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Walking the line: How good design thinking keeps me on the straight and narrow

Good design always walks the line. Creative Lead Aidan Brennan offers a personal perspective on how he applies Design Thinking to a branding project and how a designer walks the line between good design and the parameters of a project including cost and technical capabilities.

Once upon a time I was an ever so slightly narcissistic and idealistic junior designer. I used to get incredibly frustrated with some of the calculated business-driven feedback we’d receive from a client. But in time I came to realise that the world this unbearably po-faced purist designer contrived was, in fact, a huge myth. A self-indulgent utopia that never existed. A fantasy island populated entirely by chin-stroking vainglorious egomaniacs. Thankfully I quickly saw sense and made my escape from that island!

As designers we have to walk the line between creative integrity and commercial realities. If we were to venture too far either side of that line, we lose the objective advantage we bring to a project. Saul Bass once said, “I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares”. There speaks an artist.  Someone who was asked to bring his unique talents to quirky, stylistic and stunning movie title sequences that defined an era. But I bet he couldn’t rustle up a strategic brand identity fit for purpose for the likes of ‘Bankco’, ‘Energyco’ or ‘Connectico’ that had to resonate with customers, employees and multiple stakeholders alike!

Good Design Thinking, and processes help us keep on track.

I went to art college. Took blindfolded life drawing classes, sculpted with chicken wire, even danced around a room to Eric Satie. Ahem. It was a time of self-expression and discovery I will never forget. But even then, it felt indulgent. I struggled to see the business case for graphically representing a piece of challenging and difficult contemporary jazz.

So, what changed? Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with many talented and resourceful Brand and Marketing Managers. What I’ve come to realise is how pivotal their role is to an organisation. More often than not they are right in the thick of it. There’s a degree of pressure to get things just right for their customers, leaders, stakeholders and employees alike. And because the results of their hard work are possibly the most visible part of the organisation, their successes and failures are out there for all to see – and for all to voice an opinion over. It’s a role fraught with difficult decisions, office politics, tight budgets and logistical challenges.

Our responsibility as designers is to help them fulfil their objectives as much as possible. We are also here to offer counsel, making sure various distractions don’t send those objectives off-course. More often than not, operational constraints, internal politics or sometimes habitual behaviours can send a project veering off in the wrong direction. The wrong direction for their customers, their clients, their employees – or even all of us as citizens. Good Design Thinking, and processes help us keep on track.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking for me means developing sound reasons for making design decisions. Why bright yellow might not be right for a brand because it doesn’t reflect its personality. Or maybe because it’s illegible on-screen. And, while Gill Sans is an elegant classic British typeface, its lower-case letters are too low, and the circular shapes are too wide, making it difficult to read as body copy. Just ask the BBC why they have recently developed Reith Sans to replace this troublesome typeface. You see, Design Thinking isn’t just about the aesthetic, or the icing on the cake. It also involves science, ergonomics, experience and instincts – that should always be true to a credible core strategy.

Design by its very nature is about creating change for the better. I always remember as a spotty 16-year-old avidly watching ‘Better By Design’ – a programme where Richard Seymour and Dick Powell took everyday items like the razor, the motorbike and the airline seat, developing innovative ways to improve them. It opened my eyes to the basic tenets of good design – making something fit for purpose. But it also brought to my attention the realities of creating something for human consumption – the parameters that are also set by cost and technical capabilities. Striking this balance is something I’ve carried through my career and apply to every project I tackle. Good design always walks the line.

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