Let Your Audience Guide Your Design!

By   |  Stashed in Graphic Design

There is an old saying that rings true, no matter what forum or context it’s applied in. ‘You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.’ We were thinking of this the other day, and how with some minor tweakage the statement could become a powerful statement of affirmation for designers, or at least it could lead us towards this freeing affirmation.

Recently a project came our way that we were extremely excited about, however, as things unfolded, we realized that the project was doomed from the start. Now as designers we are used to working with non-creatives, or at least people who are not in, or do not understand our field, therefore you have to work across an information gap. This is something we are used to dealing with, but in the context of the discussion about to take place, it only makes things, that much more difficult. This project had the gap, but beyond that, there was an underlying instruction from the client that let us know this would be an utter waste of our time. ‘We want it to appeal to everyone across the board. Consumable to all.’ It was at this point, that we walked away.

You see, going back to Honest Abe’s words of wisdom and tweaking them as we mentioned before, we work under the premise that you can appeal to some of the people all of the time, but you cannot appeal to all of the people some of the time. Perhaps we have too much of a cynical streak running between us, but as varied as the masses are, even when broken into discernible groups based on similar interests or occupations, we believe that there is not much that they will all find appealing. As designers, this is reflected easily in the fact that we all have differing tastes and opinions as to what designs and styles appeal to us.

Breaking Down the Myth

Universal consumability, in the creative communities, is a myth. Given that our tastes play such a large role in our creative consumption, finding a flavor that everyone is going to appreciate equally generally will not happen. The appeal of what we create will have a heavy draw for some and perhaps little to none for others. The sooner we come to that realization, the less stressful and more fun our designs will be to create, thus making our job easier. And if we compromise our creations to try to bring in that universal appeal, we will slight our audience, and our designs. Allow us to elaborate.

When we create something, it will automatically appeal to a certain crowd for a specific number of reasons (theoretically at least, we hope there will be some appeal, and for the sake of this argument, we will work under the premise that there will be some inherent draw). Now if we take away from those areas, to try and make it appeal to another crowd, we have already lessened the appeal of our design for the crowd that initially responded to it. The more aspects we include or alter to further that mass appeal, only takes the design farther from both its original intent and audience. Look at it in terms of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The PB&J Factor – An Analogy for the Ages

If you make a PB&J sandwich, then you are only appealing to those people who like PB&J sandwiches. There is really no way to alter the sandwich to make it appeal to those who don’t like PB&J, and if you tried, then it will tend to lose appeal to the PB&J crowd. And even in your group of PB&J fans, there are still degrees that affect the sandwiches appeal. There are those who like more PB than J and vice versa. Once again, you can alter the amounts of PB&J to try and appeal to both, but chances are, you are going to end up with a sandwich that still appeals to one faction over the other.

So what does this all mean (beyond the fact that we are apparently hungry for a PB&J sandwich and are a little particular as to its construction)? It means as designers, we need to accept that our work is not going to have that mass appeal and trying to design with that in mind can have more of a negative impact on the work, not to mention our psyche, than a positive one. Universal consumability simply means an end product that falls far short of its potential and intent, and since when has that ever been appealing to anyone? So when you are designing, do it with focus. Meaning basically do it with a particular audience in mind, and go for it.

The Client Variable

When working with a client, designing with focus may be a bit of a challenge, but it can be done. It is our responsibility as designers to lead our clients towards decisions and away from bad choices, this is simply one of them. If the client keeps pushing for more mass appeal, we need to be able to make them understand why that will effectively hurt the project. We need to make the client choose a crowd to appeal to, and work within those boundaries while not trying to reach out beyond that crowd so much that it no longer appeals to anyone.

In the case of the project we walked away from, we made our attempts to sway the client over to our side, but after a couple of attempts and lots of time wasted we surrendered and threw in the towel. Perhaps we should have tried harder, but we did not see our arguments as having any effect whatsoever. Not to mention, we had not thought of that whole sandwich analogy, so we walked away. With so many opinions, tastes, and overall individuals populating the masses, trying to design for them all is a mistake. But designing with focus, never will be!

