Put user needs first in spite of commercial pressures

We can all learn from Johnson Banks founder Michael Johnson. Not content with scoring an unprecedented double with his Royal Mail Fruit & Veg stamps last year, winning Best of Show in the Design Week Awards and a D&AD Gold, his New Year’s resolution is, a

We can all learn from Johnson Banks founder Michael Johnson. Not content with scoring an unprecedented double with his Royal Mail Fruit & Veg stamps last year, winning Best of Show in the Design Week Awards and a D&AD Gold, his New Year’s resolution is, as ever, ‘to do better work’. Would that more designers could achieve his standard and still aim to improve the quality of their output.

So what constitutes better work? Among industry peers it may be the stuff that wins awards, acknowledged for its wit, innovation or manifestation of exquisite craft skills. There is certainly scope for improvement there, with too many consultancies accepting that their work isn’t good enough to make the grade and then bleating when ‘the same old names’ mount the podium to take the honours. We’d all like to see new names emerging on awards shortlists and even the established ‘greats’ relish a challenge.

Award wins can help with new business bids and attract the best talent to a consultancy, so a change in attitude to their creative skills might be an appropriate resolution across the industry. But in the wider world ‘better work’ is the stuff that not just meets clients’ needs, but surpasses expectations and in so doing creates champions of design on the commissioning side. It is also the stuff that puts user needs first, where the designer takes the part of the consumer often in the face of commercial pressures from the client side.

We can all cite examples where the work and the process through which it is achieved has captured the client’s imagination and led to great things. Johnson Banks’ stamps and the continuing relationship between Manchester’s Love Creative and the Youth Justice Trust are well-documented cases. But even here, the integrity of the design will have had to be fought for at the outset and the consultancy invariably has to prove its worth to win repeat business.

As for taking the user’s part, that is the essence of great design. Anyone who can make sense out of remote controls or manuals for home entertainment systems, for example, making them accessible to the average person rather than only to teenage technofreaks, would be doing society a great service.

Meanwhile, it would be good to see more designers looking at the real needs of rescue agencies and victims in the wake of disasters such as the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami rather than designing yet another chair or artefact, especially if they push for their designs to be implemented post-haste.

It’s a question of building confidence and commitment within design to take on these tasks. That way the industry is more likely to have a happy and prosperous New Year.

Lynda Relph-Knight

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