When Design Doesn’t Work

Is there a time when design doesn’t work for a company, service or product? I don’t mean a design that doesn’t sit right with you. I’m talking about design with a capital “D” which, when applied correctly, is actually unnecessary or even counterproductive.

As a freelance graphic designer that most often helps individuals and small companies with brand strategy and interactive development, I’ve run into several situations where I questioned the value of design for a particular project. Will design work for them? To what extent will design help their business? Is this a problem that design can solve? Sometimes the answer is no.

There do seem to be guiding principles that clarify when design is premature or even unnecessary for a company. Here are several I’ve observed:

Design might be unnecessary when your business:

Competes locally (not regionally or nationally) and has a single location.

The classic example would be your local hole-in-the-wall pizza joint. You can probably name several of these in your area and wince when you think of their menu or logo design. Do these places need good design to stay in business and thrive? No, they just need excellent pizza at a fair price and someone who always knows your name. Design or redesign would add little value to these companies bottom line, unless they were going to expand locations or compete on a broader scale.

Serves lower income customers.

Just so you know, I’m in the lower income bracket (much lower). I’ve observed that folks in the lower income bracket are less easily swayed by the design around the product or service than people in higher income brackets. This is especially true in small town America where the “power of design” has not penetrated the homegrown culture. An exception to the low to middle income principle would be clothing products among big city lower income groups. In this environment, design and the “style” design produces positively impact fashion savvy clientele.

Is in a multi-ethnic environment.

I’m thinking of the great American melting pot communities you find in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. Walking the streets of Astoria (part of New York City) last summer, I was amazed at the number of thriving Greek and Asian businesses which put very little stock in design, but fair quite well. It seems that other cultures across the world don’t readily accept design’s value added proposition for business like Americans.

Caters to retirement age customers.

I find that people over 65 don’t care about design at all or at least very little. I suspect this is because they, like most internationals, didn’t grow up in the hyper-designed American culture we now live in. Most of these pre-Boomers grew up during WWII when graphic design equaled propaganda, and design was in its infancy as a profession. I fear the Boomers will be much the same.

Design might be counterproductive when your business:

Is a start-up.

Companies, products and people need time to establish themselves before design steps in and tries to “fix them up”. I equate this to little girls trying to wear their mom’s make-up or little boys wearing their dad’s coat and tie. They just don’t have the stature or experience yet to handle the high level of design. I’ve watched countless businesses bolt out of the shoot with design that would knock your socks off. Yet, you get the feeling that the product or service looks better than it should and needs to grow up first. This “design first” mentality for some new start ups tickles our fancy, but pretty soon, everything feels like Disney World. Designed to the hilt in every detail, but lacking connection to something meaningful. At this point design becomes less of communication tool and more like a veneer. I suggest that companies go designless or design less for several years until they know who they are, then use design to communicate the actual substance and meaning.

Serves one of the demographic groups mentioned in the unnecessary section above.

These groups may see design as “putting on airs”, no matter what style you use to communicate. I know in my farming community, things that are too well designed are assumed to be expensive or “not from here”.

Is B.D. — Before Design.

Think of brands like Levis or Coca-Cola. There was a well established product or service before there was design. Remember the “New Coke” fiasco? Or take The Strand bookstore in New York City. Would there be any value in changing the Strand’s under-designed trademark white and red signs. Doubtful. Some things are fine just the way they are, and introducing professional design may actually cheapen the product and alienate the customer.

9 Responses to “When Design Doesn’t Work”

  1. Avatar Ben

    You’ve touched on some interesting points and have made some great observations. Personally I believe good design can almost always help. It’s the image of a business, just like getting a new haircut. Are people going to notice? Not always, but they would if they noticed you standing next to your twin (competitor) who hasn’t had a haircut in 5-10 years.

    The end goal is going to define whether design will work or not. If I’m satified with dated signage and business is good, I’m probably not going to seek out design services. If on the other hand I want to broaden my visual communication, appear more professional, or gain sales, I’d be more inclined.

