Though we often don’t want to admit it, especially to our clients, all design work is not created equal. I’m not referring to “good” and “bad” design but rather, the three levels of design. Over the course of my 15 years as a practicing designer I’ve created work at each of these levels but it’s only recently that I felt it worthwhile to carefully categorize and describe each level. They are important because a designer and client should know what they are striving for and how high they want to reach. Aligning your efforts with a particular level affects not only the amount of time and money required to produce the desired end-result but also determines how deeply both parties are willing to go.
This theory is a work-in-progress so I’m putting it out into the world for feedback to help develop the concept further, if it warrants it. Now lets get down to the Three Levels of Design:
It just looks nice. This is fairly easy to do, especially when we consider the amount of inspiration at our fingertips. Access to free or affordable, high-quality stock and impeccably drawn typefaces make it hard to excuse design that doesn’t meet this standard. Some designers might argue that Pretty Design is inferior but I believe it’s not bad or wrong but sometimes all that is required. Often, Pretty Design is all the time and budget constraints will allow for. I’m certain most designers, who want to keep food on the table, spend at least some time creating work at this level and get paid well enough for it. In the worst case, pretty design is putting lipstick on a pig. When it comes to pigs it’s the client’s fault for creating one and wanting it to look like something it’s not and it’s also the designer’s fault for not being more selective about who they work for and what they work on.
I’m not afraid to admit I’ve pumped out plenty of Pretty Design – especially early on in my career when I wasn’t confident enough to select or manage my clients like a pro.
The is the level at which the audience or target group has been clearly identified and the final product reflects this – it speaks their language. It looks good to the audience it’s intended for but might not look that great to someone else. i.e. Design for seniors or children as obvious examples. Most of the visual elements have been thoughtfully considered though exceptions were made to fit the budget, time constraints or personal preferences of the client. Design at this level is intended to get measurable results whenever possible.
Considering where I’m currently at as a professional, function design is a minimum requirement and a starting point. It doesn’t always fall into place so neatly but I certainly work to align myself with clients who already think at this stage. If I find I’m spending too much time creating work that isn’t as functional as I’d like I tend to reconsider working with that particular client. Though that rarely happens these days.
Jaw-dropping, rule-breaking design. You know this when you see it. It’s like design alchemy. This is where the design has been carefully considered to an extent that it melds with the concept until the two are a seamless whole. Wicked Design becomes the message. It communicates with such clarity that the design is either transparent or inspiring. Wicked design is rare and is difficult for most designers to achieve. This is partly because it requires a highly skilled designer AND a highly supportive client. I’d love to say that all my projects are a level three but the reality is that this is neither feasible nor desired at all times.
Wicked Design may not necessarily require a large budget and timeline, sometimes remarkable results are produced under strict constraints, but it’s exhausting and improbable to achieve consistently when under pressure.
Often, this level of design is surprisingly simple but was not necessarily simple to create. It can also involve working with a very open-minded marketing and copywriting team (when required).
What do you think?
Do you have examples of work at these levels you’d like to share a link to? Have you created or been involved in the development of Pretty, Functional or Wicked Design? Or is this all just academic B.S.?