Make Any Design Really Pop

by Brian James Rawson
March 5, 2024

Welcome to the Owl Street Studio blog where we look at how marketing and design affect the unexpected areas of our lives.

Today we’re talking about graphic design and looking at what makes a design pop. In other words, how does a design grab your attention? And don’t worry, you don’t have to know anything about graphic design to get something from this episode.

Graphic Design’s Real Job

To know what makes a design pop, we need to know what a design is supposed to do in the first place. See, graphic design has a specific job to do. A design has to do two things. It must convey information, and it must create behaviors. And to see this in action, imagine this….

You’re in Barnes and Noble. You go from aisle to aisle. You go through the coffee shop and past the magazines, and finally, there it is. There, at the end cap, it jumps out at you. The new best seller you’ve been waiting for. And, right here, on the bestseller’s book cover, we can see graphic design doing its job.

First, the book cover design conveys information. It communicates information like the book title, the author name, the genre, the intended audience, and more. Check, check, check. But that’s just one half of the job.

The cover must also create behaviors. It must grab your attention and get you to take action. For example, the book cover gets you to notice the book, pick up the book, open the book, and buy the book. All of these things are separate actions and behaviors that are directly and indirectly influenced by the graphic design. But how do you create behaviors? Well, creating behaviors starts with grabbing your attention. In other words, it starts with making a design pop.

Theme and variations creates captivating designs

But how do you do that? How do you create attention grabbing designs? The secret to compelling, captivating, attention grabbing, “popping” designs is this: theme and variations. And, unless you’re a music nerd, you might be unfamiliar with that term, so here’s a quick explainer.

Theme and variation is a classical music genre. It’s a type of music where the melody constantly repeats and, with each repetition, one or more aspects of the melody is changed, adjusted, or altered. For example, one repetition (aka variation) may play the melody faster or slower than the original. Or another variation may transpose the melody from a major key to a minor key. Basically, theme and variations is all about the push and pull between the familiar and the unexpected, and good design does the same thing.

A good designer knows what’s familiar and expected and simultaneously knows how to subvert all of those expectations and create something unfamiliar yet recognizable. And it’s this push and pull between the unexpected and the familiar that makes a design grab your attention.

Research creates captivating designs

So how do designers do this? How do they create a theme and variations? How do they balance the familiar and the unexpected? Well, to balance the familiar and the unexpected and create attention grabbing designs, great designers do this. They research.

To create truly attention grabbing designs, good designers need in-depth knowledge and information about multiple areas. For instance, they need to know the target audience for the design (and usually there’s multiple target audiences for any given design). They need to know industry norms and social context, and they need to know the brand guidelines and direction.

And the only way to get all this info is through research. Research is the bedrock of great design. A designer should always research before they ever put pen to paper or copy and paste to Adobe Indesign. So before you design anything, make sure you do your research. You need to deeply understand your competitors and industry, your clients and customers, and your culture and social context.

For example, if you’re a fast food restaurant, you’d research your industry and find that your competitors often use the colors red, yellow, and green like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Subway, Noodles & Company, and Chipotle.

And you’d learn the graphic design styles and social norms of your target audience. For example, Gen Z favors more Brutalist Design and other internet driven aesthetics while Millennials favor more Minimalist styles and Modernist aesthetics. (To be clear these are both [excuse the pun] broad brush stroke examples, and a good designer should have a deeper knowledge of the target audience than this simple example). Allllll of that to say, a good designer needs to know a lot about a lot.

Ratios create captivating designs

A designer needs to know all of this because a good designer needs to know what’s familiar before they can create something unexpected. But, there’s also another reason. With this knowledge, a designer can also find the best ratios.

A good design isn’t just about the familiar and the unexpected. It’s also about the ratio between the two. For example, if a design is all familiar and has nothing unexpected, the design is boring. On the other hand, if a design is all surprise without anything familiar, the design is confusing.

So a designer has to know what’s normal, and then they need to know how far past normal they can go before they lose their audience. Like different flavor profiles where some people like spicy food and others like mild food, each audience has different tolerance levels for novelty and familiarity. Some like more novelty while others like more familiarity, and a good designer would know this and know how to cater to their specific audience by using the most effective ratio of the familiar and unexpected.

Recap of Everything So Far

So we’ve covered a lot today. We talked about the job of graphic design. We looked at a Barnes and Noble bestseller to see how design must convey information and create behaviors. We then explained how a design creates behaviors by grabbing your attention. And we ended by walking through how theme and variations, research, and ratios are the magic sauce to creating attention grappling, popping designs.

But we’re still just scratching the surface. Everything we’ve talked about is just a brief summary of some of the essential points of graphic design. So before you jump into any design, take the time to dig deeper into each point we went through today. Of course a great place you can learn more and get more resources is our blog. We have hours of videos, podcasts, and articles (like the one you’re reading right now) that cover everything from market research and social media marketing to team diversity and inclusion.

Plus, we’re always here to support you. At anytime, you can start your project with us. Just use the link below.

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