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What Designers Say About Marketers

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Cowritten by Dr. Jaewoo Joo

The typical briefing that designers receive at the start of a new design project seems to be more or less useless for generating any new ideas. In the spring of 2011, I spoke on Inspirational Design briefing at an Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) event in Los Angeles. Everyone broke into laughter when I asked: Who provides the best design briefs: the marketing or the engineering department? Over the laughter, I heard that marketing briefs are not easily understood and engineering briefs are too restrictive. The designers see a clear disconnect between the insights marketing can provide and what the designers need to generate superior concepts. This was also my experience during my two decades in design consulting with more than a hundred projects under my belt. So, what is going on here?

What do designers hear from marketing and how do they collect the missing bits of insights they need to build their concepts? The best input comes from the client's branding study, either internal, commissioned by a third party or conducted by the hired design consultancy. These studies provide a template/pallet of metaphors, images and visual languages for the designers to incorporate into their concepts. When no visual direction is provided, designers will have to develop this language from scratch along with developing the concepts.

In actual practice, designers often set the marketing input aside and start a project by looking at advertisements and websites for their client's and their competitors' products. They collect images and stories concerning the uniqueness of each product and make fleeting trips to the products' point of purchase, taking pictures and playing with the products. If the budget allows, they purchase a sample of products for later disassembly and destruction in the studio. Ideas for new features often stem from the designer's personal experience -- including his cultural and social background -- and their project research into nature, art, fashion, architecture, entertainment, and other products. Designers often read the same magazines, frequent the same sites and belong to the same LinkedIn groups so their sources of inspiration are identical. I even heard a CEO pronounce: "If I see one more styling board with an iPod... "

What reasons do designers offer in support of their concepts? Their research findings are usually compiled into a PowerPoint, or QuickTime presentation, augmented with a booklet, posters and collected artifacts. The conclusion usually contains an activity analysis, communicated by the use of storytelling. These inspire various user segments and provide possible new use scenarios. The result is a list of unique selling points and a recommendation for design direction. To explain their proposed concepts visual positioning, designers provide a map, using a coordinate system, showing the client's product together with the competitors' products. The axis usually represents competitive parameters, such as features and aesthetics expression and brand attributes.

The key is selecting relevant and independent parameters and communicating relevant differentiation. For example, during the past thirty years, psychographics have been used for user profiles such as "Joe 6-Pack" and "Soccer Mom", while failing to show any correlation to actual product purchasing behavior, rendering these profiles useless as metrics.

At the end of the day, marketing is often presented with three to five realistic finished rendered concepts from which they have to select one for detailing. Often flash will out compete content, since no objective metrics have been presented, so it is little wonder that design is still seen as art rather than as being business driven.

Special thanks to Dr. Jaewoo Joo for researching and co-writing this article.