Your “target audience” refers to the people you want to reach, but it’s worth mentioning (if not beating the drums) that your customers are already your customers, and they are different than the people who do not know anything about you. If I only impart this one idea in this article, this would be enough.
Let’s begin with the notion of “audience.” There is always more than one. At the very least, think about your current customers (or members, or clients) as one audience and then, think of your prospective customers as another audience. Decide which of those two is your target audience at a given moment, if not both. Then, assuming you are working with other people on your team, it would be expected that there might be differences of opinion or disagreements about what the plan to reach them should be. That being the case, always designate an internal audience as well. Unless you are a startup with no employees and no customers – ground zero, we are always talking about at least two audiences: you and your prospective customers. This can become a lot more nuanced, as your target audience could include many subgroups, which are often referred to as “segments” or “audience segments.”
If you are by yourself, starting a business, you want to employ strategy. Strategy simply means “what we are going to do” albeit in a more authoritative way. In other words, it's a plan. And if you are working with other people, a shared strategy or plan is important so that everyone is on the same page.
Your external audiences – your customers and prospective customers – will connect with your strategy by experiencing it. You want them to connect with your business, so you will need to strategize or plan for, or design communications and “experiences” for them. Here’s the trick: you need to take off your shoes and put on theirs which is not easy. You may have all kinds of ideas about what you want to say to them BUT you are likely totally out of touch with what they actually think about you, what they think about your competitors, and what they will need to hear.
The topic of empathy comes up quite a bit in design. Your customers – those who will pay for products and services with money, or donate to causes with money and time – want to be understood and want to connect with people, products, and services that they like or have meaning, or help them feel good sometimes if only for a moment. Why? Because maybe they are hungry and need to eat? Or maybe it reinforces who they want to be? Or helps them with something? Or simply makes them happy? So back to why we are here and the title of the article – you will connect with your target audience if you behave authentically in a way that is attractive to them. You can fake it and it may work for a while, but eventually, people will catch on and choose someone else. Organizations need to demonstrate that they care about the same things that you care about in order to connect. To do so, their values must be experienced and not just spoken. Their principles are principles because they cost them something. So, if you are a brand that stands for “X” (i.e. social responsibility?) and “Y” (i.e. protecting the environment?), the design and the decisions you make supporting those values must be visible. You had better pay people a living wage and treat them fairly, minimize your packaging as much as possible so that your reputation seeps out with tangible evidence that can be felt. Your organization may earn less in the short term but will earn infinitely more in the long term with solid brand promises. Your design communication had better be good.
When we experience anything man-made, we perceive that it was designed
by someone. Even if that person was careless and did it blindfolded, you infer things about what you experience. Just as there is bad design there is good design. A bad design puts the towel bar in the wrong place. A good design puts it in the correct place. We aren’t even talking about the “design” i.e look of the towel bar, which could look a million ways and appeal to all kinds of different people and personal taste.
People will always want the most appealing thing they can afford. This means that making your thing as appealing as you can for your audience will serve you in spades. It is about knowing the audience segment, deciding what that particular group might really value, and then executing well. This is relevant for any business regardless of size.
Design is both a noun and a verb. It often refers to the way things are arranged or experienced visually. When you hire a designer, you are hiring someone who will help you deliver an experience that is as thoughtful and good as it can be. If you ask us, good design has the power to be a secret weapon. If you choose your designer well, you will see a return on the investment in design that is exponentially higher than you spend. They will deliver an advantage. Again, it is all about stepping into the shoes of individuals you are trying to reach, having empathy for them, planning, and then designing something compelling for them that will make them come back, refer their friends, etc. This takes time.
There’s a reason why tourist restaurants can endure, despite terrible food – the customers need not come back.
The process of design is also a forcing mechanism – so not only are you making all of the elements look good, but you are actually determining what those elements are. It takes longer than people realize. It requires exploring all kinds of choices, and then winnowing it down, making many decisions, and choosing a direction. And then, it is about executing all the details well. We plan to reserve at least a third of the budget for a project after the design direction is set. In other words, people can think something is done and it is only two-thirds to halfway done.
