We wanted to do you a favor. Be prepared to clip this forthcoming paragraph out and hang it somewhere very visible. Fax it, email it with a bunch of glittery gifs, or post it in a neighborhood church bulletin.
The client, their aunt or cousin or grandmother, your neighbor's grandson who “always had an eye for these sort of things”, and even you, a designer, are not as single individuals reliable resources for aesthetic.
We may all have Pinterest boards we are proud of or still have working memories of Art History courses from college, but the study, research, and application of what a persona or demographic desires from a product experience takes much more than an opinion, even an educated one.
Consider that personal taste is varied even in a single, granular demographic. Not all millennials want to legalize marijuana or are spending ridiculous amounts of money on avocado toast. Even when you have two users that are the same age, career industry, geography, nationality, etc.; they will undoubtedly have personal tastes that differ. Therefore, their reaction to a specific color, adjective, and image will be wildly different.
Reading desire and reception
There are multiple ways to gather substantial feedback to aesthetic and tone that work better than informal user testing done at a bar or dinner table. Here are a few that we know work well and guide our solutions:
- Large groups of user testing consisting of the actual demographic (the entire spectrum, not just polar ends or a concentrated majority). As with any sociological statistic, the larger the pool the greater perspective one has into a scalable, real voice that can be averaged. Alternatively, the smaller the pool, the more unique, limited, and unscalable that voice becomes. The obvious disadvantage to this approach is budget and timeline.
- Using market research, focusing on aesthetic and messaging tones that work and captivate users. Several resources exist online, most through subscription. And, more often than not, are broad in their approaches and demographics. It is always important to mix these technical papers with other informal resources on the matter. A personal favorite agency that specializes in trends is K-HOLE.
- The best and most elegant approach, for me, has been to walk in the demographic’s shoes. Staying in tune with cultures and markets is like acquiring certifications and regular training getaways for other careers. Watch what they watch, access the sites they access, drink what they drink.
- Stay up to date with contemporary thought leaders in psychology and sociology. Designers don’t need a degree in psychology, sociology, or philosophy but the advantage to consuming broad coverage of contemporary practices in these fields will significantly help in seeing beyond the superficial layer of cultures and ideologies beyond your own. For me, this goes hand-in-hand with the above bullet of consuming what your demographic’s consume. For easily accessible sources, try short podcasts like Social Sciences Bites (or Edmonds & Warburton's other projects: Philosophy Bites and Philosophy 24/7).
- The ultimate differentiator: Intuition.
Intuition: When calls the heart
Beyond that bit of a nod to a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine, intuition is one of the most crucial tools a designer holds in their toolbox. Intuition is what separates the best designers from the mere capable. Beyond the esoteric materials that bolster decision-making when it comes to aesthetic, intuition is the gut feeling that defines talent. It’s not something you can train to be good at. You can’t take courses online or throw a mortgage’s worth at a college to master it; though it helps. Intuition is acquired through a designer’s experiences in life and honed through purposefulness, dedication, and constant application. Designers live their perfection of aesthetic: we critique everything we see to the ruin of films and music, at the least, to the detriment of relationships and marriages, at the worse. The truly haunted designer despises this awareness of this layer shellacking human experience yet cannot live without its guiding, warm light.
Applying intuition requires the individual or small group of designers to use their intelligence (astuteness in the measurables list above) and gut feeling, or “eye”.
When done right, it results in a refined ability to see and make educated guesses at what a specific individual wants from media consumption and how best to give it to them.
Selling an intangible service
How do you convince clients this research is more substantial than their family and friends? For one, as mentioned above, most designers have spent their lives perfecting the ability to read desire and aesthetic. No matter if we didn’t know until college that we’d be designers or artists, specifically. More over, what we do is nearly entirely the practice of aesthetic. If a client does not trust your ability to provide a great deliverable, then they will not trust your ability to read and write aesthetic.
Are you the right designer for the demographic? This isn’t an absurd query. All parties should be asking themselves this very question. Like any other arts major, most designers have a style, which permeates through aesthetic and tone, as well. If a designer’s style is not a match for the demographic all hands on the team should know this and provide alternatives to remedy this inconsistency. However, this is often readily solved by consolidating resources: including more than one designer on a project, requiring all deliverables run through a critique gauntlet with varying perspectives as the peanut gallery. For larger agencies, this is obvious and easy to do. For smaller agencies and teams, however, it is challanging to manage.
Talking about aesthetic
The best time to start talking about messaging and tone — when it’s not already delivered from branding — is during discovery and insights. From the moment data has been acquired and disseminated, aesthetic research should begin. The personas that compose your project’s demographics and market should, from the get go, conjure initial, obvious aesthetic approaches.
More often than not, as a digital products agency, you’ll be receiving branding that has already been established elsewhere. How this fits into your design is not always malleable, so most of this article is moot when there is already over-arching aesthetics at play.