Occasionally, in both my freelance and office work, I’ve gotten requests from clients to create a design that’s different. “We don’t want to do what our competitors are doing. We want to be different.” Don’t get me wrong. There’s definitely merit to this request. A design that mimics competitors — or is so bland as to be invisible — fails to have a lasting impact. A strong and unique design is always appropriate.
But just being “different” isn’t enough in and of itself.
Sometimes, it can even be disastrous.
So, when is a “different” design just not enough?
“Different” isn’t enough…
…when it leads to a departure from your established brand.
Consistency in branding is important. As I tend to think of it, your brand is like a person. If a person acts erratically and inconsistently, we intuitively feel uneasy about them and withdraw. Similarly, a constantly changing verbal or visual tone in your designed materials communicates instability, promoting distrust or disinterest.
Lots of seemingly small decisions impact your brand consistency. Things like font choices, color schemes, layout choices, and photo/illustration usage all play into how your brand expresses itself. So unless you’re creating a new product with its own branding and personality, or creating something for a themed event, make sure your new design flows seamlessly with your existing brand. Changing things up creates an inconsistent visual story that destabilizes your company’s message.
Whatever the project, it ought to be in keeping with your existing branding efforts.
…when the implementation breaks standards.
There are widely researched and accepted standards for designs of all kinds: ads, business cards, websites, brochures. These standards often include commonly accepted font usage, implementation of color, and standard folds and sizes, among many other things. As a design professional, it’s my job to understand these standards and how best to implement them in a creative way. There’s always some flexibility, of course, and I rely heavily on the experience of those whose expertise lies in those areas (such as web development and printing). But sometimes an idea has to be abandoned because it simply can’t be created without flying in the face of what’s in your best interest.
If the only way to use that typeface you want online is to display it as an image, we need to pick another typeface in order to not inhibit your search engine rankings and to comply with accessibility standards. If the only way to fit all the information you want on that ad is to make the font size 6pt light condensed, we need to cut copy to narrow the focus of your message and keep it legible for your target audience. If implementation doesn’t comply with industry standards, the idea needs to adapt in order to succeed.
These constraints may feel arbitrary or unimportant, but trust me — they allow us the opportunity to work together to create a better solution for everyone.
…when it distracts from the message.
One of the primary differences between art and design lies in what is being communicated. Art is open to interpretation and ambiguity. Design fails if the message is unclear. The majority of a designer’s training and career revolves around making sure your visual message matches your written one. And sometimes, an idea or visual direction is distracting from your message rather than promoting it.
This can look like using a particular typeface you love, but is hard to read. Or maybe using a photo or illustration that dominates the space to the detriment of your content. Even colors can contradict what you’re trying to communicate.
Content is king. The purpose of any material — logo, business card, ad campaign, website, or email marketing — is to communicate a specific message. And if the design direction doesn’t support that message, then you’re going in the wrong direction.
There’s nothing wrong with striving to be different.
It’s important to learn how to differentiate yourself from your competition and attract the attention of your target market. But these symptoms listed here are all signs that “different” isn’t enough to help you stand out.
A successful solution will always be different or strong enough to garner positive attention while fitting in with your existing brand, adhering to the standards of the medium, and unambiguous about its message. That’s a delicate balance to achieve — and that’s why it’s so important to invest in hiring professionals trained to do just such work.