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Why Do (Some) Designers Hate Research?

By: Jeremy Lindley, Global Design Director, Diageo 

I’ve just listened to another designer complain about the use of research in the design process (apparently, it ruins great design!).  It has got me wondering why I have such a different point of view.  I believe that research, used well, drives creativity and enables bold decision-making.  While not alone in this point of view I do sometimes feel in a minority among my design peers.

I can think of four possible reasons that some write off research:

1.  Ego.  Some designers believe they know best, that anyone with a different perspective (including consumers) is wrong.  Design is about vision and bravery. On occasion a passion and instinct led approach will get to breakthrough.  The risk is a Tropicana moment – where a fundamental redesign led to a drastic sales drop and a rapid return to the previous packaging. 

2.  Asking consumers to choose. Research should be focused on gaining insight. A beauty parade with percentages that preferred one design to another is of little use to designers.

3.  Poorly designed research. A study that is not strategically framed or asks the wrong questions helps no-one.

4.  Wrong methodology. Recent surprises in the outcomes of elections have shown us that asking consumers direct questions may not result in honest answers.  It takes skill to uncover meaning and implicit response.

My experience has been that great research adds significant value to the design process. Used well it:

1.  Seeks insight and is not about making choices.  Understanding how consumers react, what they see, how they interpret visual stimulus has always added to my learning and has frequently enabled us to make bold design decisions.  On occasion research has taught us that we are being too conservative and has opened the door to more radical creativity.

2.  Contributes to strategy. Testing our brief, the design approach and understanding how consumers actually think (rather than how we imagine they will react) frequently moves our thinking on.

3.  Employs a methodology based on the insight needed.  Research tools fit for the project rather than a rigid approach to always using one system.

4.  Builds a learning plan. This quote from Thomas Heatherwick perfectly encapsulates why I value research in design projects:

“We’re not experts at anything, but we’re experts at not being experts, and we’ve developed a system to do this.  That means thinking large and then zooming in close, doing research and analysis, hunting down the real problem to solve, and asking questions and breaking that down until the real thing is discovered.”

About the Author: Jeremy is responsible for design across Diageo’s current brands and new products worldwide. His role is to transform Diageo’s design capability and output. Recent projects have included the redesign of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Baileys Original Irish Cream and the creation of John Walker & Sons Diamond Jubilee – a limited edition of 60 bottles retailing at over £100,000. Prior to joining Diageo Jeremy was Head of Design for Tesco Stores Ltd. He was responsible for design across the portfolio of 19,000 private label products and for leading the Store Formats and Design teams. His early career was spent working as a Design Consultant and University Lecturer. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts and is active in a number of Design Industry bodies.

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