Putting a pretty dress on the ugly girl

5 years ago  •  By  •  0 Comments

Doesn’t sound ideal (or a nice metaphor), but is definitely the easiest solution, especially when the girl is your brand, and the dress is another ‘decoration only’ brand touchpoint.

The ‘pretty dress’ metaphor isn’t ours. These are the words of a frustrated prospect — lets call her Jessie — working in a marketing role at a private school here in Australia, who had been told to ‘tart up the website’. Seeing the need for change to the website as more than a revisit of decorative elements, she sought advice from several firms on ways to use strategy, rather than decoration to inform the design of the new site.

Excited about the potential of the strategic approach and user research to encompass not only the website (the information architecture, as well as the tone of content, and ultimately it’s design), but moreso the flow on to all of the other existing and future brand touchpoints of the college, Jessie prepared her business case to present to the requester of the ‘tarting’.

The case for engagement with the users of the brand — students past and present, parents, staff etc — to define user need and to inform brand differentiation is pretty cut and dry. How do we know what our users need if we don’t ask them? Isn’t it arrogance for a designer, or indeed executive management to make these decisions based on their own opinion or assumption, especially when many of the users are a quarter of their age?

But that’s what happened to Jessie. Despite the combined advice from experts around the country that informed her proposal, the order from above was that user engagement wasn’t needed here — just decoration. In the words of Jessie, “we’re going to put a pretty dress on the ugly girl”.

So what?

Isn’t that what design is about? Making things look more appealing? Well, yes… or at least in the olden days it was. Design has come a long way over the years, to the point that design based simply on “making things look appealing” borders on negligence.

In a competitive market, especially one such as private schools where differentiation is hard to distil, decorative design not only doesn’t solve the problem at hand, but indeed makes it worse.

Every time you invest money on brand touchpoints without user engagement and a strategic start point, you further cement what is probably an undifferentiated or confusing brand. Even when you are working within a well built, differentiated brand, failing to engage with your users on how they use things like your website ensures the birth of a touchpoint that serves only the motives and opinions of a designer or that of executive management, not the needs of the people it is actually produced for… but at least it looks nice.

What people actually think of, or value in your organisation is more often than not different to what the college head thinks is the case. Again, the reason people visit your website, or what content (or tone of voice) will appeal to them is often different to what management believe.

It is indeed a process to undertake this strategic start point, especially if your school or college has been around for decades, but its not until you do this that you truly have a differentiated and marketable brand. After this is done properly, every touchpoint you produce will seem to fall together naturally. Even in a large organisation, everyone will seem to sing from the same songbook. Each time somebody does something in the name of the school they can ask (or be asked) “is this on brand?” and be able to answer. Without it, how can they? Nobody knows what the brand is, what it stands for, or what makes it different to the brand of the school next door.

The girl in the pretty dress is probably beautiful on the inside. Its just that nobody took the time to find out how.