If you want to design logos and identities that succeed in the real world you must truly understand the business, competition and target audience. To understand that you need to make research part of your design process. The information you gather will ensure you have a thorough understanding of the problem you need to solve, so design decisions can be made with intent. Not only will your designs perform well but you’ll also get faster approvals and a greater level of trust from your clients too.
To discuss the value of design research and the methods used, Ian interviews Jenn and Ken Viscoky O’Grady, the authors of the book A Designers Research Manual. Jenn is a Professor at Cleveland State University, and Ken is Professor and Graduate Coordinator at Kent State University.
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Books & Resources Mentioned
- A Designers Research Manual – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
- Jenn & Kens website www.visockyogrady.com
- The list of books Ken recommends to his grad students:
- The Strategic Designer by David Holston – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
- 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organisation by Vijay Kumar – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
- Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behaviour by Indi Young – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
- Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories by Donna Spencer – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
- Universal Methods of Design:100 Ways to Research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Design Effective Solutions by Bruce Hanington, Bella Martin – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
- Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design by William Lidwell (Author), Kritina Holden (Author), Jill Butler (Author) – Buy on Amazon UK | Amazon US
Jenn & Ken Visocky O’Grady Interview Transcription
Ian Paget: Research is one of those topics I’ve always had a lot of interest in as a graphic designer. There is a lot of information out there that you can find that goes into different processes and so on but I recently picked up a copy of your book, A Designer’s Research Manual. And it runs through so many different processes and techniques and there’s a lot of things in there that I wasn’t aware of and I thought it was an absolutely fantastic book. Because the audience are graphic designers I thought it would be a really good topic to dive into. Would you be able to tell us a little bit more about the book?
Ken: Yeah. So the book that’s out currently is the second edition of A Designer’s Research Manual. Jenn and I were asked to write the original edition in around 2005, I think. And then there’d been so much that had changed in the research space in design, that we worked with our publisher to update the book and do a second edition. In that second edition I feel like we really changed the structure of the content. We added a lot more new content, updated a lot of the case studies that were in the book previously. And what we’re always trying to do is create something that an everyday design practitioner can integrate into their practice. We try to make the concepts as approachable and as scalable as possible.
Jenn: And to give a little bit of history on the first edition, when the book came out, there weren’t a lot of practical quick application for professional conversations in design research as a space, a lot of real academic conversations. And what we found is that we were running a small design studio and we had our own version of research practices at the time, but everyone we knew had a small studio or worked in a larger agency or in-house and they all had their own methods, and their methods were really pretty overlapping. There was a commonality to all of it, but a lot of people weren’t comfortable talking to us because they felt like they were proprietary processes.
So the first edition tensome years ago, 12, I guess now was really about trying to get the design community to tell the story of how they researched and then make it accessible for anyone who wanted to learn. In this next edition, I think there’s a lot more in this space.
Ken: I also think too, that one of the things that we’re trying to do with both editions to the book, the first and the second edition, it’s just try to provide some common language about the ways that designers approach research. One of the things that we found, like Jenn had mentioned, is that there was a lot of overlap in all of the discussions they were having with design practitioners about what they were doing, but they were all calling it something a little bit different. We felt that for research to grow as a practice within design, that we needed to start establishing some baseline conversations or some commonalities for how we’re talking about it or discussing it.
Jenn: And I think the other big difference for us, between the first edition and the second edition is just how prevalent it’s become as an embraced part of design practice now. Now both of our programs that have in the second year of the undergraduate program, students are learning about these kinds of things so that they can incorporate them into their upper division undergraduate project work. It was one of those things that the industry was doing but people weren’t talking about as much. And I think now it’s become a much more formalised part of a design education.
Ken: Yeah. I even have alumni now that are… They have job titles like senior design research strategists or they’re studying design research at a PhD level in business programs. And so I think that there’s a lot that has changed over the past decade.
Ian Paget: Yeah. I know even in the past like two or three years, there was a lot more conversation about strategy.
Ian Paget: And I think because graphic designers are more aware of the advantages of working in a strategic way, you do need to do your research. And ironically that’s actually how your book came up in conversation within the Logo Geek Facebook group, someone was asking for book recommendations on strategy and your book was actually one that came up, which is interesting because it’s not directly about strategy, but research is such a fundamental part of it.
Ken: I’m going to give another plug to a colleague, Designed Strategist, I think is another great book. Maybe after the conversation I can provide a link to some of the resources that I use in my graduate class.
Ian Paget: Sure. I’ll include links to those and the show notes for this episode (see above).
