Design & Trust — Research, Capabilities & Accreditation

We recently accepted an assignment from a client who wanted to rebrand and redesign a corporate website. As a first step, we began by researching the project — defining the customer base and conducting interviews to determine what users want in terms of site features, styles and emotions. The users said they wanted the new site to convey a sense of warmth and trustworthiness.

As we sat down to develop the creative, we carefully selected colours and graphics that reflected the feedback. But just before we completed the project, the client’s project leader told us the team had doubts about our proposal. Why? The leader had solicited opinions from co-workers, friends and family members. Their feedback: the colours were too pale, the illustrations inappropriate for the industry.

What to do? After all, design is subjective. Everyone has an opinion, especially when there is no right or wrong answer. While we are design professionals, the client trusted their own subjective reactions more than our researched proposal. The question is, should designers exactly do what their clients ask them?

Trust, or the lack thereof, is the issue at the crux of such conflicts. But designers can take steps to nurture the confidence of their clients. Here are three important principles:

Design should be research driven.
Designers provide the professional solutions. But the best design advice is grounded by empirical research, not just assumptions about customer behaviour. Design research flows from a thorough understanding of how your client’s users perceive of and use their products/services.

For example, when a designer is creating a new website, they must gain insight about the users through interviews and testing sessions. This research should occur before the design stage to determine what’s needed, and afterwards, to see if the solutions proposed do indeed work. Design research can apply to traditional print media, as well. When a designer is working on an annual report, one critical research tool is an “existing material audit” used to see what has been produced in previous years and whether it delivered results.

Designers must demonstrate their capabilities.
The best designers are professionally trained. They bring significant knowledge and experience about design theories, processes and principles. Armed with this background, they approach problems systematically and logically, thereby building the client’s trust. When presenting their work, skilled designers will also frame their proposals with a clear explanation of their own creative process.

Designers should be a part of design association
In an era of commoditized design, top designers will stay at the forefront of their profession by seeking accreditation from standards-setting organizations, such as Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario, Society of Graphic Designers of Canada and the AIGA, the professional association for design. These associations help determine industry principles, ethics and standards, and assert the professionalism associated with skilled design.

Following these principles, designers can develop great and sustainable client relationships while reinforcing the profession’s role as a valuable source of innovation for companies seeking to distinguish themselves from the pack. In the case of our second-guessing client, we politely but firmly pushed back, carefully explaining the research-based rationale behind our ideas and noting that it would be possible to solicit a focus group’s feedback on our design as a kind of second opinion. After listening to us articulate our case, the client eventually came to understand our approach and gave us the green light to proceed.

- Karen Ha

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