The graphic designer must have empathy for whom and for what they are designing. Building research into the design process avoids resultant design solutions serving only to satisfy the designer or to paint over the cracks of an issue.
In many ways, designers have to become mini-experts in all that they deal with to really understand the subject matter and the audience to whom they are speaking. Research in this respect is essential in getting designers to understand worlds they may not inhabit: worlds that present the designer with unfamiliar environments, scenarios, people, industries, languages, and traditions.
Research is needed to understand a client, the people they wish to communicate with, and the reasons behind the need for communication—in other words, the problem. Research should also be employed to aid the generation of visual directions and solutions.
Research should cover at least two strands at any given time. One strand provides a scenario and potentially a surface on which to work, the other provides a visual language to employ. Together they present the designer with a means to engage. Although either strand should influence the other, they are not interdependent and usually require separate and distinct approaches.
In my experience as a director of design consultancy Bond and Coyne Associates and as a lecturer at Kingston University, London, it is not so much the kind of research that is carried out as it is the designer's ability to spot the value in their research and have the confidence to react to it. That being said, there is also a danger that research can "dry-out" a solution. Research, if handled incorrectly, can take away the chance of surprise.
Therefore, the design process—and for that matter, the design studio—should allow for the unconventional to work in tandem with the methodical. Creation of project spaces in which observations, quotes, and facts are displayed in a nonlinear fashion enables the designer to get an instant overview of a situation and make connections between findings. It also allows designers to present interim thoughts and findings to others in the design team and perhaps even the client. Presenting research in this way can aid analysis while not alienating those less familiar with the design process.
Literally sit these findings alongside inspirational (perhaps image-led) research to inform possible solutions, and you have the potential for sparks of ingenuity to fly and opportunities for innovation to be spotted.
Research is kept fluid and reactions to it free-flowing as long as there is a culture (particularly in the initial stages of analysis) of "anything goes." Deferring judgment in this way helps designers build confidence in their research processes and gives them the ability to stand back, get the bigger picture, and synthesize their data without fear of being "wrong."
- Designers need to use research as something to react against as well as respond to.
- Research should back up thinking. Making assumptions and ignorance can be the death of successful and inspiring design.
- Whenever possible, research should inform the brief in the first place, before informing the solution. People or situations cannot ask for what they do not know is possible or do not realize is necessary.
- Don't let research kill a potential idea—let it feed and support it.
- Frame the creative process with logic, and the less-expected nuances can thrive within it.