How to get an emotional reaction in milliseconds through visual design
Fjord Stockholm’s Fran Merino and Manu Martin dissect the role of their craft while trying to decode highway signs at full speed
On April 6th, I had the great pleasure of interviewing these incredible, very experienced, Spanish visual designers which work from Stockholm Fjord studio: Fran Merino, Group Design Director and Manu Martin, Visual Design Lead.
We discussed visual design as a discipline, as well as how people see it; how we (visual designers) feel in some situations, contexts and environments; and the proper path to show and measure the value of it.
Natalia: Giving both your backgrounds related to arts, what made you transition to design? And what are your perspectives on the connection and transition between them?
Fran: If you see gestalt, the theory of color, the combination of things, the principles of design are principles of arts. An artist can be a designer, and a designer can be an artist. It’s not a different thing. They are running by the same rules. But the way, for whom you work, or for the purpose that you work, is a little bit different: the artists aims to show their thinking of the world and make you think about it. A designer might have a client in something to design for something that he or she needs to solve properly for a third person, so you need to see the world through the eyes or the needs of a particular entity.
I think design is more tangible than arts. After finishing art school, I changed my mind. I stopped painting and started designing.
N: And what about you, Manu?
M: Well, I can say the difference between art and design because this was my first class or my first advice when I was teaching: Art is implicit, while design is explicit. These are the main differences. Art is subjective, so you agree to stay for a long time in front of a frame to understand what the guy is trying to say to you. Meanwhile, with design, you need to get information as soon as possible. Imagine if you switch professions and you take a highway and you tell an artist to design a sign. What is more important in a highway is time and speed to decode the message.
So, one thing that is important in design is time and the other important thing is clear function.
“Art is implicit, meanwhile design is explicit. These are the main differences.” — Manu
N: Considering that aesthetics and the emotional part of bringing visual solutions to life is kind of an irrational and more emotional activity, what is the process you use to come up with the rationale for decisions you make for a product?
F: I was thinking of that. We’ve just had a meeting yesterday where we delivered a particular service vision together with a business case, together with some kind of a wireframe and also a visual representation of that. How you can produce the front page of a magazine might be a different way to go, but in the area that we are talking of Service Design, services have particular principles, drivers, and words that we mention on something in correlation with how to visualize that.
As soon as you have a high-level idea of what you want, you can dig in more on those phrases. But at the end of the day, It’s gonna be always words, expressions or actions that you want to accomplish, like maybe fast, slow, big… it’s gonna give you some rationale to move to that direction, even according to what a certain brand wants to accomplish. It might even be related to colors. For example, why is H&M using red? It’s because it’s fast-fashion; the red is something is gonna call you instead of blue, so this kind of things is gestalt. And you need to work a little bit of phrases and the wording to find out what you want to achieve.
“… at the end of the day, it’s gonna be always words, expressions or actions that you want to accomplish, like maybe fast, slow, big… it’s gonna give you some rationale to move to that direction.” — Fran
Of course, it’s not the same to be a very new designer versus a very experienced designer. The new designer might need more actions towards a particular solution because they don’t have that expertise. So as soon as you are moving towards a more experienced kind of visual designer, you are gonna go by feelings and emotion — “I know this gonna work.”
Another layer is client and their personal aesthetic/brand, which can be hard to work with sometimes. You need to understand that problem, be part of that thing, understand that brand and why it works in that way. There is always a rationale behind everything… through the culture, through the context, through the brand… so you need to understand that thing and be able to embrace it and translate it.
M: Do you consider a subway map beautiful? But more than beautiful, is it useful or not? These are the things that you need to consider. Design is a mix between function and aesthetics. You need to shape both things.
When you are working in a consultancy, you need to narrow any design decision that you are making to numbers in order to make it tangible and reasonable. For example, we have in Stockholm and Madrid something we call visual rationale. We are explaining how typography, colors, columns, iconography and images are working or are going to perform depending on the meaning or functionality you want to achieve.
So imagine we are talking about fashion. If you want to look like a huge fashion brand, you are never going to display 12 items like thumbnails in the same row because that way they look cheap. You want to show the details, so maybe you go for two thumbnails to show the brand in a good way.
“When you are working in a consultancy, you need to narrow any design decision that you are making to numbers in order to make it tangible.” — Manu
You need to think, “Ok, my grid is for this target, and this is what I want to achieve.” Then you decide if it’s going with less thumbnails or more thumbnails. You need to balance the quantitative and qualitative things. If your brand belongs to a supermarket and this about quantity, we should allow six products in a row like a thumbnail. But if it’s fashion, it should be two to four. The more I work in design, I see it’s more rational than emotional. For me, it’s 90% rational and 10% emotional.