Finding Your Audience

In order to find your audience and allow them to guide you in your work, you must make sure that you are doing two major things. One, connecting with your audience. And two, listening to them once you have connected. Now as we mentioned before, when we create, our product will have inherent appeal to certain members of the crowd, but you first need to find that audience that you are going to be designing with in mind to bring them in and make them aware of what it is you are doing. Reach out via the various social media outlets to find the fans that will be drawn to the designs you will be crafting. Other places to try to connect with the audience you are seeking are related sites and blogs who share a similar style or mission as you. By becoming more active on these related sites, you can easily tap into that necessary connection you are after for your business or blog.

After you have made this connection, then the next step is so simple to accomplish as you are engaging the crowd. Listen to what it is they are talking about, or moreover, what they are looking for. This is easy to find out because overall, people like offering their constructive critiques on where the community is lacking or letting them down. So ask. Get in there and mix it up a bit. Talk to your audience to find ways that you can improve your work so that its reach is much more effective. Take these suggestions and critiques that you find being repeated from various places and make adjustments to fine tune the direction of your designs. Afterall, what is the purpose of connecting with them, if you are not going to listen to what it is they have to say. You can also interview others in your field, who may share in the audience that you are seeking to tap into, and find out what they have done to connect and listen to their followers. What helped with their reach? It may be something that can help you as well.

Again, when dealing with a client, it is still important that you have this connection and avenue for access to the intended audience, so if the client is not already tapped in, then you both need to work out the best way to extend this reach before you begin. Having this understanding of who you are trying to appeal to with the design, can assist you invaluably, and making sure the client does as well should help ensure that they are not steering you away from their target with their input. So this is always a critical factor in the overall equation, and trying to reach out in a universally consumable way, is only going to close you off from your audience not widen them. So know which audience you are going to go after, and focus on them as you move forward.

That is All

So that concludes the talk from this side for now, but just use the comment section below to keep the discussion going and offer your thoughts and perspectives on this topic.

About the Author

Rob is an emerging author, celebrated podcaster and poet, and is an author and freelancer for Arbenting Freebies and Dead Wings Designs.

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  • http://inspiringpixel.com Inspiring Pixel

    Very nice article Rob. The moment a designer accepts that he is not going to have a mass appeal (and that he has to make it the best for the people who are looking forward to those who like it) is the moment that his work begins to shine out from the rest.

  • http://fwebde.com/ Eric B.

    These are some excellent points. It’s very important to remember each and every one of these.

    Thank you.

  • http://blogpost.dj23.net/ jared thompson

    great article :)

  • Cynthia

    Fantastic article! The points are right on the mark!
    Thank you.

  • http://www.crearecommunications.co.uk damian web

    Interesting article! I love the PB&J comparison, made me hungry!

    When ever I have a client that wants a certain thing aimed at a certain audience and they have their own ideas on how this should be done I simply design 2 copies.. One following his way and the other designing something I feel will appeal to the right audience. It is very hard to design something that will cover the whole audience as you say, so I tend to just stick a little something of each into a design and hope for the best!

  • http://tr.im/mewC Rahul – Web Guru

    I wish I too could follow those rules. Thanks for the list, at least I can try.

  • http://mysynchronicity.com The Drizzle

    I just came across the same issue with a client. Got paid very little money for the design and have already gone over a months worth of redesigns and tweaks. After the client liked a particular design I was working on, I was glad to finally be going in the right direction only to find out 3 days after the design was complete that they wanted another redesign. This client is literally on drugs and cannot make up his mind on what he wants in a design and I feel the reality of this is that he doesn’t really know what he wants at the end of the day. When told he would be charged for the next redesign, he lost his cool and began getting extremely vulgar towards me. This is the type of client I do not wish to work for anymore. It’s unprofessional and a waste of time on both ends. I will be reiterating my terms and stating as you have above. If it leads to nowhere, I will move on to the next project with new clients. Some people just can’t be pleased.

