9 min read
For almost fifteen years, I've been a designer. The longer I am in design, the more I love it. In fact, my love for it has grown ever since I began to do less making, less pixel pushing, and more talking and thinking. It might sound contradictory to design, but as I'm here at the start of a new chapter with my own agency, GÜDE CO., I've realized what my purpose as a designer is and I wanted to share a few thoughts.
In between my studies in design and digital marketing, in university, I studied English literature, psychology and philosophy. Outside of fine arts and design, I've always been a writer myself, particularly fiction and poetry. I was interested in language, communication strategy, the mind game, the challenge of capturing emotions and abstractions. I was interested in streamlining thought into the most precise, concise and impactful language. I was interested in the human condition, civilization, what drives characters and people. I was interested in the mosaic of different worldviews and ideologies that govern the world and have created systems. Moreover, I've always been interested in the design and development of what remains unspoken and fills in all the empty spaces. The most powerful of all communication are the things that are left unsaid, the things that are impossible to capture, the ineffable - yet we try. How to create and express the experiential negative space is the truest test.
Design puts all of these things into play. It's not about pretty things or the visuals. Design is in everything. Everything can be designed. It's intentional and informed decision and strategy. Design is strategy.
Branding is one particular language that speaks throughout business, subconsciously. We all know: "Good design is invisible." "Less is more." The best design is unnoticeable, yet, memorable and powerful. We know 90% of consumers make purchase decisions based on emotions and subconscious influences. Güde design speaks the unspoken. So well, that it goes unnoticed.
This is why designers and agencies make amazing business partners. We use the right side brain to balance out the left side approach. We imagine, humanize and empathize for businesses and products, we translate business goals into powerful communication (yes, a large part of which becomes subconscious language).
We know how business works in tandem with design. We know branding and marketing is important and go hand in hand. The funnel leads customers and clients somewhere after all. A landing page, lead captures, products/services, CTAs, check out, and more, are all part of the funnel. We often talk about pain points, user personas, target market and demographics or psychographics, positioning and messaging, personality, archetypes, voice, content, SWOT... We know the hustle.
Though we know how important all this is, as far as I've seen, design is still sidelined. Usually, to be frank and to no one's surprise, by clients - this is a common struggle for all designers. Understandably so, because this is our job - not theirs! So we end up often putting tremendous effort and time into convincing clients to prioritize design, consider branding rather than focusing on the sales and marketing funnel, or to value comprehensive product design before jumping into developing a messy app, to decide for the long lasting effects of best UX rather than budget concerns, or to develop a compelling and consistent voice and personality before trying to advertise.
In our modern visual, sensory, and experiential market, we realize design strategizes and creates a solid foundation and playbook for businesses.
Without the foundation (which is quite common), designers end up doing the work after much of the business had been laid out: patchwork to mend problems that have snowballed, rushing to make up for lost time, or even if early enough, design is a thing to do, a tool, a means to an end. Design is sidelined.
However, designers sideline design too.
We also start to lose the core essence of design. We begin to believe that design is just that, a means to an end.
It seems to me that design ultimately serves the results. Designers know each design decision comes from a lot of research, testing, iteration and scientific method. We start to think in data, metrics, KPI, sales figures. We segment design into AGILE sprints that are cost effective, efficient, sees quick iterative progress and results. We A/B test and decide whichever the masses respond to. But I'd like to be the devil's advocate: did we, designers, adapt our approach for our clients and employers who see it the same way? Aren't we supposed to bring the other side of the spectrum to the table?
Sometimes we are too close to the details, measuring and quantifying it meticulously and scrutinizing with a microscope. We follow what the numbers tell us about our design, rather than what we actually believe in. We even divide up much of the details into different roles, different teams, different departments, that it's hard to stay cohesive and unified.
Indeed, without a doubt, all these things, especially results, are super important, and I, like most design professionals, abide by this, and excel at methodology and systems thinking. But is that hustle all there is to design?
Authenticity comes first
Sometimes, design doesn't feel so glorified or dignified. In the worst of times, it feels like we are playing mind games. We feel like we betray our users and customers. We convince others and tap into pain points, despite internal issues or poor product and service. We can create viral campaigns and increase adoption rates. We speak the unspoken, we speak emotions, and we know customers will buy in. We all know now how important emotional branding and brand storytelling is, and how to deeply connect to our market. But all these things are often created for a brand and business in order to appeal to the audience first and foremost. We are so focused outward on how to make our case and carve out our standing in the world.
It's as if we are insecure and desperate to try to convince others that our brands are important.
I do believe people have an intuitive sense to detect authenticity, especially in such a competitive market, saturated with loud brands. Even if customers can't tell, the drive of a brand is often visible and experienced. How far will it go, depends on the authentic passion and values behind it, and practical steps to continue to build on it.
Why do we (designers and clients) not expect to find the inner most emotional decisions and emotional authenticity in ourselves?
We have to remember we are working with real people with real feelings. We have to remember we are all real people with real feelings. Customers, clients and staff alike.