Ken: Perfect. And the title is The Strategic Designer. It’s a great book in that space. Yes.
Ian Paget: Fantastic. I’ll find an Amazon link so people can go and find it there. I’ll have to go and check that one out myself.
Research is one step of the process that some designers out there, even though I said a lot of people are working more strategically, research is one step that a lot of a lot of graphic designers don’t like to do, especially students. I remember when I was at college, I didn’t particularly like that. I wanted to jump straight into all the creative stuff. So I was thinking for people in that camp that are listening, could you tell us a little bit more why research is such a critical part of the design process?
Ken: It’s funny, all of the things that you just stated are things that I face when I’m working with new graduate students in our program and I’m trying to retrain them. I think that graphic designers are just very action-oriented individuals. We’d like to jump in with both feet. We’d like to get started. Every single project is a new opportunity to create something exciting and we get energised by that. I think that the research component is in addition to all of those things. I think it’s just slowing down and making sure that you are asking the right questions and that you really understand the business context for your client, but you also understand the context of use for whatever it is that you’re creating. If you don’t understand those things you have… There’s an opportunity there to run in the wrong direction. And so just slowing down and thinking like, “Okay, what do I know? What do I need to know? How am I going to find out that information that’s missing and how does it apply to this project and the project goals?” I think is a really essential step.
Jenn: I would also say that with undergrads, they’re maybe even less interested in wanting to learn this stuff. They very much want to jump into the aesthetics and the maker style side of it. And so one of the things that I tell students is that they’re already doing this stuff. They just might not have the right terminology for it. But if you look at all the various forms of visual exploration that most of us go through in a creative process, a lot of them have beautiful sketch books and they’re sort of doing some of this stuff instinctively. They just don’t have a lot of language around framing it. Even Google searches, right? To find out the basics about a topic that they’re researching starts to become a component of a literature review. Right?
Ken: I would argue that sketching is just a… It’s a way of ideating and prototyping and doing comparative analysis. I think it’s how we talk about those things and I think is… It goes back to the statement that we had made before about trying to provide a common language for the methodologies that designers engage in. I mean, I think that sketching is a part of research. I just think that there are, depending on the size and scope and budget and timeline of the projects that you’re working on, there might be some other things you can engage with to really help you frame the problem.
Jenn: I joke around with my students, but my dad is a business guy, right? And he’s got a chief financial officer background. And so I say to them, “Hey, imagine if I say to my dad, I’m going to sketch something now.” How seriously does he take me? It’s very much internal language to our profession and more to the creative field. But if I say I’m going to do some strategic visual exploration, all of a sudden that sounds like something you want to pay me for. And so to me, part of the design research question is just sharing some common language with our peers in other fields.
Ian Paget: The way that I’ve always seen it is that the research allows you to truly understand the problem that you’re trying to solve. And if you don’t understand the problem, you will fail.
Ian Paget: It’s inevitable that you will fail if you don’t understand and doing your research, doing all the background conversations that go into any graphic design project to properly understand it. If you know the challenges that you’re facing, you can create a solution and then you can present all of the work based on the research that you’ve done.
Ken: Yeah. And I think in some ways too, it’s understanding the problem. It’s understanding the communication problem, the business problem, the audience, the broader market that your clients engaged in. But I also think that research is also about mitigating perceptions of risk on the client side. Going back to what had Jenn had just said, the anecdote about her dad. That when we can walk a client through the research methodology that led us to our intuitive design solutions, it helps mitigate those perceptions of risk, because there is no guarantee that the work is going to solve the problem.
But if we do our due diligence and research there is… We’re hedging our bets. We’re making sure that we’re doing our due diligence to really understand what their needs are and what the needs of their audience are and who are the competitors in their space and how do we help them identify and differentiate. And so I think it’s really essential.
Ian Paget: Yeah, it really is, and I think you’ve done an amazing job of explaining the importance of research. Now, I know that the book covers a wide range of different research strategies and tactics and it’s relevant to all areas of graphic design from logo design, branding through to web design application. There’s loads of things that it is relevant to, but because this podcast is about logo design, would you mind talking through some of the tactics and approaches from the book that are relevant to logo design?
Jenn: Oh, sure. I think, you and I had a little back and forth with email before we got started and I think you’re dead on with many of the things that we would prescribe to somebody if they were charting a path for researching a new logo. Everything, I think every design project tends to start with the communications audit of the client. What are they talking about internally? How do they talk about themselves? And then who their competitors are. So an external evaluation of what their market segment is. And some of that is a literature review too, right? You’re just doing a broader review. So many of our students go right to Googling. Right? But that’s a totally legit way to get started on it. It’s just how deep you can dig into those things. And I think that those areas together give you a nice broad idea of the market space and the need is for this new product to or revision.