  • http://deadwingsdesigns.com Rob Bowen

    Thanks for the kind words and comments, everyone. I was wondering how this point would be received, and it looks like we are not alone in our thoughts on the issue. Always nice to know.

    @ Inspiring Pixel – Very nicely put. I think you have hit the nail right on the head!

    @ Damian Web – I really like the idea of making two versions, though it is more work on your part, it also offers another perspective on the project which I think is really cool.

    @ The Drizzle – That totally sucks. I hate clients like that. I completely feel your pain!

    Again, thanks everyone for your thoughts, and for all those sharing the post as well!!

  • http://xpirtdesign.com Xpirt Web Design

    Great tips to follow, as usual.

  • http://www.timecenter.com/ Online appointment scheduling

    One way is to do A/B testing and let the audience decide what’s best by buying or not buying your products/services depending on what design they’re looking at. If you let your clients guide you with the design too much, it’s gonna end up with the PBJ sandwich on the floor ;)

  • http://www.blog.exxcorpio.com Luis Lopez

    I think you are right, audience is who should guide your design, obviously keeping an eye open to stay away from disaster, thay can guide you.

  • http://www.crearecommunications.co.uk damian web

    “I really like the idea of making two versions, though it is more work on your part, it also offers another perspective on the project which I think is really cool.”

    Yeah it is more time on my part, but I feel personally that it is worth it sometimes, our job is to provide a design in which the customers goes “wow” at and if it means going away from their thoughts and putting your own experienced thoughts into it they will appreciate it the more.

    Plus i enjoy designing so spending more time on the thing i enjoy is no hassle for me!

  • http://sexidesign.com Melody

    I think design clients are crazy..but hey they pay the bills…the problem with design sometimes is that clients come to you for one design, instead of having it as a component of a solid marketing plan..therefore they say stuff like “we want everyone to buy it”

    Real marketers/designers know that 1. That’s IMPOSSIBLE 2. You have a message for a specific audience. 3. If you don’t know who you want to sell to then do research before wasting money. 4. Unorganized marketing creates customer confusion.

    Man, the conversations I’ve had with clients saying “you just can’t ‘sell’ to everybody..”

  • http://www.bighdesign.com Justin Moore-Brown

    LOVE this article sir. Definitely had this experience with a recent client of mine. Should have walked away after pulling teeth to get them to avoid a bad direction but stuck with them and am now paying the price.

    Thanks for the article!

  • http://www.wholowmedia.com Julio Thillet

    Rob, I hear you brother my only hangup with what you state is that you say “the client wants mass appeal so I walked away”

    The clients will say things like this because they don’t know any better. i am positive that you actually tried to give this speech to them about Mass Appeal being a myth, but alas..the client is really thinking about numbers, he doesn’t know what mass appeal means, and if the client wants something that provides numbers than do your best to provide it. After all, they want a return on investment.

  • http://deadwingsdesigns.com Rob Bowen

    Thanks again to everyone for sharing the post and leaving your thoughts. And to Damian Web for following up and getting back to me.

    @ Melody – I love your breakdown, and it is spot on.

    @ Julio – I say that I walked away, but in the end of the post I explain, that this was only after several conferences with the client, and even a complete overhaul of the project that I was doing on good faith (the freelancer’s worst enemy), but it was for a client that I trusted and had worked with before with more positive results. I even tried to explain that they just didn’t understand the market they were approaching, and still to no avail. So it was after many attempts to get them to see the error in their approach, and after hours spent working on and refining the project, that I threw in the towel.

  • http://vebdizajn.110mb.com Aleksandar

    Very useful. Thank you very much.

  • http://graphiceyedea.co.uk prisca

    excellent article, and a lot points well made, thanks :)

    I also love the PB&J comparison, will be a good one to use — or maybe here in the UK we could use Marmite, another example of taste that splits people into groups or ‘lovers’ and ‘haters’.
    I find using such analogies really helps bringing your point across to clients – the ‘I want my site to appeal to all’ quote is one we hear way too often – and always need to clarify.

    Thanks for a great read :)