Connecting the Dots
You have a customer and if your customer wants a free app that monitors air quality, then you need to make the design more thoughtful than competing apps. It needs to be the best design for the audience you are trying to reach, easy to understand, and appeal to enough people that it will attract advertisers. The advertising needs to be integrated in such a way that it doesn’t repeal the customers. It’s a balancing act.
If your customer wants you to be the absolute most affordable option of whatever it is, then you must execute that way – smart, with no frills. You had better look affordable. Sometimes a DIY approach will work best for a small player. A large player, like IKEA, will demonstrate that a lot of thought went into systems that enable them to execute super affordably with inexpensive materials, i.e. black type on cardboard only, black type on white paper, etc.
If your customer is looking for luxury, they will expect high quality and a little something extra. I am reminded of a very swanky ski resort where their paper napkins were printed in 4 colors and one of them was metallic gold. Plus, the paper was pretty darn soft for a paper napkin. There was a lot of care put into these paper napkins and they sort of stopped you in your tracks. It would be possible to stop doing expensive paper napkins of course, but, would it be better to do an unprinted napkin on a cheap scratchy material? No, of course not. Those details add up consciously or unconsciously and help shape the perception of your brand. If you want to be thought of as luxurious those things matter.
If your customer wants you to be the most authentic of whatever it is – whether a New York pizza or a home furnishing company, then you had better try and make that customer experience as authentic as it can be.
Thanks to Apple, its success and reputation, much of the rest of the world wants their product and packaging to look like theirs. Before you co-opt another brand’s reputation and signature, determine if what serves your audience is an experience that is so clean and minimal. Then it’s best to design the whole experience with this in mind. Sometimes making things really clean and minimal is easy, and sometimes it’s quite complicated.
In closing, it goes like this – know your target audience. Safest to think about them as not being you. Your audience will choose between you and others. If someone wants a bagel at midnight, they are going to go to the place that can give them a bagel at midnight. The places that only sell bagels from 9-5, even if they are better bagels, are not going to work.
People are going to experience anything you do as designed, from your napkins to your operating hours, even if you gave it very little thought or hired your nephew to do it. They will choose the offering that most appeals to them based on what they can afford. Being very intentional in the strategy and the design will help you reach the people you are trying to reach. If you do not know how to reach these audiences yourself, bring in designers who are experts at communicating.
As you head into working with a professional designer, you will likely make budget choices based on how much work you think something is and how much you feel you can afford. Though you need to know: bad design is expensive. It will cost you money. Mediocre design means you will see no return on the money you spent.
Good design will deliver a return on the investment. If you are in a major metropolitan area like San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York, hiring a designer may seem expensive. What's expensive is spending your money on the wrong solution. After nearly thirty years of doing this work, I can tell you that people turn up all the time having spent their budget on the wrong designer or agency. If your target audience is savvy or discriminating, it is worth finding the right agency. I will also add that if you are a start-up or a smaller player just out of the gates, I would absolutely hire a smaller firm who will devote more time to the design than a large agency who needs to monitor their billing rates. If you are an established business with a long tactical list of things to design and execute, the chances are good that you have marketing expertise that has brought you there; you have budgets that are realistic; you understand timing; you can afford the level of service and project management that comes with a larger agency.
I care very much about setting up scenarios where everyone wins. So, I will end this with a story:
I rented a magical but decomposing cottage in a beautiful and gentrifying town from a woman who I loved dearly. When she passed away, her heirs sold the land to a “design/build” guy from a different region. The magical structure was torn down and he erected a new large one in its place. Its low quality, seemingly alien materials did not fit the neighborhood; it did not appeal to buyers and sat on the market for months; the price dropped several times; the design/build guy finally took it off the market; it was rented out. Not only was it a bad business decision for this guy, but it’s probably haunted–my dear old friend would never have been ok with this. I have to walk past it every day feeling very sad. If only he had realized that he wasn’t the customer. If only he had hired someone who could have designed the nicest house within budget – one that would appeal to the people who want to live in that town, one they could afford – this fellow would have done well, a family would have loved their new home, my friend could rest in peace, and I would enjoy walking by.