Posted by Nixon
5 February, 2015

There are a few things that have inspired me to talk about design and risk.

The most recent catalyst was the unveiling of a new logo and brand identity and the way it was received by designers and audiences. It made the news and both the Guardian and the BBC had initially skeptical views on the logo design and some of the connotations that could be read into it.

To be perfectly honest, the first time I’d heard the debate around the logo was one morning while listening to the radio. The views of the presenters were overall quite negative, but also very instinctive and immediate. Having not yet seen the logo for myself theirs was the only opinion I had to go on and it was invariably one-sided. It felt slightly unusual as a designer to hear about a design without having the chance to see it. So it got me thinking.

You hear about this sort of situation a lot – a design that hasn’t been received well, deemed ‘wrong’. Although of course, you’re more likely to hear about something that’s gone wrong than something that quietly works. An obvious example would be the hysteria caused by the London 2012 Olympics logo, where the branding industry was suddenly thrust into mainstream media and those responsible were hounded outside their homes by the paparazzi like a celebrity without make up. But regardless of opinions on the logo, it was still used and will certainly be remembered.

So what happens when something new is created, with the best intentions and a seemingly watertight rationale, but when unveiled is met with almost immediate and instinctive rejection? There’s usually an element of risk that has to be taken: the risk that something won’t look right and will ultimately fail its user in creating, generating or maintaining interest. When a risk doesn’t pay off, it’s a nightmare scenario for designers and clients.

Why am I talking about this? Well, it seems like an elephant in the room. We all want to feel reassured when we’re investing time and money into something, that there will be some kind of return, and rightly so. Equally, everyone wants to make sure when they create something that they get it ‘right’. But how can we determine what’s right and wrong in design, can it be measured, and how certainly can it be planned for?

Unpacking the first point, many things in this world can be divisive: art, design, tastes, politics, ethics, opinions – not least those of this article. And it’s hard, if not impossible, to always please everyone. With design comes a certain level of subjectivity, but it’s not art. It has a more direct and tangible purpose and so retains a certain amount of objectivity. Design falls halfway: it needs to be distinct enough to allow its message to be seen and heard by the right people, but open enough to not be exclusive.

An obvious measure of success is increased numbers of customers and ultimately, to put it bluntly, financial gain. Another familiar measurement of success is award schemes. These happen in many industries and come in all shapes and sizes. But they’re often presided over, and judged by, our peers or predecessors.

Of course, it’s important to remember that design isn’t created in a vacuum and is subject to factors such as brief, budget and tastes. As marketing consultants we always strive to create something that adheres to a client’s needs. So in that sense, success is measured by how well it answers a brief and meets the end goal of the client. As designers we arm ourselves with knowledge, experience and principles, to give ourselves the best chance of doing a good job.

Finally, can we plan to get it right? Short of stopping people in the street and asking for their opinions, can success be guaranteed? Short answer: yes, kind of, it depends. Long answer: no, not always. Even if we go through market research there’s a risk that something homogenous and boring will be created, which can be a failure in a different sense. This sort of ‘wrong’ hides in the shadows of subjectivity and behind market research reports.

I should have mentioned earlier that I’m not trying to solve any issues with this post. Sorry about that. Like lots of things, opinions on the balance between risk and safety are subjective and dependent on many factors. But it’s a debate worth bearing in mind at the unveiling of each new concept.