Good design practices are one of the most valuable things a brand can invest in. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s address the idea of what design is.
There are many different opinions on what design is, but I really like the way Steve Jobs described it. He said, "Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer—that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
To paraphrase, design is not making things look pretty. Aesthetic beauty is a side effect of an elegantly functioning object, or a brand that connects with real people. Good design practices consider everything that a person interacts with. This includes the big picture, like the core values of a brand, and it includes the small details, like the tone of a marketing email or how an error message animates on a website.
Speed bumps in the design process
Many businesses like to talk about how they value design. They recognize that it’s an important part of a successful brand. But, when it comes down to actually doing it well, design tends to slip by the wayside. Why? As mentioned earlier, there are a lot of details to consider. All of those details can be intimidating and for a new business, design can seem like a big initial expense. To add to that, with design you can't really say that if you invest 40 hours of time into making a logo, the sales of your product will increase by 110%. Though an easy to use website certainly doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t necessarily equal more money in your bank account. Because of concerns like this, it becomes really easy to starting cutting corners in the design process.
After all, there is poorly implemented design practiced just about everywhere you go. If you go online or take a walk down the street, you see a world littered with off-putting ads, websites with mediocre experiences, and businesses with poor customer service (yes, customer service reflects how your brand is perceived and is therefore a design concern).
Yet, even with these issues, many places that practice bad design still pull in a buck. There are lots of profitable companies that have mediocre identities, poorly designed products, and sloppy user interfaces. So, why should I fork over the big bucks and invest in some good old-fashioned design, you ask? I had an experience that helped me to better grasp this concept.
A couple years ago I bought my first smart phone. It was top of the line technology. It had a big screen, long lasting battery, and most importantly, the guy at Best Buy told me it was one of the best phones on the market. I took his advice. It was exciting to open up. The package it came in was really nice—I held on to it for a few months because it was so nice that I felt guilty throwing it away.
Fresh out of the box and up and running, the phone did all the things a smartphone was supposed to do. I could browse the internet, download apps, and check my email. But, after a week or two, the honeymoon period wore off and the phone began to show its true colors. It was slow, transition animations were choppy, the interface did strange things, even the unlock screen was unnecessarily complicated. You had to click three things just to open up your phone to check a text message. To add to that, the phone itself was awkward to hold in my hand because it was unbalanced, making it easy to drop. In other words, this phone was the result of careless design and corner cutting—well, other than the really nice box it came in.
Nonetheless, the manufacturer still got my money. I used this phone every day and honestly, it got the job done. This was an incredibly popular phone. A few years after its initial release I still see people using them. It would appear that, from a business perspective, an aesthetic only design approach is just fine. At least some aspect of the phone was designed, right? But there is one more vital part of the equation to consider.
Though the manufacturer got my money, for me, the product was a failure. Here is why. I didn't enjoy using the phone. Most importantly, I didn't have any positive feelings towards my phone—sorry old phone, but sometimes the truth hurts. Essentially, the manufacturer of the phone did themselves a disservice by producing the product (this post is not a product review, so I won't name the model and make of the phone). This phone was half designed, it looked nice, but it didn’t work well. After using it I had no desire to purchase a product made by this manufacturer again.
And better design
So, I switched to an iPhone. The screen is a little smaller than my old phone and the box it came in wasn't as fancy—though, it’s still very nice and sitting on a shelf in my home. But the experience of the phone is totally different. First of all, I feel like getting an iPhone was like getting a ticket to a special club. This is because of the reputation Apple as established with me as a customer. Along with that, the phone feels nice to hold in my hand and it feels good to use. I can reach just about anywhere on the screen with my thumb. Transitions are smooth and actions are simple. When I want to do something, the phone does what I need it to do, without lot of odd steps to get there. The bottom line is the phone works well, it looks nice, and it feels good to use.
In the end, I emotionally like my new smart phone. You know what's strange? I look forward to using it because it gets the job done so well. This phone is an example of a product that went through a thoughtful and complete design process. By utilizing design, Apple forged an emotional connection with me. And I will be excited next time I need to purchase an Apple product— that’s something that I can’t say for the other brand.
The value of design
This is the value of design. Design forges an emotional connection with the person using the product or tool. The better the design, the better the emotional connection. People keep coming back to brands that they have an emotional connection with. If you want your product to last, people need to care about it. And this applies to designing anything, whether it’s a logo, a website, or a museum exhibit. The key to getting people to care about your product is to utilize a complete design process to form an emotional connection with your customer.
My point is this, if you're in it to make a quick buck you can probably get by without investing in professional design. Get your product out there, get an investor, and collect your paycheck. But if you're in it to make a difference, are passionate about your customers, and want them to come back, you would be crazy not to invest in design.
Note: The photo included in this post was taken by my iPhone and is of my old phone. The identity of the photographed phone has been concealed to preserve its anonymity.