Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Design is Nothing Without a Concept

Have you ever seen one of those ads that just DOESN'T work? You don't quite know what's wrong with it, but it just makes you twitch in that way that only the most truly awful design does. Or worse—it's a perfectly fine DESIGN, but it looks like it belongs to a company that just isn't the company you're seeing an ad for, or it looks like it was thrown together just because the designer thought it looked cool. Most of these common design snafoos can be rectified by the use of one simple tool: a concept.

The concept is the most important piece of any design. Without it, you’re just slapping some pictures together with text. It has no drive, no purpose. A piece without a concept doesn’t speak to anyone - it’s just a pretty picture (and much more often, it’s NOT a pretty picture - I could give examples, but I’m working really hard on my ahimsa* today). It’s an unfortunate product of ego - your ego tells you “this looks good to me” or “this is cool” but it doesn’t answer the ultimate question: Who is your audience, and will they get what you're trying to say?

Every successful marketing campaign has a concept behind it. Dove’s concept? The natural beauty inherent in all women. Nike’s concept? Do what moves you - we’ll give you the gear. Burger King’s concept? Well, frankly, I don’t know - but I think it has something to do with gargantuan chicken and burgers. Lots of burgers, in various states of bigness and/or cheesyness. But it works, because they know their audience and they’re directly communicating with them through their marketing campaign.

Make no mistake - whatever image you put out there, whether it’s your logo, your website, or an invitation to an event, you’re trying to communicate with someone, and if your image isn’t created with them in mind, that person won’t get your message. For example, let’s say you run a natural skincare or clothing line geared towards women aged 25-35. You go to a designer and say “my business is a natural skincare line geared towards women aged 25-35. I would like an ad, please.” They come back with a picture of a woman smiling, and dark blue text in (let’s just say) Arial Bold. With italics (just for added emphasis). And maybe some sort of cloud or leaf in the background. Let’s just say.

Before the design snobs faint, what’s missing from this image? Aside from the obvious - talent, originality and good taste (but once again, ahimsa) - a concept that goes deeper than “women aged 25-35.” Who are these women? What do they read? What are they doing, when they’re not taking care of their skin? Why are they looking for an organic skincare product, and what are they looking for in it? What would you say to them, if you were just talking to them, that would make them understand that they need this product?

These kind of direct questions about your target audience are the things that help you define the concept behind your design - and the concept is what makes an effective image or campaign. Whatever elements go into the design need to support this, or else they’re not doing you, or your brand, service.

*ahimsa: the yogic practice of non-harming. Ahimsa teaches us that every living being, including ourselves, is worthy of respect, and thus it recommends avoiding actions or thoughts, such as judgements, which may cause harm to other living beings.

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