Visual design is having a moment of prominence—and perhaps reckoning. Companies no longer treat design like frosting for their messaging; rather, often, the design is the message.

Although there are limits to how many words a person will read, let alone absorb, people's appetite for images seems to be inexhaustible (if Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and TikTok are any indication).

But here are a couple of uncomfortable questions: Can marketers stand up for artistic design while still getting the ROI their bosses expect? If every piece of visual content is judged by transactional metrics, is there any place for a human touch?

My team at Widen and I tried to answer those questions in our third annual Connectivity Report, which was published at the end of January (2020).

We found a gap between the perceived importance of visual design and the lack of focus it receives from chief executives: Design still seems to be viewed as a tactic rather than a business strategy.

We also found that brands differentiate between the concepts of "quality" design and "successful" design.

That distinction is key to the reckoning I mentioned. For years, brands have subjected the emotional, connective power of design to the authority of business metrics. If design is to become strategic, though, we need to find a balance between qualitative and quantitative signals. The 2020 Connectivity Report found that numbers simply don't capture the true value or potency of quality design.

It's Important, But...

The report originated from a stressor that marketers feel acutely: the pressure to connect communications, experiences, and audiences in highly efficient, trackable ways that generate revenue.

So we surveyed 293 marketing and creative professionals from global brands to explore the challenges and opportunities they face in balancing technology with a human touch. We also conducted in-depth interviews with 10 participants.

Survey respondents overwhelmingly agreed on the importance of visual design—not surprising, considering the audience.

  • Fully 91% of respondents said they invest in quality graphic design for their marketing content.
  • Another 98% said quality graphic design in marketing content enables stronger relationships with their audience.

Even so, just 8% of participants said visual design lives at the C-level within their organization, suggesting that for the other 92% of organizations it's considered a tactical issue, not a strategic priority.

Visual design is usually a subset of Marketing, even though it plays a key role in Sales, Product Development, Operations, Customer Service, Investor Relations, and Human Resources. So, does visual design deserve to be a boardroom topic? It's important to marketers, but is it that important?

'That Didn't Suck'

One unpleasant part of my job is being the brand enforcer. People often ask me whether they can modify the branded templates we have for our slide decks, presentations, and documents. And I have to politely explain that, no, they can't.

But what's wrong with people taking creative liberty with our templates?

One of our Connectivity Report interviewees answered that question brilliantly: "From the human-experience lens, 'Wow, that was awesome and it made me feel good,' compared to 'that didn't suck,' are so far apart. That's what visual design does: It moves you from 'that didn't suck' to 'that's awesome.'"

Almost anyone can make a presentation that doesn't suck. There are plenty of free or cheap tools for that. But an awesome one? Unlikely.

Creating awe has always required advanced design skills, and it always will.

And awe is necessary in today's world. Not only to create moving experiences that delight people but also to keep people "feeling" color, typography, and imagery rather than solely tracking the clicks they incur.

Famous designer Miuccia Prada (yes, that Prada) once said, "Fashion is instant language." If that's true for the clothing people wear, it's true for the logos and design elements that enrobe a brand. So how could I let my company go out into the world wearing the equivalent of sweatpants and Crocs?

Which is why I say no when people want to take liberties with our brand guidelines.

I'm part of that 98% who believe design is capable of enhancing relationships, and relationships are more than numbers in a CRM. Relationships begin with the way we present ourselves to other people—starting right within our own organization.

Obscurity by a Thousand Cuts

The risk of keeping design a mere tactic is that it quietly kills a brand, image by image: The impact of successful design is often measurable; the damage of low-quality, cliched design often isn't, unless you look beyond quantitative metrics.

In the Connectivity Report interviews, I expected to find that marketers measure design using hard metrics: Web traffic, content conversions, clickthrough rates, downloads, likes, and social shares are universally monitored.

But some brands have freed themselves from those transactional shackles:

  • They note whether the leadership team is "delighted" with the content.
  • They seek reactions from external designers.
  • They welcome anecdotal feedback from Sales and Product teams.
  • They listen for positive or negative chatter among their teammates.

For them, success is not just about changes in engagement. Success means that their peers feel pride in the content they produce and the experiences they create, like sport fans wearing a team jersey or patriots lovingly observing their nation's flag.

Good design serves the culture and identity of the brand, not just conversion rates.

So, can design serve that loftier mission without some human touch? Or without some creative experimentation? I doubt it.

Peaceful Coexistence

The Connectivity Report asked whether the human touch of visual design has a place left in Marketing. And, clearly, it does.

Marketers overwhelmingly agree that design is important, but they need to rethink how they differentiate between quality and success. They are not mutually exclusive. Great visual design reflects both.

The Connectivity Report suggests that we find a balance between qualitative and quantitative signals. We need both to convince chief executives that design is not just a source of content but a matter of long-term business strategy, as well.

And strategy, like design, isn't purely quantifiable or predictable. There is no data on what has never been attempted.

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Visual Design: Data-Driven Tactic or Qualitative Strategic Asset?

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image of Nina  Brakel-Schutt

Nina Brakel-Schutt is director of creative and brand strategy at Widen provider of enterprise digital asset management solutions.

LinkedIn: Nina Brakel-Schutt

Twitter: @NBrakel