Stop wasting time designing and start thinking.

Design is sometimes perceived as a magic wand but is often just the proverbial lipstick on a pig.

I’m fed up with idiotic products that nobody needs, but they got humongous exposure because some wunderkind venture capitalist, followed by his lemming colleagues, invested a ton of their investors’ money in them. 

Fed up with idiotic products. Brand Ecosystem Design.
The advancement of technology, production processes, programming, and design tools have radically lowered the entry barrier to create, produce, and distribute physical and digital products. It’s good news. Mostly.

Now they can afford star product, UX, and brand designers, who design —or rather, style — the useless thingy or app. The brute force of money thrown at promotion and star PR agencies crams their cutely packaged crap into social streams, blogs, and even reputable media. A prettified product, catchy acoustic guitar jingle, and a promise of a better world fuel the sales, but it is filling the bottoms of the drawers of disappointed customers, landfills, and oceans, or are taking up the space in app stores, choking up bandwidth, and draining batteries with useless background routines. In such cases brand development results in a catchy name, a cute logo, and an uplifting landing page. More annoyingly, product development delivers something nice that can be mass produced or can qualify for the app store. It’s a venture capital-fueled future waste.

Use human language. Unless your audience is a highly knowledgeable professional or scientific assembly; you have to use a language that is understandable to regular people. Ask yourself, how would you explain what you do to both your mom and a high school you.

On the other hand, from time to time, I stumble upon products and ideas that I find valuable, and I would love to see them out there in the world, but their products and ideas are so poorly defined and communicated that they go unnoticed by most. It doesn’t matter if I listen to the pitch as an investor, or I have landed on the web as a potential customer, I still don’t understand what the “nanotube-infused polymers” are. However, something like: “Our nano stuff is the same grade as the stuff used in the space program, but we can produce it at a 100x lower cost that it is affordable to every maker with a 3D printer” or “Nanomaterial for every maker,” or “Space X for maker materials” would definitely draw my attention. I’d be okay if their landing page looked like a Wikipedia or Craigslist from the 1990s. If the definition of who they are, what they do, and what value they bring to whom would be done right, they don’t really need full-screen autoplay video, shot in some hyped-up coworking space, a catchy name and the typeface screaming ‘techie startup!’ You can always do that along the way. Words first, images later.

Design is a process that starts with thinking, not drawing. An essential part of the design process is to understand the task at hand and its context. Even if the job is the drawing of a simple logo, the designer has to understand the entire context; who the logo represents, the audience, what the cultural specifics are, and any technological limitations.

Stop ‘designing’ and start thinking. In two decades of working on interdisciplinary design projects for every type of client, from corporations, governmental bodies, NGOs, and startups, a shared pattern of the cause of problems with design emerged time and again. “We have a huge churn rate with the use of a product. We should think of changing the name and logo,” or “Not enough people are signing the country’s vision on the web. We should change the hero image.” Sorry, but what if a product is bad, and a country’s vision is uninspiring? How about fixing these first? There is just not enough work done before the start of ‘design.’ Design is sometimes perceived as a magic wand but is often just the proverbial lipstick on a pig. A bad product is a problem that is usually caused by ambiguous purpose and a bad design brief.

The common misunderstanding of a role of design is that you call designers when your product is done, and you just need to ‘design’ it to be pretty to the eye of the customer. At that point, the most important part of the design process has been already done by marketing and engineering people. Even if you think you don’t need design, keep in mind: there is no such thing as ‘no design.’ There is only ‘good design’ or ‘bad design.’

If a problem is not identified, or just isn’t worth solving, forget about design. If the criteria for design isn’t agreed upon and set before designing starts, designers and clients can go back and forth endlessly with more or less pretty ‘designs.’ Neither the client nor designers will have sound arguments why something should or shouldn’t be tried. In that case, the criteria by which design will be evaluated will be a matter of a personal taste instead of the relevance of the work. It’s a spiral of endless iterations and exponentially growing frustration on both sides.

Brand development starts with a product development and vice versa. Any brand depends on the quality and all other aspects of the products and services they represent. At the same time, the products and services have to be designed in a way that not only delivers to the user what it promises, but that delivers it in a way that is in line with the brand’s values and mission. Here are a few steps that have to be taken before any design starts.

Steps to take before design

Before you start to ‘design,’ or rather let’s say ‘putting any form or shape to anything,’ go through the steps below. If you have a clear idea of who you are, what you are doing, why you are doing it, and for whom, it would not take more as a day to go through these. If not, you have a problem, because you obviously haven’t thought through your business idea – and design cannot help you in a significant way.

1. Define your mission and set the criteria to guide all your decisions

2. Define your user and/or customer. Understand them.

3. Define your product or service. What value do you bring to your customer?

4. Define your business model. How to deliver the product to the customer. 

5. Define your customer’s journey. All touchpoints with the brand

6. Prepare a brief and start designing. 

NEXT: Six steps before design.


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Matevž Medja is a co-founder of the award-winning design agency Gigodesign, with more than 25 years of experience in building interdisciplinary teams on complex projects. He believes the world is already too full of products nobody needs and brands nobody believes in. He’d like to help develop new ones properly. Read more.