Shot of the Gateway Arch spanning the photo frame. Shot from below with a cloudy sky behind it, and a glitch effect put on top of the photo.
← All Articles

Smart design thinking

Joel G Goodman
/ 3 min read

When Bravery approaches a new design project, the first thing we do is ask our clients what sort of things they’re trying to convey. What we are trying to get at is a few core responses:

  1. What should a visitor or viewer feel when they see your design?
  2. What should the design make your visitor think of?
  3. What messages do we need to pack into your new identity to clearly communicate what you mean?

So much can be packed into a single symbol or font choice. Decades of history can be recalled from a single page layout. And during the design process we have the control to connect those pieces and to pick and choose what we we want packed into those signs.

A super-quick primer on semiotics

The academic study of analyzing those signs is called semiotics. Sounds scary, right? You might’ve come across that term in your intro to Communication class back in college, or maybe some smarty-pants academic has thrown it around to try and sound extra fancy.

Or, if you’re like me, it’s one of your favorite topics to think about and explore around.

To simplify things, semiotics is the study of symbols and signs [for a great introduction, check out Chandler’s Semiotics: The Basics]. The whole field of thought is set out around trying to figure out what meaning is packed into the visual shapes we encounter every day. And while many times that study is applied to things like discourse analysis and propaganda-parsing, it makes all the difference when applied to web design or logo development.

We’ve all got baggage

Remember back to the public speaking class you took. Do you recall what the first rule of public speaking is? Know your audience. The same is obviously true for the content of your website. And it applies to how it is designed as well.

If practicing semiological thought and applying it to design allows us to pack information into the visual choices we make, then we have got to think about the people who are going to see it. My Communication professors taught us that meaning and interpretation is always in the other person, and that to be a great communicator one has to think about the other person.

See, we’ve all got baggage, and that baggage flies open when we least expect it. Roland Barthes, one of the great theorists in semiology, analyzes a magazine cover in his *Mythologies *collection. The cover of this magazine shows a young black soldier in a French uniform saluting. And while the reader can’t know about the young man’s life or his ambitions or any of his back story, the magazine chose the image for a specific reason and to communicate very specific things.

“I am at the barber’s, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young [black man] in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this [black man] in serving his so-called oppressors …”

Barthes 1972, Mythologies, p. 116

Though the magazine chose just a photo of a young man, that photo communicates a whole lot more than just the literal scene, depending on the person viewing it. Depending on the baggage brought to the experience, the viewers reaction could be good or very, very bad.

Of course a military-focused image is an extreme in the case of what we do with our client partners. Still, knowing who your target audience is can make the difference between a good logo or web design and great ones.

Goals before change

We often try to repeat the mantra “Goals before tools” to remind ourselves and our coworkers that if we are going to do anything, we need to have a goal for it. Don’t do Snapchat unless you can actually do Snapchat and it helps you reach a goal.

Bravery takes that exact approach to its design work. Whether we are developing a new logo or a full design language system, we want to make sure that there are goals to be met and exceeded by our final designs. And we think that makes all the difference.

Want to hear more?

We’d love to have a conversation with you about your institutional goals. Perhaps Bravery’s research-driven approach can help you. Get in touch below or message us on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.


Sound like an approach that would work for your project? Get in touch.