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.