Ian Paget: Sorry, with the communication order, I’ve never actually done anything that in depth personally, because a lot of my personal projects of being a relatively low budget. So in terms of generally an audit like that, the way I’ve literally done it is just through a questionnaire and gathering together some fairly high level information. What ways are there for creating something like a communication audit? Because an audit sounds very in depth and it’s something that could actually take months to put together. How would you go about creating something like that?
Ken: So I think let’s take a step back.
Ian Paget: Sure.
Ken: I think that when we’re talking about research, I think the most important thing for all of us to understand is that how long we’re you engaged in the research process is relative to project scale, project scope, budget and timeline, right? So if we’re worried, if you’re working on a project that is a relatively low budget project, it’s just a quick identity work. I think it’s totally, totally fair to just engage in some simple questionnaires or a simple interview and to ask your client, “Hey, can you just provide me with any external communication tools that you guys are using that I don’t have access to online.” I’m just trying to get a better sense of who you guys are as an organisation and then ask them, “Who are your biggest competitors in this market?”
And for you to go through that and to understand it and to dig through it and get a sense of who the company is, who they’re competing against and what their unique story is, I think is totally valid.
Ian Paget: Yeah.
Ken: Because all of these things, it’s a communication audit for a really large scale project, it could take months.
But if it’s a quick project and it’s… We have to engage in methodologies that are relative to our budget. One of the things that we included in A Designer’s Research Manual, in the second edition was a little information from a company in Atlanta called MatchDayCreative, specifically a guy named Blake Howard. And they do this really interesting thing when they ever engage in any kind of identity work, where they’ll take a look at all of the companies that are competing in a space and they’ll audit the colour use of all of the different marks and logos within that space.
They’ll do an audit of the basic shapes. They’ll do the audit of the basic typefaces that are being used and they create a visual matrix of these things. Just trying to understand what’s already being done? What’s appropriate? What’s inappropriate? What’s totally way off base and how do we create something that helps identify and differentiate our clients against these other marks? And I think that that’s a way that designers can engage in this idea of a communications audit or some competitor profiling that is both quick to do, easy to understand and allows them to really get a broad picture of what’s happening in that space. And I think it’s a brilliant technique.
Jenn: Yeah. I like how quick and easy it could be or how intense it could be depending on the scale and the scope of the project. And I also think it was always helpful to us to ask lots of questions. It’s one of the things that I keep pushing in my students is, if you could interview someone at that company, maybe you’re working with sales staff and you want to know what they really do when they go close the deal for the company. What kind of marketing materials are literally helping them and what do they have and they don’t ever pull out at all? Is everything online for them now? Is that business card really essential? What is it that they’re using? And it would help you understand better how that logo has to function.
I think logos are really unique thing because they are so scalable and they are seen in so many different ways. And so understanding the primary vehicles that the people at the company are going to use would be a helpful thing. And that to me is part of that communication audit. And maybe just sitting down with some of the key players and saying, “Show me the stuff you use to get your job done.” In every industry, like if you’re designing for a coffee shop, that would be very different than if you were designing a financial product for a small corporation. And so I think asking good questions and scaling it down instinctively to the size and the scope of the project are of most importance.
Ian Paget: Yeah. I’m just wondering when we use the term audit, well what is it that a lot of people are actually doing? Because I mean, from a freelancer point of view, I don’t compile any information. I just put it together for myself. For example, if I am looking at the current communication or competitors for example, I might just do a quick Google search, find the competitors, take screenshots and place it into a big document. Is there any special way that people are presenting that information to the client or do you need to present that audit to the client?
Ken: Well, I think that whenever you can share your research with your client, I think it helps. Again, it mitigates perceptions of risk and I think it helps validate your creative directions. Right? And so I think that that is something that designers are universally challenged by.
Where clients are second guessing the decisions that the designers are making. And I think that the design-client relationship is kind of a strange one in that we are paid based off of our previous experiences and or portfolio, but our clients may not really have… It may be the first time that they’re working with us and we’re creating something new. Our job is to create something that doesn’t exist. Businesses don’t like risk. Right? And so I think that being able to take the information that you’re gathering, even in the ways that we just discussed, in being able to present that in a simple creative brief so that the client understands the direction that you’re going in and why you’re going in that direction, I think it’s really helpful.
