Marrying design and words for impact

by Claire Wilson

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We’ve all heard the adage “a picture paints a thousand words”.  But does it?

As many entries at the recent DBA Design Effectiveness Awards demonstrated, it is often the judicious balance of words and images that provides optimal impact in design and communications. Indeed, the awards showcased several design projects that highlighted the importance of language in their strategic approach and execution.
In the same way that an intelligent and considered design process can help you create meaningful and engaging words or content, many of the best design solutions use carefully chosen words and language to achieve their game-changing effect.
Define the challenge and set the scene
Design thinking demands that the problem you are trying to address is clearly defined and articulated as part of the process. Doing this well is harder than it sounds. Quite often, considerable energy can be spent solving problems that turn out not to be the key issue. BrandMe’s recent repositioning of the Orangina brand (a DBA gold winner) is an example of a design project that succinctly summed up its challenge. They were asked to “shake it up and refresh Orangina’s iconicity”, which turned into “shaking up a classic”, a catchy name for the re-brand project with a clever nod to the brand’s character and heritage.
What’s in a name?
Words are also critical in shaping brand names. And as we know, names matter. Nothing highlights this more than the agonising task of choosing a baby name. Hands up if you’ve found yourself curling your lip and explaining: “I knew an AWFUL [insert offending name here] at school!”.
The same goes for brands and products. Sometimes getting the name right is most of the battle. The Engine Room design agency absolutely nailed it (pun intended) with its re-design and launch of a new brand for adhesive and sealant manufacturer Polyseam. With its one-word brand, Graft, it connected immediately to its target trade market and instantly established authenticity and trust. Genius. The supporting design elements mirror the simplicity and pared back branding, but, in my view, the word Graft is the most impactful element.
Language = personality
Similarly, the way a brand talks about itself and its tone of voice are a central piece of any fully integrated brand design. In today’s content-rich world, it’s not enough for a brand to look right for its target market, it also needs to sound right (and, of course, say the right things…see my views on content strategy below!). A great example of this is the brand positioning of Hippeas, organic chickpea snacks. The brand language purposefully strikes a balance between the socially-conscious ethos of the hippie movement and irreverent humour to appeal to today’s savvy consumer market.[reference 1]
This language pervades the branding touch points, and is also beautifully suited to engaging with consumers via social media.
Design driving content
This carefully considered balance of words and images is also central to the creation of great content. In fact, the same design thinking principles that lead to great design solutions are those that drive killer content strategies.
Know your audience
In recent years, design thinking and human-centred design principles have been added to the toolkit of most leading global companies as organisations begin to understand the transformational power of great design. Some firms label their process differently, or create their own clever acronym to guide the activity. But all of them agree that great design starts with a deep understanding of, and empathy with, the people you’re designing for.
Similarly, a robust content approach starts and ends with real customer insight. Insight helps you understand what topics and themes will connect with your audience – what are they interested in, what are they worried about, what information or content could help them.
Think freely
The next step is to harness the power of the diverse thinking within your team or firm. Design thinking tells us that no idea is a bad idea and sometimes an idea completely out of left field ends up being the right solution. Similarly, in content creation, often it is a new perspective or a surprising angle that can capture the attention of an audience and turn passing interest into more meaningful engagement.
Test and learn
Finally, it is critical to measure how you’re doing. Which articles attract the most attention? Which channels does your audience prefer? When is the best time to publish new content?  This is a critical step in the design process as well: testing your solution with your audience and adapting it based on the results.
These steps closely mirror the design thinking process and applying them with rigour is the key to creating relevant and engaging content – gather real and unique insights, encourage free-form idea generation, then evolve through testing, learning and iteration.
A marriage of equals
So, while it is clear that language and design are independently powerful tools for telling stories and creating compelling brands, both become even more impactful when combined to their full effect. And the same process that yields memorable human-centred design solutions can be used to power the creation of memorable and engaging content.
“Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent.”
— Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel)[reference 2]
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