Use market research wisely and believe in your designs

So,at last we acknowledge that market research is an ‘enemy of innovation’ – or can be if it is based purely on what consumers say, rather than what they do.

With a strident establishment figure, Design Council chairman Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, citing market research as one of his five ‘heresies’ at the opening of the council’s Design in Business Week last Friday, it is now officially condemned. The heresy, he says, is the belief that market research can tell us anything about customers.

Frayling’s sentiments can be borne out by most at the sharp end of branding design. At a design seminar in Barcelona last week, Beverley Churchill, head of design at Tesco, told an audience of clients and designers that she chose to ignore research that showed that a radical rebranding of Tesco’s own-brand packaging, designed by Wolff Olins, would bomb with consumers – a wise decision, because the exercise has proved a great success with customers and has won support for design throughout the supermarket’s management.

Churchill was brave enough to put her neck on the line for something she believed in. She is not alone among clients in her conviction – Paula Moss at British Bakeries, whose faith in Williams Murray Hamm’s bold packs for Hovis is set to change the face of bread packaging, is another strong design champion prepared to push the boundaries as far as they’ll go. There are others, but we could do with more.

It isn’t just a reluctance to ‘fight’ on the client side that is the problem though. Designers too often lack the confidence to challenge clients and consumers with design ideas that go beyond the norm. Too few creative teams follow Richard Seymour’s advice that they should ‘start at the end and dream’, then see if it is ‘humanly possible’ to achieve their design aspirations. Yet when boundaries are crossed the results invariably pay off.

Of course, there is a place for research. Speaking on the same platform as Frayling, Ideo founder Bill Moggridge made an eloquent case for research based on observations of how people behave rather than how they answer questions. Only by seeing how we act can we start to project what we might want, when we probably haven’t yet identified our own needs.

But observation is surely part of the designer’s armoury, whatever the brief, and, coupled with instinct and experience, is one of the strongest motivators behind great designs. Market research can give some guidance as to how a project might be approached, but to hide behind it as the key measure of the success of a finished project shows lack of vision and confidence by all concerned.

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