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Design on a Shoestring?

My attention was drawn to yet another article published for the budget conscious business regarding how to ‘Design a website on a shoestring’.

Firstly let me begin by saying, I completely understand the financial climate that we currently inhabit. I applaud any business that, at the very least, understands the need to have a web presence in this ever growing ‘digital age’. It’s true we have been living in a ‘digital age’ for a while now but it is now, more than ever, that we all as businesses need to ensure our mark is made on the web.

The web has become your shop front, regardless of whether you have an actual physical shop front or not. Depending on your market sector, for the vast majority of your customers, it is online that they will take the decision whether or not to do business with you. And why wouldn’t they? After all from the comfort of your office chair, sofa, dinner table, bed, bath tub, bus seat or beach towel we have a wealth of information at our finger tips. Why would any of customer go to the effort of walking, driving or even flying to meet with us when they can easily make a short-list, or even final decision, of who to speak to, buy from or invest in all from their experience online.

Design on a Shoestring?

‘Shoestring’ is a term banded about a lot in this climate and it is purely as a shortcut or easy response to the stressful feeling of the time. It is not, however, always the best advice in response to a budgetary question. It doesn’t sit well with the word ‘Design’ either. Design is defined as – purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object. I think people misunderstand design as just the way something looks. Design is more than that.

It is firstly the way something works. It is the answer to a question. It is getting to the core of a problem or challenge and trying to understand how to overcome and plan for the best solution. How something looks is purely just aesthetics. This isn’t to say that design ignores asthetics, quite the opposite in fact. First the function question is answered, then it is given form. The symbiotic relationship between form and function is what makes design.

If someone hands you a plate of food, this creates a problem, you will require somewhere to sit down. Firstly a designer looks at what the requirements and challenges are to achieve this goal and solve the problem. A flat surface with some degree of elevation and support is required. Two legs are more or less useless and three legs is a bit better and will achieve ‘sitting’ but could topple over and isn’t the best solution to the problem. Four legs, with one at each corner of a square, provides you with the support you need. Having five legs makes a redundant design feature that is not necessary to the function of the object. Next you may chose to test what you have built. You find that it works and that you have achieved your goal, in its simplest form.

Improving Function

Through testing what you have designed you start to feel tired after prolonged use and eating your food could have been easier. This poses the next challenge – how can we improve the function of what we have designed to answer these new challenges. The decision is then made to put a back on the object that you can lean against, thus relieving any strain and providing more support to achieve your goal of eating your food. At this point we have achieved the best solution we can at the most basic level. We can choose stop here or we can examine what other questions surround the original problem. This opens up more possibilities e.g. we need a surface to set our food on, perhaps some supports for the arms would be useful. Design looks to examine, re-examine, justify, disseminate and improve upon problems and questions that are presented to us in our daily lives.

The next step with our chair is to look at its form. You most likely have imagined a wooden chair that has nicely rounded legs and smooth surface to sit on. These are all aesthetic choices. Some are influenced by the function, and vice-versa, for e.g. a smooth surface is more comfortable to sit on. Others are to make your creation more appealing, like what colour should it be, should the back legs be shorted to allow it to recline a little, should it be plastic or metal, should the seat have holes or be solid, should it be upholstered, should it be upholstered with a pattern, what colour should the upholstery be, etc. Form and function work together, not in a linear process, but in cyclical one that constantly feeds back and influences one and other.

I do not intend to patronise any of you, and as a designer of course I am approaching you from this side of the ‘Design on a shoestring’ topic. I simply want to provide a counter point for your consideration when looking to apply design into the communication of your business. In doing so, I want to ensure that we reach some common ground in understanding how we, as designers, think of design and how that is applied to any form of visual communication – be it identity creation, branding, website design, printed promotional materials, posters, flyers, stationery, brochures, exhibitions, videos and much more.

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