Quantifying Creative: Transforming Subjective into Objective

As a Creative Director, I take on every project as if embarking on a diplomatic mission. Many of our clients come from within the financial sector and, without using too broad of a brush, it’s safe to say that most are not creative types.

The thought of having to make artistic decisions or engaging in the design process can cause some finance executives to opt-out in deference, dodge through delegation, or sometimes double down and drive a creative process without knowing how that process is best curated. Meanwhile, the creatives I represent can struggle to prioritize client needs over their own aesthetic taste. This communication disconnect can create silos and lead to disappointment on both sides. Branding is a form of creative — and creative is art — and it is often judged subjectively, where feelings and opinions matter more than facts. One might think a creative agency would celebrate the level of freedom this communication gap provides — after all, what artist doesn’t want free reign on their expression?

It’s important to remember, however, that branding is commercial art; meant to serve a purpose, sell a product, advertise a service, etc. These endeavors don’t have the luxury of being purely subjective. The most successful branding projects excel by both the metrics of beauty andbusiness. My role, as the diplomat, is to broker a deal between the goals of bottom-line focused clients and the inclinations of beautiful-is-better indoctrinated designers. So the goal is to make the subjective more objective— and we do so by bringing mutually agreeable facts to the table.

Our approach is to bring both sides to the table and make sure we can engage our clients in a way that brings them comfort and control. Communication is key, but you can only have clear communication with a common language… that’s why actual diplomats speak through interpreters to make sure nuance is not lost in translation. Our solution is to bring data analysis and creative quantification into our design process— especially on our branding team — which leads both verbal identity endeavors (brand naming) and visual identity endeavors (logo design or evolution). We are then able to put the “but I don’t have an artistic bone in my body” CEO at ease by speaking through a language they already use every day.

Our first step is to have the client complete a comprehensive project survey. This includes basic information: who they are, what they do, what is the brand story, etc. But what really informs us is information they share regarding their audience, or who they want their audience to be. Relying on research, social media data, and sector-specific information gleaned from our clients, we create an audience profile that includes habits and preferences, as well as trending industry standards. Sharing these data points with our clients is a good way to get everybody to the table; it allows us to steer the design ship in a better direction. Data can present facts that we can all agree upon.

At this point, we have the clients identify up to a dozen industry peers and guide them through a detailed critique of each of their competitors’ names or logos. For example, when exploring a logo evolution, we encourage clients to pick apart each competitive design, looking at all the elements separately: typeface (font), capitalization, color, layout, and the marque (symbol). As we dissect these logos, our clients start to wield their newfound vocabulary like old pros.

“This one’s a sans-serif slab font in title caps.”

“The color contrast is too stark. We want something softer.”

It’s enough to make a diplomat cry. [grin]

We continue to bridge the creative/corporate divide by helping these new art critics understand what they do and don’t like using a simple rating system for each piece of the competitors’ logos. Every aspect is given a rating on a 0-to-10 (hate-to-love) scale. This helps transform feelings into data and enables us to quantify subtle differences in collective preferences. All this information is summarized along with a peer audit, which paints a clear picture of any branding trends in their industry. For example, they may see that 80% of their competitors use the color blue, 60% use a serif typeface, and 90% include an icon or brand marque.

Once the data is assembled, we ask the client to consider the design development objective in the following terms:

  • How important is it to you that your brand be perceived as a part of the sector, equal-or-better than your peers/competitors?
  • How important is it to you that your brand differentiates yourself from your competitors?

If the endeavor includes a logo evolution or a rebranding, we may specifically ask them to consider:

  • If the current identity starts at zero, what percentage do you want to evolve your logo?

We have found that looking at design from a quantifiable perspective is a source of comfort for those who are used to assessing ROI. The mutually agreed-upon facts allow all of the parties to be objective when evaluating the creative. While this quant-forward approach requires a heavy pre-production lift from our branding team, having a detailed data profile to work from helps to level-set the design process so that the client and the designer are immediately on the same page. The front loaded investment pays-off as a shortcut to the end result more efficiently, once production starts.

In the end, most designers feel more comfortable in their world of aesthetics and emotional response, while their business-centric counterparts may not stray from their world of numbers. In my job as a design diplomat, I think we’ve found an effective way to bring everyone to the table. By embedding data analysis into an otherwise subjective process, we knock down the existing communication silos and deliver a better end result. When we make the creative process accessible to business leaders through quantification, they’re able to appreciate the value of creating a smart AND beautiful logo.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
— Steve Jobs

Townsend Belisle
Founder and CEO at Haystack Needle

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