F: Yes, when you create, yes. But the reaction is super emotional. You need to get an emotional reaction. You can lose trust. [There’s this] 0.000 milliseconds of “Oh, I like it,” or “I dislike it.” I think it is the way out of rational in the moment you are creating to provide a guild, strong emotional bonds and reactions.
You need to get an emotional reaction. You can lose trust. [There’s this] 0.000 milliseconds of “Oh, I like it,” or “I dislike it.”— Fran
You need to provide your work to others. Designers are not inventors; we are people that work for third parties. We are not gonna be shining, you know, we are gonna be in the shadow. No one is going to tell our names… we are not that kind of people like artists are.
N: Do you believe in a Y career for visual designers? Do you put your hand on work, like designing interfaces? Is it like being a specialist or going to another direction as a manager? How you see the visual designer as a leader?
F: In most companies, they don’t really cover the potential of a visual designer itself as a craft, as a whole. So, everyone likes them and wants to have one of them, but they want to utilize them, not to uncover them. They are using the particular person. We need to empower ourselve — no one else is gonna make it happen if it’s not us.
So, in my point of view, I’m now a group design director here at Stockholm, and I usually work in presentations and they look amaaaazing, also content-wise. And I do believe that if in time, I move to hands-on work, I can still do it in any moment; this is my craft. I understand what I have to do and how I should approach. It doesn’t matter if it’s a vision, product, a creation, or visual design, I will do it. I need to be, as a group design director, a role model of the studio regarding design, not regarding business. So, I’m here to help.
I” do believe that if in time I move to hands-on work, I can still do it in any moment. This is my craft.“ — Fran
I normally take the most horrible things because I’m trying to save time. I don’t want to overwhelm others, so I try to work on the worst parts and take it on myself. I prefer to invest my time for the team to do other things. It might be a single conversation because two players have a particular problem or it might be something craft-related, etc.
For example, the VELUX project was a very tricky one because at the beginning, we spent weeks, weeks and weeks thinking about business cases and service visions — and it was there already. “The users want THIS, so why are you selling THIS?” So, why we don’t spend more time creating visual visions or product visions that are real instead of thinking about the research? So, let’s explore, let’s create prototypes. Let’s evaluate the prototypes with users.
“… why we don’t spend more time creating visual visions or product visions that are real instead of thinking about the research? “ — Fran
Our studio has a service design lead with visual design background and group design director with visual design background. Manu always says that depending on the leader that you have in a project, the project has one shape or another. So again, I will need to understand business is not that complicated; it’s f — ing numbers. I will need to understand service is not that complicated; it’s common sense to users. I will need to understand visual… that’s f — ing complicated! No one else apart from visual designers can do it.
N: I do think we are the most complete designers, you know?
F: We are. The legacy that we have is from Gutenberg. So, what about service design? Twenty years ago? Design thinking — fifty? Don’t touch my work! So, this is communication that helps people understand each other and it’s gonna be made. It’s gonna be made on this shape or in a different kind of shape because what’s coming is immersion design with augmented reality, another different kind from the websites of 2000s.
On top of that, you need to speak a language so that everybody understands what the impact of your performance as a visual designer is. Measure it! Don’t go and talk to service and business designers with the rationale of a visual designe; they are not gonna get it. Show impact and try to find a way to measure things up at the beginning by asking questions to the clients or to the team on the kickoff.
“You need to speak a language so that everybody understands what the impact of your performance as a visual designer is. Measure it!”— Fran
M: In my case no armor says what I need to do. I like to design, and I like to put my hands on work, and I do it as soon as I can.
“Visual designers should push themselves to show their power. You need to show the value that you can offer to a project… If you are there only to make beautiful blueprints or costumer journeys, you are wasting your time.” — Manu
Visual designers should push themselves to show their power. You need to show the value that you can offer to a project. What makes a project different by having you on the team? You need to show the evidence, to fight with your weapons. If you are there only to make beautiful blueprints or costumer journeys, you are wasting your time.
Special thanks to Natalia Parodi and Gustavo Abreu (Goos), from Fjord Sao Paulo, for reviewing the content and for giving great suggestions to improve this interview. ❤
Also many thanks to Fran Merino and Manu for this special conversation. I’ve learned a lot!