Beyond the pixel: Measuring visual designers’ strategic value

I collaborate with clients about how to scope and staff project work, and they often have questions about when to bring a visual designer into the process. In the early part of my career, I wouldn’t have had a good answer; it likely would have been something like, “at the end.” But after 20 years of working in-house and as a consultant with product teams in various capacities — and having no background in visual design myself — I have a much different perspective on the value that visual design thinking has throughout the process of building a product.

Visual designers bring a unique perspective to product vision

First, visual designers are uniquely skilled at defining the overarching experience strategy, called attributes, for a product or service. These aren’t specific design principles, but rather descriptions of what the experience should feel like for users, customers, and anyone interacting with it.

One way to define experience attributes is to conduct an experience workshop, where you facilitate a brand and “look and feel” discussion with stakeholders. Framing the discussion by using visual artifacts (pictures of products, cars, buildings, interfaces, art, etc.) helps stakeholders to engage at a visceral level instead of relying on cliché’s or generalizations. Visual designers, on the other hand, are great at this, as they are skilled at talking about how the things we see translate into certain feelings and emotions, and how visual elements relate to brand perception.

experience workshop
Facilitating an experience workshop with images makes it easier for participants to articulate what visual approaches feel appropriate and inspiring. A visual designer is skilled at using this input to shape a visual strategy.

Even for companies with a well-defined brand and digital branding assets, it’s vital that the product team has a good understanding of what the brand means in the context of the product or service you are designing. This isn’t just about proper logo use and the corporate font. It’s about knowing how your company wants users to feel when they are using your brand, and about how your users want to feel while using them. Understand that intersection, and you have gold.

Look at things differently during field research

During design field research activities, a visual designer can focus on things like the visual look of the physical environment in which people use the product or service we are investigating. For example, in a medical setting, the visual designer may pay special attention to the signage and décor within a hospital. We wouldn’t mimic this in an interface, but getting a feel for the environment can give us clues as to what kind of visual styles may fit—or not fit—within that setting.

visual design research
Jayson, a visual designer at Cooper, gets to experience user research firsthand at a doctor’s office.

I recently worked with Jayson McCauliff, a visual designer, on a product for a large technology manufacturer. The product’s users were internal, so Jayson took photos of lobbies, wall art, the small in-house museum, and even the cafeteria. The effort was worth the funny looks he got, as the images later helped give him inspirations for some subtle background textures that made a direct appearance in the interface. (See more about how visual designers work at Cooper)

Early design thinking should include visual language explorations

While the interaction designers begin a design solution phase by exploring key interactions and high-level workflows, the visual designer can explore high-level visual style approaches. Because stakeholders may not be used to or comfortable talking about aesthetic and brand, having someone who understands visual design but can communicate about the effects that color, shape, white space, etc. have on users and brand are vital to making sure that everyone is aligned. It takes skill to talk about style concepts without having the conversation degrade into an argument about the specific shade of blue in a style study, so it’s important to have someone who is proficient in facilitating these discussions and in creating artifacts that solicit the right kind of feedback.

visual studies
Visual language studies keep initial visual strategy conversations focused.

Defining and building a winning product includes attention to the aesthetic and overall experience

Last, visual design isn’t just about producing beautiful visual assets for the development team. It’s also about creating a coherent product or service in the first place. A visual designer brings a unique perspective to problem solving that augments the other design team members. We find that having the visual designer involved early in design exploration activities makes our design concepts better and more well-rounded. When we are fleshing out the design framework, early and consistent involvement from the visual designer ensures that the interaction design isn’t getting too crowded, and that the overall experience is achieving the experience strategy we defined early in the project.

During detailed design activities and implementation, the visual designer needs to be able to react quickly and fluidly as the design and implementation iterate and get refined. If the visual designer has been involved with the project from day one, it’s easy for her to work in an agile way while still maintaining the original spirit and intent of the design, and she’ll be able to make good decisions and recommend improvements because of that greater understanding.

As you plan your next redesign effort, make sure that a strong visual designer is part of the team from day one. You’ll not only gain efficiencies when it’s crunch time during implementation, you’ll gain a valuable strategic partner and an overall better experience.

Sign up for the visual design course

Learn more about the role of visual design, experience attributes, experience workshops, and effectively presenting visual design to stakeholders in Cooper’s Visual Interface Design course on February 6 – 7.

2 Comments

Petar Subotic
Great article Steve. I only wish you elaborated further on the last paragraph. Designers are considered service providers in most cases and can't get their claws beneath the surface of the product design. If I'm not mistaken you are advocating turning their role in one of a partner that can have major impact on the core of product design. Although that is a very good advice within itself, it is important to note that with a role of a design-partner come two things, one is the authority to make real product design decisions and one is the responsibility for the outcome of those decisions. We "designers" must be liberated (sort of speak) to work on our terms and share both the risk and the reward of projects we are working on.
Steve Calde
Thanks for the great comment, Peter. Yes, I believe that having a visual designer involved as a partner throughout the design process--including strategic product definition--will only make products better and stakeholders better able to make informed decision about product direction. You are right to point out that this requires authority to go along with the responsibility.

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