Research to Improve Your Designs

This article explains what to research in order to improve the success of graphic design and commercial art.

We hear over and over that “art is not created in a vacuum” and design is no different. To create relevant design, we must be actively engaged in art and culture. Especially in advertising and commercial art. How can we design for a company unless we understand the role it plays and the way it relates to people's lives.

The necessity of such knowledge is why research, often forgotten, is critical to making good work. As Bruce Mau states in his Incomplete Manifesto (, “Study. A studio is a place of study. Use the necessity of production as an excuse to study. Everyone will benefit.”

As a university student, this is a rule I employ frequently in my classes, but I also know the importance of studying for my freelance work. There are a number of questions I try to answer before I start any project.

Who is the company's demographic?

This seems like an obvious question, but once you have identified the group of people the research is not over. Many people stereotype – for example, if they wish to target an ad at old people they simply make a boring, conventional design. For children, they use primary colors and “fun fonts”. People are more complex and there are other concerns than aesthetics. For instance, an ad aimed at an older demographic should have larger type that is easy to read, not just something plain because you think old people are dull. Furthermore, images and pop-culture references must be aimed appropriately for each group. Read up on your demographic and understand what they relate to, don't just make assumptions.

What does the company do?

Go beyond the obvious. If the company makes instruments, play one. If your client owns a restaurant, then eat there. Inspiration has to come from somewhere, so the more you expose yourself to, then the more experiences you can draw on for ideas. Chances are, you were hired to set the client apart from their competition, so unless you understand the details of what they do, then how do you know what makes them different from other businesses? Your work will be more convincing if you believe in what you're selling, or at least understand it.

How do they want to be presented?

Some businesses thrive on accessibility, the more customers they get the better. Others rely on a sense of exclusivity to market themselves. It is important to be sensitive to such dynamics when you are working, especially if your client is an existing company that already has ad material. For example, be aware of what aesthetics say fun and what says serious, but again stay away form stereotypes. Professional does not mean conventional, you can show that a business is reliable and still make it stand out among its competitors. Think of conveying ideas like stability and intelligence as the base for any client, and then use their differences to carry on. Never forget that a business is first and foremost a business and should be presented as such to some degree. People won't spend money somewhere they don't trust, no matter how creative their advertising is.

How does your client view themselves?

Though your designs should appeal to the public, ultimately it is the client to whom you are selling your ideas. Make sure your concept of their business reflects their own. Don't insult or confuse people by presenting a different view of who they are and what they do than what they already know. Read their literature, mission statements, website, etc. Get your hands on anything available. People will assume you are smart if they think you believe the same things you do, so make your clients trust that you have the same views that they do.

There are many more reasons and ways to research, but these basic questions should get you started. Knowledge is power, so study!


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