design and marketing blog

Design Solves Problems

One of the criticisms of commercial designers is that they can be too focused on art rather that the goals and needs of their clients. As a professional designers and marketers, some people are surprised that we don't consider design "art". For most companies, design is (or should be) a tool for solving business problems - such as redesigning a product to improve profitability, effectiveness, or competitive advantage. Similarly we use design in brand and marketing to address problems with brand perception, marketing effectiveness, audience relevance, improving conversion, or being more competitive.

When we work with companies regarding their brand, the challenges I often see focus on clarity and competition. Often the value proposition and what differentiates a particular brand isn't fully developed, or it reflects an internal view of the company instead of from the perspective of the brands audiences. The same can hold true with competitiveness. Some brands haven't fully considered how they are perceived within the competitive brand landscape of audience choices, or how their brand sets itself apart. These are often reflected as design problems, and opportunities to evolve messages and visual elements of their brand to be more successful at driving prosperity for their company.


I was at a dinner party with a bunch of people trying to describe their jobs. Usually I try and dodge this question but it happened to ambush me that night. As expected, I had a few confused looks as I attempted a quick reply that I "made brands more fun" online. So to describe this profession I used the analogy of a car designer. Car design teams have style designers, human factor engineers, engineers and technologists, project managers, and marketers. All are focused on making a very specific group of car buyers absolutely rabid to have one of their cars. And everyone in the group nodded in consent that they could imagine that team and what they might do. So, within Internet design we also have designers, and usability engineers, technologists, project managers, and marketers. And we are all focused on making a specific audience absolutely rabid about a brand - online.

Still, the Internet remains an unpredictable marketing frontier for some businesses. Several years ago I asked a group of Internet professionals to give me their opinion of great creative, and select examples from a set of fifty different web sites I provided. Their selections were far from unanimous. Each person's selections were based on very personal evaluation criteria. Creative greatness was subjective. So how could an agency hope to consistently deliver great work?

I decided to take a new approach, and define the criteria that make for a bad or poorly performing web site, with the hope that in the antithesis we could define the criteria for greatness.

In order of importance, poor sites are most often:

  1. Not relevant to their intended audience. This can manifest in many ways. A brand that is represented differently than the intended audience's beliefs about the brand. Organization, content, or imagery that is reflected differently than the audiences perceived needs. Or tasks and processes that behave differently than anticipated, or are perceived to be unnecessarily difficult. I often see the most transformation when a business realizes they have a variety of different audience types online. Highly involved audiences and casual browsers, influencers and decision makers. And most require different tactics to engage them and get them more involved with your brand.

  2. Don't provide value to the business. The value metric is different for businesses. Very few businesses use site traffic alone as an effective metric. For commerce sites the metrics are often based on increases in orders, increases in overall order size, or improved conversions (of browsers to buyers). For business-to-business it is sales leads, contacts, or requests for information. For brand sites, it can be brand attitudes within the audience, dealer or retail locator usage, higher involvement in branded entertainment or communities, or the volume of downloads of branded digital artifacts.

  3. Not as good as their competition. Since comparison browsing is the norm online, competitors could be eating your lunch. A good competitive evaluation should be a precursor to any web site redesign project. These can reveal some great business insights and opportunities by understanding the web site content and features provided across your competitors. But often the real breakthrough ideas come when we dig into the specifics of how your competitors are serving each of their different audience types.

  4. Lack reliability. This might manifest as quality control, or technical glitches. But you're likely wondering why I rated something so critical as less important as the previous ones. The exception here is that some brands or tasks you perform engender forgiveness. For example most people aren't as critical if something doesn't work when playing around with the flavor browser on the TAZO Tea web site, but they are very critical about glitches when they are involved in booking a flight or purchasing something online.

  5. Don't demonstrate breakthrough innovations. This is really the quality of greatness. Game-breaker brands. Instead of playing follow-the-leader with competitors, some brand reinvent their approach to innovate in their industry. CareerBuilder and its addictively viral Monkey-Grams, MountainDew with Dewmocracy – giving audiences the power to invent the next beverage, Mini-Cooper and it's fun ways to visualize customizing your next car. What most people don't realize is that these innovations likely evolved from really smart minds armed with really great insights about their intended audience, or a new market/ audience they sought to attract.

To be successful on the Internet, businesses need to continue expanding their understanding of the needs and goals of their web site audiences, and focus on inititatives which create opportunity and prosperity online. And leverage design as a tool to road map that success.

Continue your creative exploration with these abstract paintings and prints.

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