Design Methodology: How To Use Design Theory Like the World’s Top Brands

If one thing is for sure in today’s digital age, design matters. If you have a brand, first impressions are happening through your website, social media, advertising campaigns, and other digital assets and how good (or bad) those assets look can determine your success. 

According to a Stanford study, 75% of people judge a business’ credibility based on their website design. That’s right: 3 out of 4 people make a snap judgment about your company based solely on how your site looks. 

So how do you make your design impressive and show credibility? 

That’s where design theory comes in. 

We’ve won awards and worked with the largest brands in the world because people are ‘wowed’ by our sleek, modern approach to design, which implements key principles of design theory.  We’ve created digital transformations that improve brand reputation, lead generation, and sales thanks to our Head of Design, Ming Ciao, who pioneered our design methodology. Ming has been honored by the White House and recruited by the top brands in the country, and he’s been generous enough to share his unique approach here, but first – what is design theory?  

What Is Design Theory And Why Is It Important?

There’s a reason why designers study design theory and it has to do with their distinction from artists. An artist makes decisions based on pure intuition as well as personal preference for an audience who may interpret their work however they wish. A designer has more responsibility than that. They must make decisions based on proven theories in order for the design to have the desired effect on its audience. The effect they’re seeking can range greatly, but typically it  inspires the user or consumer to take action in a very specific way; whether that’s purchasing a product, signing on as an investor, booking a reservation, or trusting a company to manage their wealth. 

Design theory is an umbrella term for design principles such as alignment, repetition, contrast, hierarchy, and balance, as well as color theory, which provides insight into the ways colors interact with our perception, and design-thinking, where the designer puts the user first and designs for an intended use or audience (which is a feat in itself; most designers spend their whole careers mastering this art). These elements of design theory help a designer create emphasis, direct the viewer’s eye (and mouse), establish moods, and demonstrate innovation in order to best communicate a brand’s message. 

As famous German artist Hans Hofmann defines it:

“Design is the intermediary between information and understanding”

— Hans Hofmann

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Where Does Methodology Come In?

Designers are guided by their toolbox of theories about what makes design effective. Top agencies not only rely on design theory, but pride themselves on a unique design methodology so the workflow and process for every design that they touch follows a tried-and-true model for producing the best results. 

Design methodology can be understood as an individual or organization’s approach toward design – and when it comes to wowing a client, approach can make all the difference. In fact, the design methodology that our Head of Design pioneered had such success for our agency,  we’ve adopted his methodology for every new project and strategy we develop, and every designer who works with us is taught this process.  

Ming’s methodology is as follows: 

FUTURECASTING +

SUBTRACTION +

AGILITY

1. Futurecasting

Ming’s design methodology begins by taking a deep dive into the client’s values and vision for the future, always asking: “Where could this brand be in five years?”. He insists on working backward; first establishing the client’s desired outcome, then creating the road map for how to get there. This forecast into the future, along with an extremely clean design aesthetic, which comes later, will ensure that this road map is clear and direct. 

Futurecasting is directly connected to design thinking, or designing with a direct purpose in mind. Developing a strong sense of the desired outcome will inform all subsequent design choices. 

The client is not the only entity whose actions and values Ming predicts. He also forecasts the attitudes of the consumer. “The first key to phenomenal design is understanding who is going to care about what you’re creating” explains Ming. Enter – the target audience. As a firm, we help our clients understand how critical this is. So often the business owner and decision-maker in a business does not represent the core audience or customer base. Placing the user at the heart of the design and optimizing their journey leads to a successful connection with the target audience.

While the key principles of good design are learned and practiced over and over, again and again, other experiences or past careers can be assets for your ability to futurecast. Ming first pursued a degree in psychology, followed by a degree in multimedia design. He designed his first website back in 1994 after teaching himself how to code. This unique background contributes to his understanding of consumer behavior and consumer psychology and aids in his ability to predict user behavior with ease. 

Before any creative work can take place, a designer needs a thorough base of research on things like consumer trends and brand competitors in order to make projections into the future. After all, the future is the setting amidst which the brand will take off. The future is what we’re designing for. 

2. Subtraction

The world is full of information across multiple channels around the clock. The empirical research stage of a project can be overwhelming for this very reason. With so many resources accessible to teams these days, it’s essential to ‘cut through the fog’ and integrate only what’s necessary and effective into the design that’s being created for the client. 

This overload of information isn’t plaguing designers alone; it’s affecting consumers too, who are being presented with a stimulus overload of information, brand messages, and purchasing options. Ming explains that the key to design is to communicate effectively in the small window of opportunity you have with your audience. 

