Keep your personal preference out of design for business

April 2017

About 20 years ago and around the time I became corporate design manager at Argos (I had a 20 year stint at Argos in the marketing dept. and had numerous roles over that time but left to set up my consultancy business over 16 years ago), I was given the challenge of producing a promotional flyer to help reduce an over-stock of seasonal products. The time scale was short – just five days for design, print and distribution to the stores – and although I can’t remember the print run, it would have been very low by Argos standards and probably no more than half a million. So all doable in the short time scale.

Anyway, the day it hit the stores it also hit the desk of my director – the great Paula Vennells, now CEO at the Post Office. Taking a direct line from her office to my desk, I pretty quickly worked out that she wasn’t about to compliment me on my previous week’s efforts. Indeed, and not being a lady to mince her words, I was quickly informed that the design of the flyer was entirely wrong. Why? Because it was too tasteful (though I don’t think she used that word). What was needed was something brash and a little vulgar – so to really shout price cuts and bargains to our target audience.

After her departure from my desk and as I recovered my composure (a bollocking from her always required a few moments of reflection . . .) I concluded she was absolutely right, and in many ways it was a lesson in the bleedin’ obvious. So a few weeks later and with the same challenge in-hand, I ensured the design agency I was briefing for the job knew exactly what was required – which was entirely different to my personal taste of elegant design.

I tell this story now because, over the last two years, I’ve had a succession of clients which have insisted on applying their personal tastes to design issues in their businesses, and this to a point it overrules what’s right on a commercial level. Such things have happened many times before over the years, but more recently I’ve had a run on them – which is probably just a reflection on the number of SMEs I’ve been working with.

So why is it especially an issue with SMEs? Well firstly SMEs are, typically, founded and run by entrepreneurs who believe in their own judgment – which is fine if that judgement is commercially-based, but less so if it’s entirely or largely based on personal preference. Secondly, SMEs will have a relatively small management team and one where non-specialists will be having a say in, and making decisions on, specialist areas. Recent examples on each for me would be: an MD and company founder who instinctively wanted bold macho typefaces for everything from product packaging to websites (even though this didn’t necessarily suit the target market) because, well, he’s bold and macho; to a female purchasing manager instructing me on exact design solutions about colour and minimalist layout, because, well, she ‘liked’ those particular colours and favoured minimalist layout.

Three simple principles for SMEs to follow then:

1. Effective design for business has nothing to do with your personal tastes, but has everything to do with what’s right for your brand, target audience and, ultimately, what’s going to sell more products or services. So consider the latter three only, and try very hard to do so without taking into account the colour of the shirt you’re wearing that day, or the style of the three piece suite you recently purchased for your lounge.

2. Yes it’s fine to have an opinion and listen to the subjective opinion of others around you, but it’s fair to say that if you’ve employed even a half-decent design agency, then chances are they’re going to know a tad more about typography than your part-time office manager does. So heed the words of the former to a greater extent than you do the latter.

3. Start every design job with a clear and well-thought-through brief for the agency, which focuses on what you ultimately need to achieve – e.g. a successful product launch to a new market segment but done in a way which doesn’t compromise your current brand positioning. When the design comes back, ask yourself not whether you like it or not, but whether it meets the brief you provided.

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