When I’m teaching graduate classes at Kent State, again, we’re working on projects that are much bigger and in scope and they’re a lot less framed. But usually before we start designing, we put together what we call a design research summary report. Where it walks through what the problem is, what were the questions that we had or the assumptions that we had about the project? What methods of research did we engaged in? What did we find from that? And then how did that lead us to our creative brief? Which is then going to outline the creative work that we do.
Again, I think a lot of this stuff is about scale. I think that if you’re an individual sole proprietor designer that is working on small projects for small clients and your turnaround time is quick, I think that all this needs to be is a like a one page document that outlines your thinking that provides maybe some visuals that you found and why you went the direction that you went at.
Jenn: I think too that you can think of it like an executive summary of your research for the client and that it’s a great way of getting buy in and interaction with that client before you’re going to present them with what the marks actually look like. And so it kind of gets you talking more and it gets you on the same page about some of the ideas that you’ve got or the things you’ve gleaned from the research so that when you’re talking about the marks that you make down the road, you can kind of call back to it.
I think sometimes we all forget about our talents. It’s interesting to me whenever we work with somebody outside of the design universe, even a simple report, right? We were just working with architects and we would give them a presentation of the kinds of details we wanted on the inside of the house and they would ‘ooh and ahh’ about the reports we put together to give to them. It’s like my job to design paperwork or multi page or website kind of thing. And so I can do that pretty well. And so I think if you as a sole proprietor, for example, one weekend when you had a little bit of spare time came up with a template for how you were going to present research summary, you can go to it again and again with different clients and different kinds of businesses are going to require different kinds of research.
Ken: I mean, come on, we’re designers, we can take really dry information and make it really sexy. That’s one of the things that we do. So I think that there are ways that you can kind of graphically cook your own books in your favour, to help get buy in from your clients.
Ian Paget: Yeah, that’s very true. So to expand on that, at what stage would you present the research? Would you run through while she present your solutions or would you do it as a separate exercise?
Ken: Again, I think depends on scale, right? Or scope of work. One of the things that Jenn and I did when we were in professional practice is that we caught on really quick that when we provided a client multiple options, they were always going to pick the worst one.
Jenn: It’s uncanny. And there’s a logic to this, right? I mean, clients didn’t go to design school so they don’t really know what they’re looking at and they’re going to have a tendency to pick the worst solution because it is usually the safest solution. And they’re again mitigating perceptions of risk by picking something that looks familiar or feels familiar. Right? And so we stopped doing that.
What we started doing was putting together presentations of our research and then getting buy in on that and then diving into creative and only showing one option and then arguing why that option met or lined up with the research that we found. And then it all of a sudden made things a little bit easier. I mean, we would have multiple iterations of a project internally, but we stopped showing them to clients after a while because they just didn’t know what they were looking at.
Or we narrowed them down significantly to control a little bit for the pick the worst one effect. I think what you’re asking is at what point in the project did you do it? Does it have to be a secondary meeting? I don’t think it does. I think it could be the kind of thing that you could say, “Hey, let’s set up a phone call. I’m going to email you something, but I’d like to walk you through it.” I think it’s probably safer to have some interaction. To me, part of that research summary is that you’re presenting it, right? It’s another case where the designer is the expert and they’re really talking about what they found.
Ken: And the designer is the advocate for good work.
Jenn: Yeah. It helps. I think it helps present a kind of commitment to understanding the problem like you spoke of earlier.
Ken: Yeah. And I think too that when you’re able to present that research and you’re able to understand your clients space, I think that it makes them feel more comfortable letting you do the work that they hired you to do. I think it shows… Like Jen said, I think it shows a commitment to them and I think it helps reframe you as a vendor to something that’s more like a strategic partner.
Jenn: I also think it helps the client maybe get out of their own headspace because we all come to things with preconceived notions. And so we had a really funny client experience early in our practitioner careers where we were designing logos for doctors and the doctors all drove fancy cars. They pulled up outside of our office in a series of seven sports cars to come to this meeting.
Ken: They worked for a local sports team and they all had championship rings. It was kind of interesting.
Jenn: Yeah. I mean, it was this intimidating experience as an audience, anyway. And then we’re showing them medical marks, for this logo for their business. And all they see in it is fancy car logos. It was just like where these guys were in their head space. And so I think in that case we would have had better luck talking to them about who their clients were and who was coming to them and what those people were thinking about because it really didn’t matter if it looked like their Ferrari or whatever their fancy car-
Ken: What’s funny is that Jenn, sharing that story, and I think that was one of the first meetings that we had. We were like, “I think we need to show the client less visuals and more research.” Because they were overwhelmed by everything that they saw and then they just didn’t know how to make a decision. And if we could walk them through our logic and our process, we could have narrowed this down significantly. We just wanted so badly as young designers to impress them with the amount of work that we were doing for the money they were paying us. And it muddied the process quite a bit.