The best way to make use of that small window of opportunity is to implement design strategies that communicate a clear, impactful message. Ming’s design operates on the design principle of subtraction. While it may sound simple, subtraction is more than just taking stuff away. It is about valuing and focusing on what matters most. As author Antoine de Saint-Exupery says, and Ming frequently regurgitates,

“Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away.”

— Ming Ciao

Let’s take a look at magazines for example’s sake. Magazine covers are notorious for utilizing busy design. Gossip magazines in particular seek to convey an overload of storylines, enticing a consumer to desire to read the whole thing. But while they may draw in your everyday reader at the grocery store, busy design communicates a lack of sophistication. TIME magazine, on the other hand, has a more minimalist approach, drawing in the reader with a powerful image and succinct text, conveying reputability.  

There’s a reason luxury brands tend to use clean design. Studies have found that “Visually complex” websites or brand assets are consistently rated as less beautiful than their simpler counterparts.

This wisdom is essential for effectively integrating the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, into the designs Ming creates. This rule has been around for hundreds of years, and stipulates that positive outcomes and their causes are disproportionate. In other words, a small percentage of what’s on a website or advertisement is responsible for the majority of results. For example, this theory would posit that 20% of web pages make up 80% of all page views, or 20% of all navigational elements on a site get 80% of the clicks. Kevin Krues explains in an article for Forbes that designers can use this principle to identify the low or moderately effective elements and remove them, shifting emphasis to the most effective ones.

Hick’s Law  of user experience emphasizes the impact of subtraction, dictating that the time it takes a user to make a decision increases with each additional option they must mentally process. The more you add to a design, the more choices the user has, and the more difficult navigating the site becomes.  

That’s another reason luxury brands use simple design; luxury consumers want clear decisions and a curated experience. And that’s why top brands bring forth the most important information and dispose of what’s unnecessary for clear, direct, communication. When it comes to developing a brand narrative, the same principle applies. We’ve integrated the principle of subtraction into many proposals, pitches, and website copy, creating direct, impactful results. 

3. Agility

Ming’s ability to adapt his design to a range of clients is what makes him a brilliant designer.  

But there is a level of adaptability that experience alone can’t offer. At the end of the day, Ming harnesses the power of intuition. A strong sense of intuition is a key quality of a top designer. You have it too – even if you aren’t always using it. It’s that magical thing that comes from within and guides us in small whispers. Creatives use it constantly to help guide their every move. Intuition helps us dissect the overload of information we are faced with each day and decide what matters. It also helps us remain flexible and open to moving in new directions. 

Thankfully, intuition can be cultivated. Ming cites the childhood influence of his father, a scientist and engineer, who always had an affinity for art and design and taught him the importance of being well rounded.  By gathering wide knowledge and experience in not only math and science, but art, sports, and philosophy, Ming could approach ideas and projects holistically. He recalls, 

“Instead of buying me toys, my father brought home an Apple computer. He let me take apart that computer when I was 4 and put it back together and I loved every second of it…”

— Ming Ciao

Through investigating technology and practicing problem-solving when he was young, Ming cultivated an intuition for understanding design and building up an incredible skill called “design thinking”. Other techniques for cultivating artistic intuition include everything from meditation to studying and appreciating good design in your everyday life to developing your own digital art practice. Research has proven that using intuition helps us make better decisions and gives us more confidence in them. By cultivating intuition, designers can take on new projects and learn new skills much more quickly and confidently, making them an agile and versatile team member that employers truly can’t live without 

We often use words like ‘agile’ or ‘nimble’ to describe ourselves as a boutique agency. Every member of our team of experts works intimately with each client, so this agility, from the design team to the account team to our founders, allows us to quickly shift and adapt our strategy for the unanticipated factors that inevitably arise. From clients needing an overhaul of messaging within a three-day window, to helping brands navigate a global pandemic, we’ve done it all. And in the end, all of this work comes to life thanks to our Head of Design’s ability to transition these brands with ease and strength and to overperform for needs we never anticipated tackling.

The Moral Of The Story

Our advice to agencies or companies seeking to pioneer an in-house design methodology: emulate the best qualities of your star team members. If someone’s process is working well, let their habits and values come through in all aspects of your workflow. 

Learning from Ming’s process of anticipating the future, designing with simplicity and efficiency in mind, and remaining adaptable to the needs of each client has transformed our entire approach to each new project and produced results we couldn’t have imagined.  

Your organization could achieve a similar transformation. We encourage you to take 10 minutes today to speak with an all star employee about their process and see what you can learn from them – we promise you won’t regret it.

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