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Pretty pictures or hard thinking: the role of the designer

If you read the first few columns, you will know that identity is far more than logos and stationery, and that an image is more than a picture that you stick in an advertisement. Unfortunately those terms are still abused and misunderstood in the context of design.
I have had several instances in the last few weeks where I have dealt with the ‘pretty pictures’ concept of design.
Taking this approach has some merit. Nobody wants to look at an ugly picture. The basic need is to make the advertisement pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately there are far too many designers who do this and no more.

With limited exposure to high-pressure, competitive business environments, many Namibian designers settle for florid type, logos that would look better in a child’s bedroom, a colour background and the obligatory pretty picture.
The effect is dubious. You can examine this idea by paging through one of the major Thursday or Friday papers, or one of the ‘lifestyle mags’, noting a page number and trying to remember an advertisement or two from the page after you have leafed through the rest of the publication.
Admittedly, clutter and competing placements makes it difficult to remember anything from among the riot of colours and advertisements on the page, but you will begin to understand the problem.
Good design can address the problem by creating stand-out ads that draw the eye, within the context of the page.
This can be achieved by good design and an understanding of how the size and placement of the ad on the page can alter the way the message is presented.
Here’s a hint. If your design is good, your ad will benefit from the bad ads around it.
We have still only scratched the surface.
The most important aspect of design is to convey information.
The key to this is that the designer has to develop understanding on several levels, which includes the consumer, the product, and the business.
Take a notional company which sells expensive fridges as an example.
The designer has to develop an understanding of the sort of people who will buy that sort of fridge, how the fridge satisfies the needs of these people on a functional level, how the fridge enhances the consumer’s self-perception, how to develop the message so that it excludes unproductive footfall in the showroom by people who cannot afford the fridge, as well as the company’s approach to the customer, before, during and after the sale.
The designer will also have to understand the competitive environment of the one company in relation to others, not just from the angle of competing but also from the angle of how the fridge fits with other appliances in the kitchen and in the lifestyle of the customer.
What this says is that the designer has to be an extremely competent marketer and business professional. Important to note here is that a good designer will go through this exercise time and again across a range of products and services.
 The acid test for the quality of your designer will be business questions which may seem uncomfortable but that are well worth answering.
The result may not be what you want or something entirely different from what you expected, but it will be considered.
On this note, the next challenge that faces the designer is how information is presented.
Once again, the pretty picture is not enough. Knowledge has to be developed and presented in an appropriate sequence so that one step leads to another.
Think of it as a concentrated lesson or lecture. If the information is not delivered in the correct sequence with appropriate emphasis, very little will be retained or there will be gaps.
The sorry phenomenon is that with the exception of a few individuals, designers are stigmatised by the ‘pretty picture’ perception and do not get to develop as business professionals.
Many of Namibia’s most competent designers now work in South Africa or abroad.  At least now you know what to look for. Next time you have a design job, look for business skills.

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