Jenn: Yeah. It created information overload for sure. But the good end of that story is someday we made them a logo and then we got to go to the grand opening of their new facility and they cut our logo out of a block of ice and it had shrimp around it.
Ian Paget: Oh wow.
Ken: That was amazing.
Jenn: But this was before anyone had a camera on their phone all the time. And so I don’t have a picture of that.
Ian Paget: Oh, it’s a shame.
Ken: It was so big. So many shrimps.
Ian Paget: Now, I know you mentioned then about presenting based on who the target audience is. I know that’s typically one area that I personally faced challenges with and I’m sure there’s a lot of other people out there. I’ve worked with so many clients that say they target everybody, and we all know that’s not the case.
Ian Paget: I know as part of the research is researching who the target audience is.
Ian Paget: So I’ve got a couple of questions around this. In the instances where your client does come back and say they talk to everyone, what are you doing to firstly work out who they are and then also how are you then going about researching who these people are and what they might potentially need?
Ken: So I think that one of the things that we learned really quickly is that it’s always best to ask lots of questions. And so when clients will say something like, “Well, we’re trying to… Our audience is everyone.” We’ll say, “Okay, well, what does everyone look like? Where does everyone work?” And just start to drill down. Another thing that we would try to do is that if we were working with a business-to-business client or a business-to-consumer client, we would ask them if they could put us in touch with anybody on the client side that we could interview about the project so that we could start to get a better understanding of who those individuals were. Like in a business-to-business context, we’d say, “Well, can we interview or do you have a trusted vendor vendor that we could maybe talk about how great the relationship we’re working with you is?”
And then through that interview process tried to get a better understanding of who the audience was because they were putting us in touch with a member of the audience. And then kind of extrapolate from there. I think it’s always challenging. I also think that clients always have a tendency to think of audience in terms of demographic information that they think of them as these specific, quantifiable, measurable things. And I think that that’s not always the best way to think about an audience member because it may show you who they are, but it doesn’t really show us why. Demographic information is really good at showing us something that we can easily count, but it doesn’t show us why users are behaving the way that they are.
Jenn: We’re always trying to get people to ask questions to help give us insight on the motivations behind behaviours and that that even if it’s a purchasing decision, which a logo might be more connected to, or it’s an association with a brand or the feeling of a brand, it’s easier to reveal those things. I almost think that all designers should take a good journalism class on interviewing.
And that interviewing becomes a really, really meaningful part of being a designer. Even if you’re just interviewing your client, if you don’t have time to go out and do some of the ethnographic research on the actual audience, I think asking better questions of the client is a good way to go.
Ken: Yeah. Unstructured, ethnographic interviews with clients are still a really valuable form of research, right? You’re not dealing with the audience what you’re doing with the client and then any kind of contextual inquiry that you can have, it’s that you really understand the user in their context, I think is also really essential. So asking like, “Well, where’s the market going to be used?” How is it going to be used? What is the…” Like Jenn said, if it’s primarily on a product, where is that product being sold? How do you users engage with that product? And what is the context in which they’re going to take it to touch on that? Is it going to be used in large environmental advertising? Is it used… How is it being used? That’s going to tell you a little bit more as to who the audience might be.
Ian Paget: Very true. In the book as well, talking about target audience, you do have a section in there about creating personas. Could you talk through how you go about doing something like that and the reason why?
Ken: Yeah. I think personas are an interesting tool because sometimes I have a hard time understanding where I want to classify them, because they’re a researched tactic, but they’re also a research product.
If you think of a persona, it’s really just an archetype of a specific user. Or often I think projects have multiple personas where there’s audience segmentation and so you create a persona for each member of the audience. And I think that there are products of other forms of primary and secondary research. And really what you’re trying to do is you’re just trying to paint as realistic of a picture as possible of who that key audience member is, so that you’re designing to them. I think it’s easy without those tools in place to get a little lost in the design process. And when you have that persona as fabricated as possible or as realistic as possible, that you have a better understanding of who you’re designing to and you can make decisions of whether or not what you’re doing is appropriate for that specific individual.
Jenn: I also think that it helps mitigate that, “My audience is everyone.” Concept.
