It is a phrase often thrown around without much thought. What does it actually mean to be a graphic designer, and what does that job title entail?
I graduated from the University of North Florida with a BFA and a concentration in graphic design and digital media. While in school, I worked for the school newspaper (The Spinnaker) where I started as an illustration artist, which led to a layout designer position and, eventually to art director.
Later, I helped transform this newspaper into a glossy magazine. This was a big transition because, generally speaking, photos and graphics need to be of a higher quality for a magazine than they need to be for newsprint. This transition also required an entirely new layout and art direction. The new magazine received Best in Show at the Associated Collegiate Press conference in New Orleans.
I have also traveled to Brazil where I offered pro bono design work for various non-profits working with children in poverty-stricken areas.
I say all of this not for the ego boost, but to give you some background as to who I am and what my trade is.
Merriam-Webster defines “graphic design” as this:
The art and profession of selecting and arranging visual elements — such as typography, images, symbols and colors — to convey a message to an audience. Sometimes graphic design is called ‘visual communications.’ It is a collaborative discipline: writers produce words, and photographers and illustrators create images that the designer incorporates into a complete visual message.
In a perfect world, the designer would get the best words, the best photos and the best illustrations and arrange them all into the most appealing and effective visual message pertaining to the target audience’s motivation levels.
However, all of those things don’t always fall into place. Even if they do, how can you be sure?
Below is an email that was created in the same manner that Merriam-Webster uses to describe “graphic design.” There are words on the page, given to a designer, which speak of the company and its product’s value. There is also a professionally-shot photo that shows a couple enjoying the product featured in the email. All of these elements have been combined into a visually pleasing design:
From a design perspective, this is an appealing email:
- The main headline is a very legible sans-serif (a proven category of typeface for headlines)
- There is plenty of contrast between the headline and background
- The email layout itself is dynamic, leading the viewer’s eye from left to right and then down the page to the rest of the message
- Overall, best design practices have been used (color, proximity, scale, etc.)
Now, I’m not going to go into the details of the rest of the email because the base of my argument centers around the top panel.
Is the top panel of the email necessary? Would the audience’s reception change if it wasn’t there?
If I were to argue in favor of the top panel, I would say it may draw the viewer in, attracting the viewer’s eye to the couple’s faces before calling attention to the next available message, “Better sound to go.” This may spark enough interest for me to read the rest of the email and read the details of what is being offered.
However, we were curious: “Is the best way always the best design?”
The MECLABS’ conversion heuristic helps to shed light on what is happening with the email:
The biggest factor in the conversion heuristic itself, and this email particularly, is the motivation of the customer — also known as the 4m.
The prospect has just opened up this email, and depending on how much they like this company’s products, will determine how motivated they truly are.
Either way, the top panel with a visually appealing design and headline “Better sound to go” takes some mental processing before the prospect reads onward through the email to the core of the product offering.
Does the second it takes to interpret those visual elements add any perceived value, or does it hurt the process? Is this design the best option?
To answer these questions, we ran a test. We wanted to see if the pleasant design treatment impacted perceived value and, ultimately, clickthrough rate.
Here is the treatment email:
The only two changes that were made involved removing the top panel and switching the image and text in the black panel to lead the viewer’s eye from the woman’s face to the text (a general design rule of thumb: always have photo subjects facing the content).
Control and treatment side-by-side
What were the results?
The treatment outperformed the control by a relative 11.97% in clickthrough with a 99% level of confidence.
This confirmed some of our suspicions — sometimes the best approach is not always the one with the best design.
Being a designer myself, I would have opted for the control. However, this test shows that as designers, or creative experts in general, we must always keep in mind the true interest of the customer.
As soon as someone opens an email, they are looking for a reason to close it and move on to the next one. We need to continually ask ourselves, “What is it that the customer is looking for?”
In this case, the prospects were looking for information on these products upfront, and the design treatment (top panel) of the control proved to be not only irrelevant but also harmful for clickthrough rates.
- The best design is not always the best approach
- Do not let design conflate the objective of an email or message
- Every unnecessary piece of content is waste and reduces your chances of getting a click
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