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Design and Market Research

It is a primary function of the designer to be an innovator; not to impose his ideas on a reluctant market, but to extend the horizons and enhance the lives of the users. It is probably true that no innovation worthy of the name ever resulted from market research or indeed any other inquiries into people’s needs and wants. The true innovator, therefore, is always the individual, answerable, in the first place at least, to him/herself.

Market research plays an important part of most business decisions and has a direct impact on design. For the market researcher whose primarily focus is financial, market data and opinion is key, even if some of that data may not be reliable, and even if the opinions may be irrelevant. Ironically, the marketer is, in essence, a professional who uses non- professionals for advice. Many executives and brand managers are oversold on what market research can do, and they use market data as a decision substitute instead for decision support. The projective abilities of the market researcher are innately limited because it can only probe attitudes which are often a surprisingly poor guide to actual behavior. Even if the research is well constructed, and there are plenty of stories of loaded questions and poor sampling techniques, market research can explore the human psyche to only a limited degree of reliability.

As markets become increasing competitive, good design is a key differentiator. When should market research be used? In the area of brand identity, for example, the need for research other than to satisfy one’s curiosity is questionable. How can one research a subject to determine if it has novelty, originality or uniqueness? How can one be certain that the market research will not be manipulated, questions will not be biased, and negative responses will not be hidden?

What might the MB Financial Bank logo have looked like, had it been subjected to market polling? What could a researcher have asked about the logo?–“What do you think of this design?” “Does it mean something negative, like the bank is not profitable because the color is red?” “Does the square remind you of certain things?” What possible responses could one have expected from such questions?—“I like it”, “I don’t like it”, “it’s too simple”, “it’s too complicated”, and so on. What possible use could such information have been to anyone? Market research is often enough to put an end to any good design.

One of the problems with research data is that the data itself is seen as evidence for creativity and not as possible clues for conceptual direction. The root of the problem isn’t collecting the data but in interpreting and synthesizing the data. Opinion polls, in which intuition most likely plays some role, are, ironically, often used to combat the intuitive notions of creative designers and writers. It is fairly safe to speculate that most good ideas take shape unconsciously. Nor would it be wrong to assume that some of the best ideas in some way, at some point, are intuitively perceived.

The designer is not always right. The researcher is not always wrong. And, profit is not always the motive. Market research, whatever its outcome, should never be used as a good excuse for bad design, in the same sense that good design should never be used to promote a bad product. Design, no less than business, poses ethical problems. Badly designed product that works is no less unethical than a beautiful product that does not.

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