Jenn: Right? If we say, “Okay, well, who’s everyone?” And then we break it down into three potential everyones. We may find that their buying habits or interests diverge quite a bit and being able to show that as a part of your research summary before you then show the marks that you’re making or the work that you’re applying into is really helpful to give context.
Ken: Yeah, I think that it’s… I talked to my students a little bit. One of the things that we used to do in professional practice, is we would do some client profiling. And we’d almost go through a process of creating a persona for our client’s business because a company is an abstract thing, it has behaviours, it has history, it has culture. And when we could create a persona for that company-
Jenn: Talk about it’s personality, if you will.
Ken: Talk about it’s personality, we would start to get a better sense of, “Okay, is this appropriate for this company?” And then we would think about their users and create personas for their users or their audience. And then, okay, is what we’re creating for this company going to resonate with that individual? And it just gave us something to design against.
Jenn: I think there is a good chunk of what we do for a living in design that is styling, that’s based off of aesthetics, pure looking feel. And those styling elements are almost like dressing someone or like fashion design. Right? And so if you can do some research on the company itself and understand if you were walking down the street would the company, say, “Hey.” Or would it say, “Hello.” Very formally. That gives you a sense of what the topography should be like or what the colour palette might be like. It doesn’t have to be intense. Like I think your response to the word audit previously, it was like, whoa it sounds like a big overwhelming along with time consuming-
Ken: Right. It doesn’t have to be-
Jenn: It doesn’t always have to be. And I think as we all kind of play from client to client and speaking in terms that that client will respond to. And some of our clients want visual exploration. Some of them are fine sketching, right? I think too, it informs how our design speak to different audiences.
Ken: Yeah. And I think that going back to some of the reasons why Jenn and I wanted to write A Designer Research’s Manual updated is that we were also trying to get away from anything that was kind of dogmatic in its research approach. I think that we’re trying to provide tools that designers can apply and big or small ways to their practice and hopefully that they are scalable to their needs.
Ian Paget: Yeah. I really think they do. Because what I like about the book is the way that you put it together. You can literally just use it as a reference, but you don’t have to read it front to back. There’s sections in there you can read through and think, “Oh, that’s an interesting way. I wonder how I can apply that to this.” Because like I said, there’s some things in the book that I’ve not heard of and it’s got me thinking, “Maybe I could apply that to this, that or the other to try and extract information in a different way.”
Jenn: We have a lot of personas of our own, people we know who are busy or students we’ve had in the past that we think about. How would this person use that information? Whenever we’re writing, our goal is to make it very accessible. Just so aware of how busy all the designers we know, whether they’re at a student level or a practitioner level, nobody’s got a lot of spare time. And so if we can make you excited about trying something new and maybe enhancing your game through that, you can dive deeper with no problem if it’s really resonating or working for you.
Ken: One of the things that I love working with my graduate students on are card sorts. I find card sorts can be applied in lots of different ways on lots of different projects and they can be quick and dirty things that are done with sticky notes or they can be more formal and scored it using a tool like Qualtrax but card sorts where you give a a user or even your client a structure or a list of criteria like a criteria on each card and have them organise them for the things that are the most important to the least important. Just so that you get and understand of their mental model of how they’re thinking about the project or they’re thinking about the things that they need to communicate, in order of magnitude is really helpful. Right?
If you do a card sort like that with multiple touch points at your clients’ offices, you start to get a better understanding of how the entire executive team might be thinking about a problem. You could do those with users and score them in their… They’re so easy to do and-
Ian Paget: Can I just interrupt and ask you-
Ian Paget: I’m not familiar with the term card sorts. Can you explain in a basic way what you mean by card sorts?
Ken: Okay. So a card sort is a research tactic where you give users… There are two kinds, there are open sorts where say you go to a group of users and you say, “Hey, I want you to write down… Here are five index cards. I want you to write five things that are important to you, in terms of your relationship with this organisation and rank them, the first one being the most important and the bottom one being the least important.” Right? And you have them go through a process where they think about, or they envision your problem or the design problem that you are trying to solve through their eyes, right?
So you’re getting kind of a user’s perspective. And then you can do that with multiple users and score them or say, you’re given some design criteria and we’re all kind of given… When we’re working with clients, we’re all given multiple design criteria. Say a client says, “Well, we want the logo to feel… We want it to feel fresh and want it to feel technical and we want it to feel useful.” Okay, well those are three things. So let’s ask, let’s write those all down on cards and ask the people that are involved with the organisation, if these are the criteria that we need to come across in this identity campaign, can you rank these words for me? What do you think is the most important one? What is the most important thing for us to convey? And then you can score them, right? And so then you’re starting to get a bird’s eye view of the things that are most important to the individuals working for that company or from the audience.
