Originally written for and published by Third & Grove on February 15, 2018.
We wanted to do you a favor. Be prepared to clip this forthcoming paragraph out and hang it somewhere very visible. Fax it, email it with a bunch of glittery gifs, or post it in a neighborhood church bulletin.
The client, their aunt or cousin or grandmother, your neighbor's grandson who “always had an eye for these sort of things”, and even you, a designer, are not as single individuals reliable resources for aesthetic.
We may all have Pinterest boards we are proud of or still have working memories of Art History courses from college, but the study, research, and application of what a persona or demographic desires from a product experience takes much more than an opinion, even an educated one.
Consider that personal taste is varied even in a single, granular demographic. Not all millennials want to legalize marijuana or are spending ridiculous amounts of money on avocado toast. Even when you have two users that are the same age, career industry, geography, nationality, etc.; they will undoubtedly have personal tastes that differ. Therefore, their reaction to a specific color, adjective, and image will be wildly different.
There are multiple ways to gather substantial feedback to aesthetic and tone that work better than informal user testing done at a bar or dinner table. Here are a few that we know work well and guide our solutions:
Beyond that bit of a nod to a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine, intuition is one of the most crucial tools a designer holds in their toolbox. Intuition is what separates the best designers from the mere capable. Beyond the esoteric materials that bolster decision-making when it comes to aesthetic, intuition is the gut feeling that defines talent. It’s not something you can train to be good at. You can’t take courses online or throw a mortgage’s worth at a college to master it; though it helps. Intuition is acquired through a designer’s experiences in life and honed through purposefulness, dedication, and constant application. Designers live their perfection of aesthetic: we critique everything we see to the ruin of films and music, at the least, to the detriment of relationships and marriages, at the worse. The truly haunted designer despises this awareness of this layer shellacking human experience yet cannot live without its guiding, warm light.
Applying intuition requires the individual or small group of designers to use their intelligence (astuteness in the measurables list above) and gut feeling, or “eye”.
When done right, it results in a refined ability to see and make educated guesses at what a specific individual wants from media consumption and how best to give it to them.
How do you convince clients this research is more substantial than their family and friends? For one, as mentioned above, most designers have spent their lives perfecting the ability to read desire and aesthetic. No matter if we didn’t know until college that we’d be designers or artists, specifically. More over, what we do is nearly entirely the practice of aesthetic. If a client does not trust your ability to provide a great deliverable, then they will not trust your ability to read and write aesthetic.
Are you the right designer for the demographic? This isn’t an absurd query. All parties should be asking themselves this very question. Like any other arts major, most designers have a style, which permeates through aesthetic and tone, as well. If a designer’s style is not a match for the demographic all hands on the team should know this and provide alternatives to remedy this inconsistency. However, this is often readily solved by consolidating resources: including more than one designer on a project, requiring all deliverables run through a critique gauntlet with varying perspectives as the peanut gallery. For larger agencies, this is obvious and easy to do. For smaller agencies and teams, however, it is challenging to manage.
The best time to start talking about messaging and tone — when it’s not already delivered from branding — is during discovery and insights. From the moment data has been acquired and disseminated, aesthetic research should begin. The personas that compose your project’s demographics and market should, from the get go, conjure initial, obvious aesthetic approaches.
More often than not, as a digital products agency, you’ll be receiving branding that has already been established elsewhere. How this fits into your design is not always malleable, so most of this article is moot when there is already over-arching aesthetics at play. ∅