Design thinking is something anyone can learn to develop. Every problem has a creative solution waiting to be designed. Transport for London applied design thinking to solve a problem and create an opportunity.

In the past, a London Underground train station in the city’s northern suburbs was not considered safe after dark. Anti-social behavior was common and incidents were often violent. A simple intervention by Transport for London staff rid the station of its intimidating atmosphere when somebody had a bright idea.

The bright idea

Rather than paying for extra police officers to patrol the station at peak travel times, someone paid for a CD player. This simple, electronic device, first sold to consumers in 1982, delivered classical music throughout the station.

Immediately, the positive effects of the music were felt. Reporting that the move had “an extraordinary effect”, station staff said the music helped to make the station environment “calmer, softer, and more pleasant”. Gangs of bored teenagers that once loitered in the station moved on. Commuters appeared less agitated, walking calmly and slowly through the station they once rushed through.

Employing creativity to design solutions for problems is almost always hard to ‘sell in’ as results cannot easily be predicted. A design approach to problem-solving relies on insights rooted in empathy rather than proof. They require experimentation and imagination.

Who knows why classical music worked so well? Maybe, unbeknownst to anyone, it is physically impossible for one human being to mug another to the tune of Ave Maria.

A question of form and function

How many times have you heard someone say, “Let’s make a viral video” – without giving any thought to the contents of that video? How many of us are guilty of investing a lot of time writing a great article only to spend a mere minute or two deciding on artwork and layout?

Remember that form follows function. Every designer knows this, but it’s a critical message for content marketers. While one comes before the other, both are of equal importance.

“The form (design) of the marketing content must directly assist in achieving the function (goal),” says Turtl designer Alistair MacRobert.

When approached in the right way, design can solve problems, simplify complex data, prioritize ideas, drive engagement, and increase impact. As notes,

“Let’s face it: if you buy something to perform a function, you want it to perform well. If it doesn’t, you’re probably going to stop using it or ask for your money back, no matter how good it looks. However, if you hate the way a product looks, you’re less likely to buy it in the first place.”

The same principle applies to your content – it should functionally fulfill its purpose at the same time as being physically appealing to your audience.

Design principles for non-designers

From deciding which typeface to use, to selecting a color scheme, each design choice you make will have implications for your content.

Taking the time to think about the end goal – the function of a piece of content – ahead of time will help with designing its form.

Turtl designer Alistair MacRobert gives these tips:

  1. Keep it simple. White space is important. Don’t overcrowd a page, rather use more pages. This allows for ‘breathing room’ and a pleasant flow of information.
  2. Composition is key. Placing objects in a certain order or hierarchy can lead a reader’s eye across the page, ideally towards a CTA.
  3. Balance is also important. Presenting the reader with too much text may cause them to lose interest. In contrast, if there is hardly any text, content may be regarded as ‘thin’. In addition, strike a balance between images and text.

As designer Paul Jarvis says: “Less is always more. Non-designers seem to always want to add elements; more fonts, more colors, more stuff to make it ‘pop’ or stand out. Design works best when it’s focused and to the point.”

Good design is about knowing what to leave out

Knowing what to omit during the design process is just as critical to the design process as knowing what to include. Magazine editors have worked this way since the dawn of time. They understand that the content they commission and write is, by necessity, subservient to the page grid and layout created by the art director.

A journalist writing up an important investigative story could feel justified in churning out pages and pages of copy that they feel is essential to the narrative. However, that is prevented by the design of the ‘product’ which dictates how many words make up even the most splash-worthy lead story.

As Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland explains: “Creativity is often seen as an extravagant luxury, self-indulgence. The reality is that the best creative thinkers spend most of their time asking questions like ‘Does the project need this?’ and ‘Can it work without that?’”

For a magazine or newspaper, the editor might be the number one decision-maker in terms of content. However, equal to him or her in many ways, is the art director. The art director is almost a ‘brand director’ role. For example, they own the look, feel, functionality, and user experience of the publication.

Digital design tools to help

You don’t have to be an art director to incorporate digital design into your marketing campaigns. There are several, excellent design resources out there, from tools to help you pick great fonts and color schemes, to tools that create visually stunning patterns for you to customize.  See our full list.

Explore the tools and discover how design can improve your content marketing today with our guide below 👇.

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