Jenn: What’s great about it is it’s a pretty quick ask. And so it’s not taking up a lot of your time and it’s not taking up a lot of their time potentially, and that you might get some interesting perspective. We’ve often found that the person who was hiring didn’t necessarily represent the person who is decision making.
Jenn: And so it may help you get a broader perspective on the job.
Ken: It’s also a really great tool for opening up those unstructured ethnographic interviews. Because when you have the cards in front of your client or you have the cards in front of a user, it gives you something to talk about and you can start to ask them, “Well, why did you think that way?” Or, “That’s really interesting. I’ve never thought of the problem that way. What was your logic behind this?” And you’re going to start to get deeper insights into the problem that I don’t think you would have had otherwise.
Jenn: Yeah. You might come in with three predetermined words that you’re asking them to sort. And then there’s a fourth blank card that you could ask them, “Okay. Is there an attribute we’re missing about it. And what would the range of attributes be that you gathered that way?”
Ken: So you as the design researcher, it gives you an activity to engage with your client or your users with just to gain more information. It can be simple, it can be complex, it can be fast, it can be done with multiple users. You can triangulate it and do it three different times to try to get those results. But it’s something that you can really integrate into work pretty easily.
Ian Paget: So when you say card, it could literally just be a word scribbled down on a sticky note or a piece of paper or whatever. It’s just a way of explaining a word. So it could even be words written down on a board and ranked in order.
Ken: Yeah, sticky note. And there are… When my graduate students are engaging in research, what they’ll do is they’ll go out and do these kinds of activities and they’ll take pictures of what’s happening. They’ll have somebody that’s taking notes about the questions that are being asked, but then they’ll also take all of the different individual card sorts and rank them and score them and then put them into a tool like Qualtrax and they can say, “85% of people chose this card first. 75% of people chose this card second.” And so it starts to give you some data to really think about when you’re working on your project.
Ian Paget: So sorry, just to expand on something you just said, when you say the term Qualtrax, what is that? Is that some kind of stuff-
Ken: Qualtrax, it’s software. I’m sorry.
Ian Paget: Yeah, no worries. So what I’ll do, again, I’ll put a link to that in the show notes so that people can look into it further. I know we’ve spoken about lots of different research areas, so we’ve gone into communication or their target audience personas. We haven’t covered competitor profiling. Could you talk through a little bit about how graphic designers should go about researching businesses, competitors?
Ken: Well, I think that anytime, one of the first questions that we ever asked in practice was, who are your competitors?
Jenn: Well, who else is in your space?
Ken: Yeah. And really try to understand who those companies were. We tried to understand them as best we could understand them, from looking at open source material. Right? But sometimes what we would do, and again this is all depending on size and scope, is we try to reverse engineer brand position statement and tried to understand what were the visuals that were they were using? how are they communicating to their audience? There were even times where if we had a company, a local company that was deemed one of our client’s competitors, we would think about their ad placement, are they advertising on local radio channels?
And then even call and asked to get media kits from those radio channels to try to understand who the demographics were that they were communicating to. I think it’s a lot like creating a persona. You’re just trying to reverse engineer who the competition is so that you can figure out what are the strengths and weaknesses and then what is your own individual client’s story and how can you use that to leverage against them, to gain some sort of competitive advantage?
Jenn: I think that story is the really important part of what Ken just said there. There’s high end ad agency level competitive profiling and competitor research and we’re talking about secondary research that a solo practitioner or a small group with less resources might be able to engage in. And you’re really just trying to get an understanding of where the person you are designing for or the service you’re designing for fits into the broader marketplace, to kind of niche them out and help them be successful in their spot. I don’t think it’s about becoming the biggest fish in their ponds necessarily for most of our clients.
Ken: But I think that especially with identity work, we’re there to identify and differentiate. And if we don’t know who we’re trying to differentiate from, how do we know we’re successfully doing that?
Ian Paget: Yeah. I know personally, I would say that’s always been the most critical thing for me. So I would always as a bare minimum, just go and physically look at all the direct competitors that they provided and see, what companies is this business being compared with? And then you can make sure that you are differentiating from them. Whether that’s by colour or with typography or general style. Because the last thing you want to do is unintentionally make this business look close to our direct competitor.
Jenn & Ken: True.
Ian Paget: You don’t want that. You want to look different. So that’s always been one of the most fundamental things for me.
