Hector Crespo on why design matters, how it’s evolved, and how his team uses it to propel ventures forward. The first in a three-part series on living, breathing, working in, and loving design.

PART 1: What’s good design, anyway?

Design is what I do for a living, and what I do for a living transcends language and culture. I don’t mean this to sound pretentious – I mean it in a practical sense. If you’ve ever had to find your way around a foreign city’s transit system, fumbled with the instrument panel in your new EV, or deciphered the instructions for an IKEA desk, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Great design tells you everything you need to know in few or no words, whether or not you speak the language or understand local customs.

Design has always been about effective communication. Its roots go back tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years. Most “History of Design” books begin with the famous Lascaux cave paintings, which date back to 15,000-10,000 B.C., as clear evidence of early humans’ use of visual communication.

The beauty of effective visual communication is that it’s often… well, beautiful. Consider ancient Chinese calligraphy on a handscroll, illuminated manuscripts from the Renaissance, or a Milton Glaser poster. Artists are often drawn to design, and are also often the best at creating compelling designs. Great design can also make you laugh or cry, tug on your heartstrings, feel envy or FOMO, or even inspire.

What’s art got to do with it? (Not as much as you might think)

Designers use the art of design to create an emotional connection with a product. It’s what makes you really want those headphones, espresso machine, or EV. There’s also an art to making products intuitive. It helps make it easy to turn on your headphones’ noise cancelling function, use that milk frother attachment, or connect your phone to your SUV’s infotainment system. But while art certainly plays into good design, design has never been about creating art.

This was made crystal clear in my very first university design class, and reiterated in almost every class and assignment that followed. Art has little to do with effective design.

What’s more effective, yet devoid of any artistic qualities, than an illuminated “Exit” sign in a dark movie theatre? Or more embarrassing than trying to enter a beautiful contemporary office building, only to struggle with opening the glass doors? How about Google? Its signature stark white page with a simple search box isn’t exactly the Mona Lisa, but it’s never been easier to search for anything, anywhere in the world. That’s truly great design.

The key to effective design is understanding your end user. Do you know what they care about? What they need? How they feel? How they behave or interact? A healthy obsession with “the customer” is what makes design and designers effective. The art in design is the icing on the cake, maybe most useful in differentiating you from your boring or bland competitors.

So how do you distinguish good from bad design? You definitely don’t need a degree in the field. On one hand, good design is measured by objective data points (did it increase open rates, user engagement, customer satisfaction scores, or unaided brand awareness?). Yet, good design is also intuitive. It’s this second part that’s tricky. Many skilled business professionals have a hard time articulating why a design works intuitively, or they hyperfocus on aesthetic elements that can cloud their assessment. To help with this, let me offer a few simple ways to tell the difference between good and bad design.

How to tell good design from bad design

  1. The “why didn’t I think of that?” moment. Amazon’s A to Z smile logo. L’Oréal’s “because you’re worth it” tagline. Apple’s ‘pinch to zoom’ gesture on the iphone, or the interface and mouse of the original Macintosh 128K. Good design tells you what it is or does immediately, simply and intuitively. It’s pure genius, and you’ll know it instantly. Not every example of good design includes these genius moments. In fact it’s quite rare – but, when you experience it, there’s nothing more thrilling.
  2. Clarity. Whether it’s a billboard with a single word on it, or a word salad video with strobe lights and air horns, all design strives to effectively communicate an idea to its audience. Did it work? Do you understand what they’re saying or selling? If yes, then it’s successful.
  3. Is it on brand? Does it speak to you in a familiar voice that’s a direct reflection of the brand? If so, this means the brand knows who they are. Think about Lululemon, The Red Cross, Redbull, or Disney. I’m sure these brands bring to mind something distinct and clear in your mind’s eye, and you would never confuse one for the other. That’s thanks to designers who work behind the scenes achieving absolute clarity about who their brand is. ‘On brand’ assumes you have a brand, and that often requires years, if not decades, of consistent and maniacal focus by an organization to deliver clear and distinct value.
  4. Is there a positive signal? In the business context, design serves to achieve a stated business outcome, like some of the common metrics I shared above. But how do you evaluate design before you go live? There are insights from user behavioral research, signals from no-code click-thru testing, or the results of a previous campaign or product launch. Any of this can help you know if the design is likely to work.Good design is when you meet any or all of these standards, even if, aesthetically, the work doesn’t knock your socks off.

We’re constantly surrounded by design. It can make things easier to use, trigger an unexpected emotion, or make a product or service feel absolutely essential to your daily life. Designers love the effects we can have, and that we can use great design to make lives better.

You may be thinking, “this all sounds like fun, but how do I pay my rent with it?” In this case, stay tuned. In the second part of this series, I’ll share some ways you, too, can design for a living.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or its affiliates.


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