One morning my boss showed me something interesting about the thumbnails we were making. “The thumbnails we’re making for our videos look really good and are great for branding. Definitely they are what we want to use on our website. But look at how these facebook link posts are performing: The thumbnails are the least-clicked. Random Getty images and even text screenshots are vastly outperforming them,” he said. The numbers were up on screen in our analytics dashboard. There was no denying it.
It’s the worst thing you want to hear when you’re a designer. Any old random, off-brand image slapped on a link is converting better than the imagery you and your team worked on for months. Then you hear these words from other staff, “non-designed works better than designed” and you know that’s wrong. But how do you justify the value in what you do when the data comes back with such a definitive result?
In short, the answer is that you need to rise to the challenge. After all, data is just providing you insights to improve. It’s wrong to attack the results as if they are pitted against you. It’s also wrong to conclude that “no-design” is the right way to go since there is no such thing as a non-designed piece of content. But worst of all is the designer who would ignore all of this and insist that they knew better despite the data. So here’s my advice to designers: You can only bring two premium qualities to the table in our work. You can craft stunning visuals that others can’t achieve, and you can solve problems in performance. You have to do both in order to succeed.
Great visuals aren’t enough. I know there are tons of designers who will disagree with that statement. You hear these people say things like “Well our job is to know best about the visuals, “ and “it wouldn’t make sense to do it a different way.” They’ll even say something like “the audience just doesn’t have good taste.” All of that is pride talking, and I know that for a fact because the best visual designers I know don’t make these excuses. You want to watch yourself to avoid these statements. They are a sure sign that you’re uninterested in solving problems and that you aren’t a good visual designer. A good designer would say, “well, I thought it was a great image and I’m still a fan of it, but I can make another great image that will work better.” Only the designer who is too proud of their work or afraid they can’t pull off a repeat performance blames the data and the audience.
At one point or another I’ve made every one of the excuses above, as has every member of my team. It’s a natural response but it has to be mastered. The best way is to remember that a designer is concerned with much more than how their work looks. We hate when others treat us like “pretty picture people” but we do it to ourselves constantly. However, if you balance these other factors when designing you won’t fall into the trap:
If brand is the most important objective in what you are making, then you should consult your style guide and messaging guide. Take a look at past work so that you can achieve a level of consistency in your brand experience overall. The visuals should follow suit, rather than a momentary inspiration for a cool image.
Your company has more important goals in mind than looking pretty. Fortunately for me PragerU considers high-quality visuals important, but many companies are less concerned. However, every company needs to grow an audience or customer base and convert them to sales. This is where you need to let the data guide you to a large extent. Whatever your audience is most engaged in, you should explore further and develop new approaches from what you learn.
A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, a bucket full of sugar gives you diabetes. Don’t overdo the heavy visual design when it’s unwanted. Emails are a great example where a sense of proportion pays off big-time. An eye-catching header image is the only thing you should focus on designing. Emails do best when most of the content is created natively, with live text that re-stacks for mobile devices and clickable buttons. Wild background colors are distracting, and they will get ruined by dark mode (the devil’s design) anyway. No matter what medium you’re working in, only design what needs to be designed and stop there.
Sometimes it’s also best just to do what the audience expects. I know that designers always want to surprise the audience with the unexpected but when it’s something as simple as a link post on facebook it’s better just to go with the flow. As a general rule, if the audience will reward you heavily for something that requires little design effort, then give them what they are expecting.
Obviously, a lot of considerations go into designing content and it’s only the amateurs who think a pretty picture makes the difference. Unfortunately, designers will have to come to grips with the fact that it’s often the ugliest visual which gets the best payoff. That’s ok. Just focus on what counts in each project and remember there’s always going to be another design opportunity. Save your best efforts for the times they are needed.