Who are we designing for—you or your audience?

Greg Lowe

March 1, 2019

In a suburb of Chicago sits an empty 56,000-square-foot mansion owned by basketball legend Michael Jordan. It’s a beautiful home, complete with every amenity imaginable. The problem is, nobody wants to buy it. Jordan built the home from scratch and designed every square inch to fit his own personal tastes. The home, which has been on the market since 2012, features a basketball court, a card room, and a putting green. A large “23” adorns the front gate; a nod to his famous jersey number and the iconic Jordan logo adorns many surfaces throughout the house. As luxury real estate professional Adam Rosenfeld explained, “When you have such a specific property that is so customized, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

Graphic design projects are often afflicted by the same problem. Those tasked with creating designed materials—be it a logo, a billboard, or something else—often allow their own personal preferences to get in the way of what their audience actually prefers or needs. Business owners, marketing directors, and others have a hard time accepting that the best option may not be their favorite option. Of course, it is possible to overcome personal preference and to let a design do its job, but it requires a deep level of self-awareness and prioritization of the project’s goals.

Know the Audience

The first step in designing for an audience is to understand that audience. Put in the work and do the research to learn everything you can about the people you’re trying to reach. What common demographic characteristics do they share? What motivates them? What goals are they trying to achieve? What preferences and proclivities have they demonstrated? If you can’t answer these questions, you can’t hope to put aside your own inclinations in favor of their preferences.

Accept Subjectivity as Real

Pride is often the greatest obstacle in selecting the best design work for your audience. Too many people believe that their assessments reflect objective realities of bad, better, and good rather than subjective personal preferences. While great design does adhere to certain concrete principles, it also leaves plenty of room for subjectivity. It is possible for a piece to be loved by some and disliked by others, even when it demonstrates sound design principles. It’s important to accept that your favorite option may not be the favorite option of your audience members.

Exercise Self Awareness

Personal preference often tries to disguise itself as objective evaluation. Even when you accept the presence of subjectivity in design, it can be difficult to separate your preferences from your selection of design work. It’s crucial to develop and demonstrate the self awareness necessary for recognizing where that line is for a given project. 

When it comes to graphic design, we all have personal preferences. Unless that design’s final purpose is to hang on the wall of your home, it’s important to put a check on those preferences. Often, the people making design decisions are not the people that the design is intended to reach. In those cases, it’s essential to understand your audience, accept the presence of subjectivity, and to exercise self-awareness during the evaluation process.