If you work in the creative industries – be that as a designer, creative director, branding consultant or anything else – you’ll recognise the particular shape of processes, relationships and behaviours that have come to define our ways of working.
But in my opinion, there’s a glitch in the system that frequently gets in the way of bringing about the best possible creative outcomes.
We see this manifest in a number of all-too-familiar issues: perhaps the creative fails to deliver against a brand’s strategy, no matter how it’s briefed in; maybe there’s a strong insight and concept but it’s not translating well into packaging design. Perhaps a global brand has elements that aren’t working in certain markets.
In short, things get lost in translation. And it all comes down to the same disconnect between the strategy and the final creative execution.
Whether it’s a pack redesign, a new retail experience or brand campaign, we see a similar pattern of challenges: the rift between what we intend to say, and how this actually comes to life through its creative manifestation: the “intended meaning gap”.
Closing the “intended meaning gap”
Vague creative briefs are all too familiar: ones without a clearly defined insight, idea or point of view, and with wording that can be interpreted in wildly different ways, like “We’re looking to be healthier, more empowering, more fun!” It’s hard to imagine everyone agreeing on what that actually looks like – least of all key stakeholders.
These multiple interpretations can be exacerbated by different consultancies working on different briefs as part of the same strategy. It can get messy quite quickly.
As designers and creative teams, we need to spend more time interrogating briefs – going beyond the words on the page to define what we really mean by them and what we don’t.
For those creating the briefs, this involves weaving the threads together across insight, strategy and creative to identify potential ways forward that “make sense” for a brand. Only then can we start to see how it could come to life in a meaningful way.
Semiotics – the study of signs and how they communicate meaning – reveals where and how meaning breakdowns are happening between the intention and creative expression. It enables us to identify the common ground that galvanises a forward direction, and critically, can identify new and emerging cues of the ideas we wish to express.
Make briefs work as hard as they can
A clear, “high-definition” brief helps us move on from frustratingly vague feedback and locked-horns meetings; “I love it”, or “I don’t like it” aren’t helpful. A strong brief enables a more critical conversation that reveals whether the creative effectively communicates what it intends to. Is it strategically faithful? Does it embody the right meaning and associations? What’s the rationale?
Great creative flows from logical thought and clever sense-making, and this should be a transparent and celebrated part of the creative process – not least in the brief itself. But we’re often in such a hurry to get the creative team underway that we don’t spend enough time connecting the dots, identifying what might be missing, defining the space to play in or aligning the stakeholders.
It’s impossible to come up with brilliant creative without equally brilliant insight and inspiration. The best creative work thrives off and feeds culture: it understands how culture is changing and how new ideas and meanings are being expressed – from emerging cultural references and language to new visual metaphors and sensory cues.
Give the right ingredients to your creative team and you’re more likely to get inspired, meaningful work. Designers – use the brief you have, ask when it doesn’t make sense and suggest where it could be clearer. Request clarity on the logic that led to the brief. Be open about the cultures and contexts you understand, and those you don’t. Think about revealing the disconnects early on and help make briefs work as hard as they possibly can for you.
Considering cultural nuance
Much design work today is a sensitive dance between the demands of global brand consistency and local market nuance. That’s why questions like “Why isn’t this working in Japan?” come up time and time again.
This translation of meaning through the lens of different cultural contexts isn’t something most creative teams are trained in. We cannot sit on one side of the world and convincingly express ideas of parenting or health on the other.
We need to open up the creative process to become more porous and diverse, and be aware of the blind spots that our individual lived experience brings. Only then can we signify our strategic intention through the lens of different cultures.
Take the 2022 Cazadores tequila redesign. The new look and feel was based on a thorough exploration of the spiritual significance of the stag in Mexican culture, and was infused with a renewed respect for the brand’s cultural roots. Where the 2014 bottle showed the only the stag’s head, almost like a mantle trophy, the 2022 design brings the stag’s full body to the pack – an important shift when you consider the spiritual significance of the animal in Mexican culture. This insight came from a deeper cultural understanding and what this means for the different design elements at play.
Opening up creative possibilities
Creative energy is potent and transformative, but we are working in a system where so much of this energy is wasted – on stakeholder alignment, on re-briefing, on developing concepts that never supported the strategy. At a time of diminishing budgets and increasing constraint, we will need to find smarter and more agile ways of working.
We need a more collaborative design approach that builds in critical thinking, more diverse perspectives and a semiotic sensibility around what we are actually communicating and how it works in context.
Great strategy doesn’t always result in great creative and not all great creative is strategic. By putting more focus on the translation of our “intended meaning” we can open up inspiring creative possibilities that are also insight-rich, strategically faithful and culturally driven.
Banner image: Sfio Cracho on Shutterstock