When starting a digital project, thinking about how it will look visually can be one of the most exciting parts. It can also be one of the most daunting and intimidating. There are so many directions you can take and you might not know where to start. With careful planning, you can give your web designers the proper guidance to create a platform you love. 

While the visual elements are an important component, the key to a beautifully designed project is actually your art direction. Art direction is a combination of your strategic goals, target audience, and user experience which are then translated into a design concept. With a strong art direction, you can create a unique experience that engages your audience and builds long-lasting connections.

Design vs. Art Direction

The first thing we should establish is the difference between design and art direction and how to incorporate both ways of thinking into your project.

  1. Design is how it looks. It focuses on UX principles like colour contrast, visual hierarchy, and whitespace. 
  2. Art direction focuses on how it feels. It questions if your colour palette fits your brand image, what feelings your typography portrays, and if your storytelling is engaging users.

Designers need your help establishing a direction because it will ultimately be informed by the “why” of your project. The better you understand the focus and who you are speaking to, the easier it will be for them to create something you are proud of.

Design is the how. It’s the foundation of all communication, the process and production of typography, color, scale, and placement. Art direction is the why. It’s the concept and decisions that wrap itself around the entire product.

Jarrod Riddle, Sr. Art Director, Big Spaceship

Helping your designers choose an art direction is fundamental to the success of your digital project. But how do you properly direct them? What kind of questions should you prepare for? Where do you even start?

7 Ways to Guide Your Project’s Art Direction

1. Practice good communication

Having consistent and open communication with your designer can avoid hiccups throughout your digital project. Don’t be afraid of letting them know of any struggles you’re facing no matter how big or small. The best projects are created when there is open communication between client and agency. You know your users and organization best, and the more information you share the better they can cater to your needs.

2. Set your focus

Setting your focus is what will guide you throughout the process. Before looking into the design of your project it’s important to understand what you want to accomplish. The best way to start is by defining your organizational goals. What will be the main function of your platform? Who are you targeting?

Although you might have multiple goals and different types of users, it’s important to prioritize them. Defining your primary, secondary, and tertiary goals will help guide both you and the designer. A primary goal can be selling tickets, while a secondary goal can be receiving donations. No matter what your goals are, it’s important to distinguish their order of importance.

To help you define your goals, take the time to get into the mind of the people you want to reach.  A great exercise to help you do that is creating user personas.

3. Create user personas

Creating user personas is a great way to understand the main people you serve. It’s crucial to know your audience because it will heavily influence what your site looks like. A platform will look completely different if it’s designed for a young Millennial working in musical theatre compared to a Gen X working as a university professor. They will have different goals, challenges, and characteristics. 

To get a better sense of your audience, you might want to talk to multiple people in your organization about your clients. Don’t be afraid to dig deep. The more information you can discover about your users, the more designers can cater to them.

It’s important to remember that you can’t appeal to everyone. Some digital experiences can cater to a larger variety of people like music festivals or media outlets. But it’s a good practice to analyze who your biggest target market is. This allows you to stand out from your competitors and define your brand personality.

4. Know your brand image and identity

Once you’ve determined your target audience and project focus, you can evaluate if your brand properly aligns with them. Your brand colours, imagery, typography, and voice should speak to your audience and reflect your goals.

A large part of the designer’s job will be to create a concept that fits your project focus, users, and brand image. If you don’t have a pre-established brand, they can work with you to develop a brand identity that fits your organization.

Just remember that your brand is what gives your project its emotional appeal and defines how you connect with your users. It influences how you speak to your users and how you tell your story. This brings us to our next point: content.

5. Know your site and its content

Content is the backbone of any digital project. While the web is extremely fluid compared to other art forms like print, your content needs to be decided beforehand as it will influence your design layout.

Designers will take inventory of all the information you want to convey to your users and then create a layout that supports it. Adding content or pages later on in the process will require additional time to incorporate into your concept. 

Make sure you have a plan for your content before beginning the web design process. Taking stock of your content and having a rough idea of what you want to keep, reorganize, or remove can be a huge time-saver for designers in the long run.

Remember, if you need guidance or advice on your site’s content, your designers are there to help you! They are experts in user experience and know how to write engaging copy that guides your users across your platform.

6. Trust your experts

Designers, developers, and project managers want to help you achieve your goals. They also have a vast amount of knowledge regarding digital spaces, user experience, user interfaces, and content management systems. Creating a successful project requires a lot of teamwork on both sides to understand the user and their needs. Don’t be afraid to listen to your agency’s advice.

Developing trust between agency and client can take some time, but properly reviewing the agency you choose to work with can be a good way to develop trust early on. Look for agencies that specialize in your target market. If they have done similar projects in the past, they’ll most likely already have a good understanding of your needs. Beyond their work experience and portfolio, their company values can also be a good indication of brand alignment.

7. Keep an open mind

Keeping an open mind throughout the process will help you to make the best decisions for your users. It’s easy to get stuck on a visual element or the latest web design trends. Just remember that these trends might not support your overall concept. 

If you ever find yourself getting stuck, think back to your organizational goals and your users’ needs. Focusing on the bigger picture will allow you to make informed decisions no matter what complexities you face.

We also recommend keeping your decision-making circle small. Remember that design preference is subjective. If you start asking too many people what they think, you might find it harder to make the right call. Decide beforehand who you will include in the process and who will make the final decision.

Helping web designers establish your art direction

Art direction is more than how your project looks. It’s the why, who and how. If you take the time to understand how all these parts work together you can create a digital experience that speaks directly to your users.

Keeping all these tips in mind, alongside your digital agency, you can establish a unique art direction that takes into account your organizational goals, your target audience, and your brand identity.

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