Frank McClung

When Design Doesn’t Work

Is there a time when design doesn’t work for a company, service or product? I don’t mean a design that doesn’t sit right with you. I’m talking about design with a capital “D” which, when executed by a design professional, is actually unnecessary or even counterproductive.

As a designer that often helps individuals and small companies with brand strategy and interactive development, I’ve run into several situations where I questioned the value of professional design for a particular project. I noted a recent, well-known example here. At the start of any client engagement, I find myself asking questions like: “Will professional design work for them? To what extent will professional design provide enough value to justify the cost? I know, someone is going design the website, logo, brochure, product, etc., but does it need to be a professional at this stage?”

There do seem to be guiding principles that clarify when professional design is premature or even unnecessary for a company. Here are several I’ve observed:


Competes locally (not regionally or nationally) and has a single location.

The classic example would be your local hole-in-the-wall pizza joint. You can probably name several of these in your area and wince when you think of their menu or logo design. Do these places need good design to stay in business and thrive? No, they just need excellent pizza at a fair price and someone who always knows your name. Design would add little value to these companies’ bottom line, unless they were going to expand locations or compete on a broader scale.

Serves lower income customers.

Just so you know, I’m in the lower income bracket (much lower). I’ve observed that folks in the lower income bracket are less easily swayed by the design around the product or service than people in higher income brackets. This is especially true in small town America where the “power of design” has not penetrated the homegrown/homemade culture. An exception to the low to middle-income principle would be clothing products among big city lower income groups. In this environment, design and the “style” design produces positively impact a fashion savvy, big city, clientele.

Is in a multi-ethnic environment.

I’m thinking of the great American melting pot communities you find in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. Walking the streets of Astoria (part of New York City) last summer, I was amazed at the number of thriving Greek and Asian businesses which put very little stock in design, but fair quite well. It seems that other cultures across the world don’t readily accept design’s value added proposition for business like Americans.

Caters to retirement age customers.

I find that people over 65 don’t care about design at all or at least very little. I suspect this is because they, like most internationals, didn’t grow up in the hyper-designed American culture we now live in. Most of these pre-Boomers grew up during WWII when graphic design equaled propaganda, and design was in its infancy as a profession. Boomers are much the same.


Is a start-up.

Companies, products and people need time to establish themselves before design steps in and tries to “fix them up”. I equate this to little girls trying to wear their mom’s make-up or little boys wearing their dad’s coat and tie. They just don’t have the stature or experience yet to handle the high level of design. I’ve watched countless businesses bolt out of the shoot with design that would knock your socks off. Yet, you get the feeling that the product or service looks better than it should and needs to grow up first. This “design first” mentality for some new start-ups tickles our fancy, but pretty soon, everything feels like Disney World — designed to the hilt in every detail, but lacking connection to something meaningful. At this point, design becomes less of communication tool and more like a veneer. I sometimes recommend that companies go designless or design-less initially until they know who they are, then use design to communicate their actual brand with substance and meaning.

Serves one of the demographic groups mentioned in the “unnecessary” section above.

These groups may see design as “putting on airs”, no matter what style you use to communicate. I know in my farming community, things that are too well designed are assumed to be expensive or “not from here” and are often rejected.

Is B.D. — Before Design.

Think of brands like Levis or Coca-Cola. There was a well-established product or service before there was design. Remember the “New Coke” fiasco? Or take the iconic Strand Book Store in New York City. How much value would there be in changing the Strand’s under-designed, but iconic trademark white and red signs? Some things are fine just the way they are, and introducing professional design may actually cheapen the product and alienate the customer.


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