A collage constructed of different photos of horses and zebras super-imposed on one another.

Good Design is One Simple Observation

Effective design is rooted in correctly understanding how a brand’s perceived value is acquired.

Nothing unsettles a designer like a blank artboard, but not for the reason you might think.

Twentieth-century Western culture nurtured the myth of the tortured artist—a creative individual expressing inner turmoil through colour and form. We have grouped designers into that category and, in doing so, created the fiction of ‘designer’s block’, a state in which a designer loses touch with their muse.

To cast designers in this mould is to fundamentally misunderstand the design process.

Contrast a columnist with a journalist. The fundamental distinction is that a columnist writes self-initiated opinion pieces rooted in their own experience, whereas a journalist reports facts. A columnist may misplace their muse; a journalist (one hopes) does not misplace facts.

Like a journalist, a designer works with facts, not opinions. Certainly, designers are creative, and leverage that creativity to tease out human interest in a product or service, to present the facts engagingly. But a good designer doesn’t embellish or mislead; a good designer is guided by facts.

Those facts should be defined in a design brief, a single source of truth from which all decisions can be extrapolated.

And so, when a designer encounters a blank artboard—or a blank page—it is because the supplied brief lacks the facts necessary to prompt a clear direction.

A design brief originates with the client. Whether the client is aware of them or not, most of the designer’s decisions are arrived at in that document: restrained or open, broad or niche, energetic or calm. The designer interprets these qualities, but the elements of an effective design can be traced back to these decisions.

Most clients do not know how to write a design brief. Even clients who understand the value of a design brief often struggle to write them. This is because guiding a business means looking to the future and it’s difficult to see where you are and where you want to be simultaneously.

Any half-capable designer is able to flesh out a design brief with research, starting with a detailed kick-off meeting. But the flaw with that approach is that it is often the design brief that guides an organisation in which designer to hire.

Fortunately, there is a simple secret to writing a successful design brief: you just need to know how your brand acquires its perceived value.

Perceived value is substantially different from actual value. Perceived value is the value a consumer places on a brand’s product or service.

Perceived value can be measured as desirability, utility, material worth, or some other factor; it is almost never measured solely in monetary worth—even financial assets like gold or cryptocurrency have an additional positive or negative social value attached.

Perceived value is often impossible to objectively quantify. However, you don’t need to quantify it; you simply need to identify it and determine how it is gained.

How established is your brand in its field? The key part of that question is in its field. (An established car manufacturer would be a household name, while even the world’s leading stethoscope manufacturer is unlikely to be well-known outside of the medical profession.)

An established company defines industry norms — it is integral to how consumers perceive the industry.

An established company’s perceived value is acquired over time. In order to compete with disruptive companies seeking to take its market share, it needs to redefine its industry.

A disruptive company is defined by industry norms — the industry is integral to how consumers perceive it.

A disruptive company’s perceived value is by association. In order to compete with established companies seeking to protect their market share, it needs to align with its industry.

There are two ways a designer can position a brand: established or disruptive.

We can chart this on two axes: a primary axis based on how an organization actually gains perceived value, and a secondary axis based on how the organisation markets itself.

The secret is that the axes are inverted: established on the primary axis means disruptive on the secondary axis. The best design strategies play on this contrast.

Design Positioning
Effective design can be found along the diagonal where the primary and secondary axes meet.

Effective design communicates value to consumers. To do so, a designer accentuates acquired value or associated value. Established organisations should market themselves as disruptive, and disruptive organisations should market themselves as established.

In order to write an effective design brief, you only need to identify your position in your market. From that point, all design decisions will flow.