environment your message will be in. Will it be a flyer? A poster? A website? A phone call? A letter? An interview with an admissions counselor? Your 'design' might need to cover one or more of these things -- or all of them. In this case, it's a printed four-color book with varnish, and lots of photos. Keep the end result in mind when you're designing, and make your designs congruent with your message. e.g., A grungy distressed font like Badhouse Bold is probably not the right font for this particular job.
This axiom comes from advertising, but it's applicable in a lot of design work as well. Your job is:
In our example design problem, we're trying to convince middle-to-upper-class parents and kids to use Wossamatta U., instead of a public university, McSchool, because we want their tuition dollars.
Most design problems you'll run into aren't this grandiose in scope, where you're essentially trying to sell someone a product that costs six or seven figures over four or five years, and can't be held in their hands. Most problems will be something more like: To convince widget buyers to use the Bambleweeny 5000 instead of the competitor's Whatsit X7, because you want their money. Or: To convince goth teenagers to use your special cool-looking black condoms during sex instead of forgetting their birth control, because you think STDs are not so hot (though dying of syphilis? very Romantic and thus slightly gothy), and they might be more likely to use condoms that are black.
But wait! What if you're not selling anything at all?
Well… in a way, you are. You're asking people to spend their time to look at your design and think about what you're trying to say -- at the very least. Or you're asking them to come spend their time at an event you're publicizing, or... you get the idea. Just like I've asked you to spend your time on this post. Thanks for reading!