by James Leal-Valias, Lead Creative Director at iStockphoto, the world’s leading community-powered marketplace for stock photography.

The Importance of Design in Digital Culture

Importance of Design Rises in Digital Culture

Practically all executives understand the importance of design on a purely intuitive level. The most successful among them also understand that critical business applications of design span beyond employee attire and office décor to the less tangible corporate (or brand) image—and that the importance of this image is continuously increasing in today’s business climate.

Typically created by a graphic designer or firm, a corporate image begins at identity and ties together all of the visual components of a business communications package, from stationery and Web site to product packaging and advertising. In contemporary business culture, the Apple brand and product suite are perhaps the best-known example of a well-crafted and consistently applied visual identity—and numerous lower-profile companies in all industry segments use the same graphic design principles with similarly positive results.

Designed materials—a business card, marketing brochure or Web site—are often the first point of contact between a business and its potential customers. In addition to the message, design choices of color, typography and photography have a critical influence on establishing and retaining a client base, because design exists to help the target audience identify with the advertised company or product.

Design for business: then and now
Graphic design has been a thriving industry since the mid-19th Century, evolving alongside publishing and other printing-based services. While this evolution has been gradual, recent technological developments have catapulted design to a much higher level of importance.

As the Internet grows, information and communications increasingly migrate from print to digital media. Print newspapers and magazines have been all but replaced by Web-based alternatives, and much corporate literature went the same way, with e-commerce cannibalizing mail order and basic Web sites doing the job of marketing brochures. One-on-one communications have also been profoundly changed by social networking sites and mobile devices; with more and more people communicating primarily via email, Facebook and Twitter—and businesses following with advertising and marketing strategies that reach potential customers in such environments.

Comparatively cheap digital real estate has ensured that new information and marketing channels vastly outnumber their print predecessors. Ever-evolving technologies enable advertisers and publishers to present messages in animated, video, audio and other interactive formats. The result? Consumers literally bombarded by messages. It is unsurprising that design—the visual form of these messages—has emerged as one of the primary methods of cutting through the competitive clutter.

Some companies choose the virtue of simplicity, opting for the clean aesthetic that’s become the hallmark of Web 2.0 style. Others experiment with technology-driven visual approaches, integrating animation and video to captivate audiences. Whatever the actual design choice, most businesses agree that design is growing in importance. In 2008, U.K.-based Design Council published research that showed more than half of the country’s businesses seeing design as more important to achieving business objectives than it was three years prior.

Now what?
For the executive at the helm of a business, now is a good time to examine whether the corporate image, Web site and other materials are in keeping with the visual demands of modern communications mediums. But how do you decide if your materials or company need a facelift?

In terms of the current design-for-business culture, the most important factor to consider is time: nothing designed more than five years ago remains effective today, with rare exceptions, such as particularly forward-looking corporate logos (such as Nike, for a popular example). A decade-old Web site’s marketing value is zero; it is not only outdated in terms of design and underlying technology, but is also completely not representative of the current online culture—even if its description of the widgets your company manufactures remains perfectly accurate.

Changes in social attitudes that affect consumer and business purchasing patterns—for instance, the continued global move towards more eco-conscious living—are another strong driver of corporate and product rebrands. Other common reasons include mergers, acquisitions and similarly large-scope changes in a business’s products or services, practices, vision, industry or geopolitical climate.

Enterprise-wide corporate image projects will typically require the assistance of external advertising, design, photography and numerous other agencies and consultants. However, it is important to remember that all business marketing and communications activities, including those handled by in-house staff, are growing increasingly visual. Conceptualizing products, projects and events needs to include a design component for maximum impact.

While technology has certainly made it more difficult for businesses to get noticed, it also gave working professionals a host of new design tools that range from desktop publishing software to a vast array of inexpensive online resources.

Our own iStockphoto offers a good example. A decade ago, we pioneered a business model now known as microstock, which eventually made millions of professional stock photographs available for licensing at a fraction of their previous cost—starting at around a dollar each. As the microstock industry evolved, the range of available design-related offerings grew; iStock currently offers photos, illustrations, video, audio and Flash files. Design is our business, and our experience shows that executives at all business levels routinely use all types of media to improve the appearance of PowerPoint presentations, proposals and other corporate collateral. Because design matters, and it matters now more than ever.