At GÜDE CO., we are about doing güde in the world, and we make it a mission to put people first. For us, this means a lot, but one of the things that matter to us is authenticity.
Brand authenticity centers around values and beliefs, responsibility and accountability, cohesiveness and consistency. It still is an outward authenticity to put on display. Sometimes, this is fabricated and chosen.
Emotional authenticity is being true to yourself, aware of your emotions in each situation, responding and acting consistently. This is an inward authenticity, one that is complex, and requires introspection and self awareness.
Though those things have a lot to unpack, I won't go into much detail here. What about the two together?
No matter how convincing the content, how consistent the branding, how compelling the design: is it authentic? Does it align with an original true passion? Was that ever even discovered in the first place? How driven are we as the designers and strategists to dig deep and persistently until we reach the core? That origin is often found deep in the founders and their business vision.
Just like consumers make decisions based on emotions, businesses too, come from something deeper, more personal, more subconscious. Too much of the time, we forget that.
Many start up creators and small business owners I've spoken to often will tell me, they want to make money. And sometimes, the revenue model starts to replace the purpose of the business itself. Without first understanding why you're doing it and why customers need you, how would the sales figures be fulfilled?
A client came to me thinking they were working on an ecommerce platform, with a full understanding of how it would be a user driven economy. But soon, through our consulting process, I help them discover their fresh vision is that of a social one - ecommerce driven by influencers. The core essence that drove every decision in strategy and design, and from thereon in, in every business decision revolved around community building - people first. Further definition of key concepts and keywords became our mantras.
One founder of a start up discussed with me about their travel platform, but I did not give up in asking for the unique value proposition and brand differentiation from so many other competitors among many other difficult questions. Eventually he came to the conclusion that his intention was truly to find compatibility and connect strangers - fellow travellers - and the entire platform was to be centered around it, even to the extent of the technology and developmental efforts involved. There was a eureka moment for me, yet, this (and branding) was something he had pushed aside as a good-to-have, rather than a vital pulse.
Another client created an app that seemed to get too close for comfort to Google Maps, Yelp, and many other competitors. They believed it was a B2B app, wanting to help businesses, service providers, events promote locally with mapping, as there would be revenue in doing so, diluting their app with separate features. And they believed adding AI and personal assistant features to it would set it apart. Who would the businesses be promoting to, and who would promote on a platform without users?
As we went through a discovery and research process, dove into pain points, and zeroed in on the client's own motivations, we concluded that the issue was that the city was opaque. What was happening in that building? Why are there so many people there? What events are happening around me? Where's the nearest bathroom? Who's the nearest electrician? What are the latest sales going on around? The founder needed to be in the know and find where to go. He wanted to help others find and experience the city.
Through research, we backed up our hypotheses and centered around our core values. In the end, I helped streamline the entire multi-layered diluted app into one single idea.
It took on a new concept, a new term, a new name, a new post type, a new brand, a competitive advantage, easily understood user experience, and simplified developmental efforts. It became the core of every decision. It was easily understood by team members, stakeholders, users and clients.
This is an authentic design singularity. The raison d'etre. The spirit. The Singularity, let's call it.
What is that one single convergence point, where everything makes sense? That single pin point where the Big Bang and the entire universe originated?
The design singularity is the blood and air that drives every aspect of your business, your brand, your product, your experience, and everything that goes into it. Everything you do must revolve around it. This is the core essence that is not just messaging, values or even brand differentiation and unique value propositions.
In all three of the examples I mentioned above, there was an extremely human need to create connection between people and the world (perhaps to address the disconnection between people and the world?) They do so in different ways, but the sentiment is similar. Then the sentiment takes form in the product, the service, the features.
Just like every writer can write fiction, they will always reveal themselves. There will always be a reflection of the writer in their work. The business will also have its own subconscious essence that comes from its creator. Every entrepreneur believes what they're doing will impact the world, and that comes from something within.
In the end, we are all deeply human. We share the same universal human experiences at the core - hopes, concerns, fears, passions, desires, struggles. The same emotional spirit that drives an entrepreneur to start their business, no matter how buried it is, shouldn't be something we are afraid of confronting. Being true to this will mean we connect with our audience. The singularity should drive the whole. The power of discovering what it is will resound through the entire business. On both sides, your staff, your team, and your customers, your community.
Let it become your mantra. Let it become the center of gravity. Let it be the blood in your veins and the air you breathe. Your brand, your team, your customers - all hearts will rally to the cause when you are authentic.
Ultimately do you feel it in everything you do? Because you should. It comes from you first. Otherwise why do it? Everything else follows.
Call me idealistic, but my experience says it's the singularity that must come first.
Through experiences with my clients, I have come to love design. Our role might be summarized as helping businesses communicate, express and persuade through design strategy.
But I realize our role really is almost like counselling. We are psychologists and storytellers. What we do helps clients dig deep and find out who they truly are.
We ask the tough questions, sometimes, incessantly, for a long discovery and definition process, until we find the right answers.
This is why I love design. I have the opportunity to help people find who they are, and take on the challenge to express it, the ineffable essence of being human. That is the greatest honour.