2011-03-24

Research and the Design Process

Good design process starts with research. Designers have learned to research from a variety of sources and things like Google and Google image search have made research easier than before. This article covers why designers should research, what they should research, how to research and some tips on gaining the most from research.

Research has two purposes. The first is to inform designers on what they need to know for a particular project that they do not already know – or at least to remind them. Secondly research should inspire designers by pointing out areas where the designer can improve upon the status quo in order to create a true point of difference to their work.

Research for a design project should research anything where the designer is deficient in knowledge. This will usually be around the client, their business, the design works used by the competition and the messages the client wants to communicate. Target audience research is also important where the designer does not already know them well. Finally, if the designer is unfamiliar with a particular medium then the social and technical aspects of that medium will need research too.

Clients can supply answers to many of the research questions relating to themselves and their business. Larger clients may also have good research relating to their target audiences available from their marketing departments. Research into the design in use by competitors can be found either online, in the yellow pages or by visiting competitors and taking ephemera. Research into medium can also be done online and designers should consider trialing technical media skills before using them for real in a project.

While the internet has revolutionized the availability of research information, don’t forget that books, libraries, newspapers, trade shows, television and site visits are also great sources of information. While online research is fast it is not as thorough and does not necessarily gather examples of how a competitor’s brand was applied across more than just the online medium.

Designers research the design works used by competitors to get ideas on the visual signs that are used to denote particular segments of industry. For example courier companies and fast food outlets like to use red and seafood outlets use blue. This knowledge enables the designer to produce work that communicates the relevant industry segment, but does not come too close to competition’s design. Competitive research should also give the designer ideas on where they can improve the status quo because being just as good is not good enough.

The tangible outputs of research are pages of information and visual examples. The visual material may be eventually formed into mood boards. Good research should be properly completed by being summarized then having recommendations drawn from the summary. Many designers do this step in their head but for larger projects that potentially cover many designers, the summary and recommendations should be explicitly put onto paper to cover make them more communicable to the rest of the design team.

Good research does not need to take much time on smaller projects. It can be done quickly and not only informs a strong concepting round but can also avoid the embarrassment of producing a design solution that looks too much like a competitor’s.