A client commented to me the other day, “I think I get some of your best work from you,” right after he’d commented that my “best” work was at the back of my portfolio. I was a bit taken aback; a design professional tends not to think in those terms. It got me thinking. What he actually meant was, “I like these best.” But what someone likes is subjective. Design, done well, is far less subjective than it is practical. So what do we mean by “best”?
To a professional in almost any field, “best” means “executed perfectly and fulfills its purpose.” I alluded to that idea in this post about crafting a design that is right for a particular audience — not too cheap, not too elegant — and the effect on sales of getting it right. There’s a common misconception among non-designers that the graphic designer is an “Artist” (note the capital “A”). As such, he or she is assumed to be highly sensitive to any form of criticism and defensive of an imagined “artistic integrity.” I’m not saying there aren’t designers like that, just as in any field (even engineers can be prima donnas), but this particular idea comes from the popular characterization of artists as vaguely or highly neurotic zealots for their personal artistic vision. In the first place, that’s unfair to most of the professional artists I know, who are often the sanest, most pragmatic people you’d care to meet. In the second place, it highlights the fact that “designer” as a profession tends to be misunderstood.
A designer doesn’t create a logo, a poster or a brochure as a solo effort. It’s not a personal communication from the designer to some vague potential audience. Graphic design exists for only one purpose: to send the client’s message to the client’s publics in a way that will create the maximum response. There are a thousand points of craftsmanship that go into an effective design, but they are all there to focus attention on the message and avoid (or remove) anything that distracts from it.
The creative part of the designer’s job often involves coming up with ideas the client may never have thought of, or taking the original idea and turning it into something far beyond expectations, but the important point is that a design is not the designer’s personal message; it’s the client’s. Some clients, being nice people, are nervous about saying a design concept isn’t really what they had in mind. They don’t want to offend the “artist.” This can seriously slow the design process, which depends heavily on open and frank communication. So I almost always tell a new client, “Please do not be careful of my artistic sensibilities. I don’t have any. The work is for you, not me.” There is no scarcity of design ideas, and I’d be the last person to be sensitive about one.
The amazing and prolific John McWade (the “designer’s designer”) posted two articles on his Design Talk blog a while back that illustrate the point very well. The first, titled “The non-design design” presents two ads for a Jeep that someone wanted to sell on Craigslist. One is “conservative” and other distinctly playful. He poses the question “Which ad do you think sold the Jeep?” A few days later, a follow-up post titled “Which ad sold the Jeep?” gives the answer and, more important from a designer’s perspective, the reason why that ad, rather than the other, made the sale. (Note, in particular, the comment about ad layouts for car dealerships. As horrible as they might seem from an artistic standpoint, they are best for achieving their only purpose: selling cars.)
The “best” design is the one that is most effective for that client, for that campaign, for that product.