Ken: Well, sometimes too, even with colour, there may be colours that are being used for marks or identities in a specific business market that are really appropriate. Like for example, like in healthcare, you see a lot of blue and you see a lot of green, because it speaks to health, right? It speaks to cleanliness or even clean, sterile environments. And so you don’t want to… You want to differentiate enough, but you also don’t want to use something that is totally inappropriate or foreign. And so it’s really… So I think that having that competitor analysis or doing those competitor profiling, I think, kind of gives us a better sense of like, okay, well, what’s being done and how can I differentiate but also not be so out there that it doesn’t look like it’s in that market sector?
Ian Paget: Yeah. That’s one of the rules I would say for a logo is that you want to differentiate, but you want it to be appropriate. You wouldn’t want to just make something yellow just because no one else is using that colour.
Ian Paget: I’m glad that you actually said that because I don’t want people to go out there and simply differentiate by colour because they can, it’s not ideal a lot of the time.
Jenn: It’s interesting for us as educators, our students come to us with undergraduate. They’re coming, they’re 18 years old or between 18 and mid 20s. And so they don’t have all the life experience that a professional that’s in their thirties would have yet. And so sometimes the aesthetic decisions that they make don’t feel appropriate for the scenarios that they’re designing for yet, but they don’t even know better yet. And that’s where I think research really helps students.
I think that as you get older and you sort of acquire knowledge along the way, or even more emotional intelligence along the way, appropriate design is an easier thing to intuitively do. But I think that for a practitioner who’s got a really broad client base, you can’t know everything about every one of your clients’ internal industries. And so some of these basic research tactics and strategies just help put you in a position to understand appropriateness that you might not have come to the project with.
Ian Paget: Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that because it was about a year ago now. I went to lunch with a friend of mine who’s a school teacher. So he’s teaching teenagers. And we started talking about a potential project and I literally started to paint a picture in my head of what the potential solution would be. I think it was for a cafe or a restaurant or something. And I started to describe sense and paper stock and getting different colours of paintings. And he then asked me, “Where’s that come from?” And then I had to explain to him, when I went to France, and I drove through Europe. And then I went to this little cafe and all of this knowledge that’s come from just living, just general day-to-day living was things that I could extract from.
So I think that was a good point that you made because there’s a lot of research that you can do, but as you get older you can start to draw from just general day-to-day experiences. So as much as graphic designers can spend learning about graphic design and sitting front of their computer and doing the research online, it’s really important to actually go outside and live life basically.
Ken: I think that that’s really important. There was a great essay that was written by a guy named Dan, I think his name is Dan Saffer. At a company that just recently got purchased called Adaptive Path. And he wrote this article or essay called Research is a Method, not a Methodology. And he was making the argument, even though they engage in a fair amount of user research and client research that you didn’t always have to do it. Every once in a while you were working on a project that was a project for a client that you’ve worked in that space before. You understand who they are, you understand their business, you understand their market, and you have enough research done in that space already that you may not have to engage with it. That you may intuitively come up with a solution that totally works.
I also think that we as designers have to be open to that as well. And I make all of my students read that because I don’t ever want them to get so buried in this. These are just the… All generally I want to do is provide tools and strategies and tips and tricks that designers can use to help their business. But we’re not saying it always has to be, we’re just saying, “Hey, maybe these will help.”
Jenn: It can inform. It can’t create on its own. And I think that the things that we can do to be good observers as designers, the things you remember from your vacation in France for example, or the things that we can do to be good observers, users that just we see in an ethnographic way, we’re walking down the street and kind of watching people use a product, we’re designing for something like that. That all, if you’re a good observer on a daily basis, if you’re the kind of person who keeps a sketchbook, if you have been observing and visually recording your whole career, it’s that much easier to turn it into a more formalised thing when you go to research.
Ian Paget: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think the book that you guys are put together is a fantastic resource for running through what the different research methods and techniques are, and I think that’s a really good guide. And in terms of this interview, I think that’s a perfect point to kind of wrap things up. So I want people to go out there and buy your book, I think it’s great-
Jenn: Thanks Ian-
Ian Paget: So I just want to say, thank you very much for coming on. It’s been really great to chat with you-
Ken: Thanks for having us. This was a lot of fun.
Jenn: And it’s always delightful for us to know that it’s resonating with someone.
Ian Paget: Oh, absolutely. And I hope just putting this podcast out, it will reach a few more people and help people through the research process from project-to-project.
Jenn & Ken: Thank you so much, Ian.
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