Learn design language and communicate effectively
Travelling as a backpacker with no definite itinerary feels exhilarating. I am not afraid of being lost because most times, the locals do their best to communicate, even with a broken English.
But my latest foreign travel was different because I chose to go to Japan.
Fun fact: The Japanese predominantly speak in Nihongo and almost all of the signages are written in kanji. What’s more challenging is that the locals are too shy to speak English. The language barrier is made of vibranium.
With the 2 Japanese phrases I have remembered by heart (Arigato “Thank you” and Sumimasen “Excuse Me”), I was able to travel for 7 days. One especially memorable day was when I booked a walking tour with a local who spoke English.
It was my most talkative day ever. I asked a lot of questions, visited less touristy places, and was able to appreciate Japan deeply. Someone finally understood me and I understood them. Through my newfound friend, I broke the language barrier.
Language barriers cause misunderstandings and miscommunication. When a client and a designer communicate, even if they both speak English, there is a deeper gap which is in the language of design.
Learn Design Language
Design is one of those things that everyone has an opinion about, but can’t always easily explain. Maybe you’re trying to describe how you want your website to look like. Perhaps you’re trying to show that you want the new logo to look like.
Your designer must understand the business (or at least the design brief), and the client must know the language needed to communicate their idea. It’s a two-way street.
The designer’s dictionary
Did you know that there are 144 different names for blue (and all its shades)? How about the 50 names that Eskimos use to describe snow? The language variation is because of the object’s consistent presence in the speaker’s environment.
Now, you do not have to memorize the 144 shades of blue to request a design. You just have to know the basic terms. Think of this list as a Swiss knife of sorts, which can help you communicate efficiently without the need for fluency.
Here are some commonly used terms when it comes to design. The list can get a lot longer but I have only included the most useful ones usually mentioned during revision requests.
In time, with a wider design vocabulary, you can succinctly communicate the changes you need.
Typography (aka Font)
Most people know this as “the font”. But the font is only part of the typography. Typography is the art of arranging letters and text in a way that makes the copy legible, clear, and visually appealing.
Words, when presented, have to guide the reader’s eyes on what to read first, or what is important. This is the best use of hierarchy.
The first, most important words you read are the title (H1). Next, you read the chapter titles (H2). Then, you may find subheadings (H3) within each chapter, which further break down the content into smaller chunks.
Kerning is the spacing between letters or characters in a piece of text.
The contrast in visual design can be defined as the difference between two or more elements in a composition. The more the difference between the elements, the greater they are easy to compare and comprehend.
RGB means Red Green Blue: the primary colours in additive colour synthesis. Graphic designers and print providers use the RGB colour model for any type of media that transmits light, such as computer screens.
RGB is ideal for digital media designs because these mediums emit colours like red, green, or blue light.
CMYK refers to the four ink plates used in some colour printing: cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black). CMYK printing is the standard in the industry.
CMY covers most lighter colour ranges quite easily, compared to using RGB which is why this is used more for printing. Moreover, CMY has a much wider range of colours compared to just RGB.
Hex (Color Hex Code)
A colour hex code is a hexadecimal way to represent a colour in RGB format by combining three values – the amounts of red, green, and blue in a particular shade of colour.
These colour hex codes have been an integral part of HTML for web design, and remain a key way of representing colour formats digitally.
A palette is the range of colours used in a particular picture. This is especially used as one of the brand guidelines.
Warm colours vs Cool colours
Warm colours are orange, red, yellow, and combinations of these. As the name indicates, they tend to make you think of warm things, such as sunlight and heat. Cool colours are blue, green, and light purple. They can calm and soothe.
Knowing the difference can help you choose which one is more effective for a specific campaign, product, or service.
Gradients, also known as color transitions, are a gradual blending from one colour to another. The gradient design adds depth and dimension to the otherwise flat graphic.
Opacity is the extent to which something blocks light.
White space is the area between design elements – like typography, images, and elements. Despite its name, white space does not need to be white. It can be any colour, texture, pattern, or even a background image.
Alignment helps create a sharp, ordered appearance for ultimately better designs by ensuring your various elements have a pleasing connection with each other.
Center, right, or left-aligned text is the most common, but you can also align text to other objects in your graphic.
Design Language is visual. Use the right medium.
You can’t just shout instructions to someone deaf. You cannot ask the blind to read a printed manual either. To communicate effectively, the message is effective if the right medium is used – one that is also used by the receiver.
When it comes to design, you can’t convey 100% of your ideas with words. Send an example, like a picture of what you have in mind. Present your ideas visually — not only verbally — and allow the designer to understand and work with your vision.
Use visual pegs, photos of designs you like, sketches, and annotation tools to describe what you want. Not only is it more effective, but it’s also much faster because it’s the medium most designers understand.
Commonly misunderstood phrases in design language
Non-designers are notorious for giving vague feedback and, unfortunately, it doesn’t push design creation forward. Here is a list of commonly misunderstood phrases and an attempt to understand what the client really means.
What clients say: I don’t like it. (full stop)
What designers hear: crickets
Give your designer something to work on. Even if you do not like a single thing about the design, 😢 send your designer a list of what should be changed. Doing so will bring the design closer to what you envision.
If you stop at “I don’t like it”, you are depriving the designer of an opportunity to make the design better and deliver what you need.
What clients say: It’s not there yet. Keep making more versions and I’ll tell you when I see it.
What designers hear: You do not know what you want so anything I deliver won’t hit the mark.
If you do not know what you want, your designer will not know how to help.
When you have a headache, you take ibuprofen. When you have a fever, you take paracetamol. In order to find a cure for your pain, you need to know where it is in the first place. Prescribing the wrong medication can be a disaster.
With design, if you can’t explain what’s in your head, a hundred revisions won’t matter.
What clients say: Make the logo bigger (than everything else)
What designers hear: The company or product lacks in branding
Making the logo bigger is a common duct tape solution of non-designers for the lack of branding.
Many think that by making the logo more visible, customers will buy. The logo is only a part of the branding. Have a look at the rest of the elements such as colours, tonality, images, and typography. Unifying them is better for recall.
A bigger logo isn’t going to get someone to care about your company if the product and your story don’t resonate with them.
What clients say: Make it pop.
What designers hear: I need to highlight something, somewhere.
So, what does “pop” mean, exactly? Is “pop” the colour, the copy, or the size? Does it mean “make the design more trendy”? As the client, you have to be more specific on what element needs to be different.
Before you close a ticket or give up on the design because it needs more “pop”, try to go back to your design brief or ask for input from your colleagues. Then show examples to your designer of what you like/dislike to give them a place to start.
What clients say: It needs a WOW factor.
What designers hear: You need a more elaborate, out-of-the-box design.
Designers are expected to always be creative, but at the same time, every design they make has a goal that you, the client, will specify.
So, before you ask for “a wow factor”, it helps to step back and think about what the goal really is. Sure, you want to awe your audience with your latest ad, but how? Is it the only way to get your customers to click a button to sign up or buy?
Out-of-the-box designs are risky unless there is a more pressing need for them.
When I travelled to Japan, I sought first to understand then to be understood.
I know that the only way for me to get the most out of my travel is to do my homework, remember a few key phrases, and intentionally ask for help from those who know the language by heart.
Work closely and consistently with your designer. Build a relationship with them. With a constant feedback loop, you will learn each other’s language and preferences and, with time, the design creation will feel seamless and enjoyable.