Design genius
Gemma Ballinger / Bloomsbury, July 2014

Bloomsbury’s new publication Design Genius celebrates the creative thought processes of 69 leading artists, designers, creative agencies, animators, illustrators and typographers. Our Client Services Director Gemma Ballinger was asked to write a piece on how research and insight informs and helps innovate Studio Output’s daily work.

How would you characterise the traditional approach to research and what are its shortcomings?
Traditional approaches such as desk-based research, stakeholder interviews, workshops and customer interviews or focus groups can allow you to amass a huge amount of qualitative data. However, people can get bogged down in the process and the result is often one you could have achieved with a quicker sample of work. Research has to be useful, and not just a process at the start of a creative project. The research process needs to have very clear outcomes – to immerse your team in a brand, to understand an audience, to find out what stakeholders really want a campaign to do. Often there isn’t enough time or budget to speak to a wide enough sample to get an accurate view, so you need to be creative and run with what you’ve got.

How important are focus groups now data gathering has developed?
Focus groups are definitely useful for getting valuable face-to-face time with stakeholders or customers, and for testing ideas and gauging immediate responses. They can also give a much better idea of a person’s emotional response to a piece of work, and uncover new ideas that the internal team might not have thought of. Whilst you might think you completely understand the audience, but never underestimate the value in actually speaking to them directly. Focus groups can of course have their down-sides. Group situations are often dominated by a strong character, so one-to-one interviews, although time-consuming, tend to be more effective. You should also be aware that if someone knows they are being tested or analysed, they may not always give a natural reaction to a product or service.

Research tends to focus on target market rather than capabilities and reputation of the client. To what extent should designers take an inward looking approach before looking at the market?
It’s really important to start off by looking inwards. You need to learn everything you can about the client: research all their previous work, understand the motivations of the person who has commissioned the work, PR sources, conduct interviews and workshops with stakeholders. You also need to understand the evolving place of brands in consumer’s lives. This means you’ll have a much better grasp of the client’s potential before speaking to the target market. There’s often a very big difference between where the client wants to be in comparison to how the target market actually perceives them, which can be quite revealing once reported back to the client.

Work – naturally outward looking – what does that involve?
Research is a key element of any project we take on and really helps to immerse us in a brand, so we can help them connect to their audiences more effectively. Technology, and how that can nurture creativity, is something that is really important to us too – we always want to produce new and exciting work, so we have to understand innovation. We encourage our team to step away from client work to look at what’s going on around them, whether that’s reading blogs and magazines, attending talks and exhibitions, experiencing interesting retail environments, or even researching for our own insight events. You have to look at the widest range of sources for inspiration to create fresh work. Our creative team run weekly ‘show and tell’ sessions, led by the creative director where they present things they’ve seen that inspire them. This is then shared between our four studios to spread the inspiration further!

How do you structure your research projects?
We generally start with a workshop with key stakeholders from the client side. This really helps to get everyone on the same page. If it’s a brand strategy piece, we might need to work out why the brand exists and what their point of difference is so we can then write a creative brief which will be the starting point for our work. In preparation for these sessions, we’ll conduct a brand analysis to review where they sit in the marketplace, who their audience is, what their USPs are, what existing brand and campaigns are doing, and what their key challenges are.

If it’s a fully-formed visual brief, the creative team will write treatments and creative proposals, supported by mood boards and scamps, and then refine them in to around 3 routes. We try to use inspiration and references from as wide a range of sources as possible. The constant research we undertake means we have a wide bank of resources and inspiration to draw on when any project starts.

If carrying out a larger research project we may undertake design-based research, stakeholder interviews, larger workshops or focus groups, and then analyse the findings to form starting points for our creative work.

Why do you host networking events? How do they contribute to your creativity?
Our insight and Glug Networking events have been a brilliant way to build a network of creative contacts, and have allowed us to develop relationships with some of the most creative people around. We host quarterly insight events for clients and contacts with industry leading speakers which have been a huge benefit to both inspire our creativity and also show us in a positive light to our clients. We get to know creatives from diverse industries, from cutting-edge tech brands, to trends-agencies and makers. We often we often end up collaborating with someone we’ve met at one of our events. They also get us out of the office and having a good time together over a few drinks, which is very important to keep a happy working environment!

This article was originally published in ‘Design Genius, The Ways and Workings of Creative Thinkers’ by Gavin Ambrose.
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