    The ethical question is whether or not you should do business with someone who has problems that design can’t solve. (Which could mean potentionally losing to a competitor)

  2. Avatar Frank McClung

    Umm. Now you make me ask, “What business problems can’t design solve?” Physical location issues? Product where there is no demand? Can you elaborate?

  3. Avatar Frank McClung


    I’m wondering about the words “effective communication”. What does this mean exactly? Effective for whom? The designer? The reader? We cringe because we “see” what’s “wrong”. For users and clients who don’t “see” is there truly anything “wrong” and is it still “effective”.

  4. Avatar Bakari

    I just discovered your blog and this particular post. I have to agree with much about you say. You make some very good points.

    I’m just a beginning student of design, but I often notice the design of the material put out by my kids’ schools or the local businesses in my community. In fact, I redesigned the newsletter from the son’s daycare. It was a complete mess, so it wasn’t hard to do a better job. But while the daycare provider appreciated the design makeover, I don’t think she appreciates how the design of her marketing material makes a statement about her business. At the same time, though, maybe her clients don’t expect much more either. They are more concerned about their kids being taken care of than they are about how the daycare’s newsletters, fliers, and logo look.

    But I think she should be concerned. It’s not only about the aesthetic appeal, but moreso about effective communication.

  5. Avatar Bakari


    These are excellent questions, but I think it depends on the context of the communication and arena. For example, my kids’ teachers teach primarily based on a set of standards. My son who is learning to write his name has no problem with his handwriting. His lopsided, oversize letters do indeed spell his name, but his teacher has him tracing pre-printed san serif letters of the alphabet so that his handwriting will have more uniformity and clarity.

    A similar type of standard and clarity can be used for his daycare provider’s newsletter. I agree that her original layout, with typos and typographical mistakes communicated what it had to say, but in applying some standards or principals of good layout and typography, the newsletter could speak even better. Just like she’s teaching my son better penmanship, a makeover design of her newsletter for better communication could do the sam thing.

    It’s not that it’s “wrong,” it’s more about could it be done better. And that judgement in this case is primarily based on the audience for her newsletter. My wife and I were somewhat appalled by the newsletter whereas other parents might not have been (and believe me, we’re not snobbish people, though I may sound like that in this comment.) Like I said, I guess it depends on what we expect when we judge how something is designed. In this regard, then, I think “effective communication” relates to what standards you hold for yourself and/or what other hold for you.

    Of course, this response begs a whole bunch of other post-modern questions: what are standards? who gets to set them? what are their political ramifications? and on and on. So I’m going to end before I start sound like some arrogant right wing back-to-standards fool.

  6. Avatar Frank McClung


    I’d like to know more about the transition you’re speaking of in design. I think this is important to us all. Is design moving from service to others to service to self? Please expound.

  7. Avatar Anonymous

    We live in a time when civilization is at low tide you might say. If Design – capital D design – believes in service to a greater good. there comes a time when corporate power isn’t interested in greater good, but consolidating power. Remember that not all Design is in service to Idealism.
    The at&t logo represents a new era of design, in its own way. Service to Self, not Service to Others. Something about that logo – maybe it’s internal structural awkwardness that lacks the grace and refinement of the Paul Rand original, but something new is happening. Design has turned away from communication to, instead, an imperial stamp of authority.
    All this sounds apocalyptic, perhaps, but I see something different coming from corporate design these days…

  8. Avatar Ms. Questionable

    i think that this is a very interesting webpage and i do have one question that i need answered: Does clothing design help people come together? I mean culturally.

  9. Avatar Frank McClung

    Questionable, I don’t think it would be too hard to prove that clothing design does help people come together. You can see this principle at work in the military uniforms, team uniforms, bankers wearing the banker’s suites, etc. Clothing is the visual language of the body.


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