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2020.10.07

Designing For Impact, Influence + Identity

When was the last time a piece of design truly stood out to you? Was it the color? The composition? The message it conveyed?

For Trollback Design Director Nadia Husain, the work of making something truly memorable all comes down to emotion. At a time where distractions, divisions, and calls for attention are at an all-time high, we couldn’t agree more.

This month, the creative mind behind several of Trollback’s top 2020 projects shares her thoughts on making design memorable and meaningful for a new era of creative empathy.

A lot of people in this industry use the word “impact” — a word that can have so many different meanings to so many people. As an artist and designer, what does “impact” mean to you?

When I think about impact I think about influence and identity. To me, it’s bigger than visual choices, being eye-catching, or following the latest design trends. It’s more about how we can influence the way a brand feels and functions in order to shape its identity.

In order to make that kind of impact meaningful, we need all the elements of the design system we create and the tools we build from to work together. Sometimes that does mean a need to be loud and edgy but sometimes there’s a need to be more subtle and sort through those emotional needs in a more nuanced way. Impact isn’t always about being forceful.

How does that translate into your approach as a designer?

My approach starts with trying to empathize with the audience I’m serving. I find that leads to tapping into feelings I didn’t even know existed, or trying to express feelings I’ve never been able to define before. I’ve found this works wonders for understanding an audience in new ways, and paying attention to audiences that haven’t really been paid attention to before. 

Another part of my approach is learning the history of something — a person, a brand, or a company, and how that may have an impact on what’s happening in the world today. It’s about accepting and shifting with the culture, which is hard for a lot of people to do. When I was thinking about this question earlier today, I kept coming back to that place where in other cultures, there are so many words that aren’t translatable in English that convey or describe a feeling. I always love those because that’s the sort of thing I’m drawn to when designing — It’s understanding that emotions are so deep that no one word or culture can describe it.

What are some of your go-to techniques to making a design memorable or impactful? Are there any approaches you aren’t a huge fan of?

Well, everyone has their own process in design. Design trends and techniques are pretty fun and it’s good to be aware of them. But when someone says ‘Oh it’s the 70’s vibe’ or ‘the 2000’s vibe,’ I try not to focus too much on the visual trends, but the emotional tone of the moment and the shifts in culture that drive it. I think about vibe as being more about the emotions that define an era of time.

Some of my other techniques are in observation. Listen, read, watch, especially when representing perspectives that are different from my own. For every audience, I try to work through where they’re coming from, how their life experiences might have shaped them. I always try to observe without judgment and consider their narrative instead of my own. Learning and trying to understand the emotional perspectives of others is hugely influential in all of my work.

Speaking of emotions and perspectives, are there any feelings that you find you have been conjuring up a lot lately in your creative practice?

Hah, I love the term “conjuring feelings” because it totally feels that way. Much of the time, I don’t have any problem conjuring a feeling — the hard part is navigating that feeling when it does arise. Where do you put it? How do you channel it? Or communicate it?

Right now, there’s a big cloud of uncertainty moving in the air. It feels heavy, it sticks around, it’s distracting, and it can be hard to let it flow through you. For so long, “risk taking” or “disrupting” has been the rallying cry of so many big brands. Now, the feeling is shifting, and it may be shifting for a while.  And that’s all part of accepting the culture and emotional tone of the era.

How has your creative practice changed in 2020? Do you feel like it’s more or less difficult to feel engaged with the design community right now? 

I don’t feel more or less engaged, just differently engaged. Some areas I find I’m doing more and other areas not so much. I do feel more siloed. I’m doing a lot more creative thinking on my own, which is a different challenge for me. Though I’m introverted, I do like having a creative community around me to bounce ideas off of, and I think we all absorb each others’ emotions. It’s nice to feel the creative buzz in the studio, and I definitely miss that.

Another interesting challenge though is that I’ve had a lot more space to deal with and try to understand the emotions I’m designing with, because there are fewer tactile ways to distract myself. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, just a challenge and a chance for significant growth for sure.

Do you feel like your approach to emotion and culture and audience is underrepresented in the creative community?

Well, I feel like this idea of learning and trying to understand the emotional perspectives of others, in general, is probably underrepresented in all industries. I think if, as a culture, we considered approaching the way we do business with a bit more empathy, the horizon might be a lot different than it is now.

How can designers work to improve the industry, to better connect people, to encourage their clients to be brave enough to have empathy for others?

I try to remember to keep listening. Asking questions before offering opinions, and if others are having a hard time speaking up, or speak in ways I might not understand, I try again. Practice empathy and encouragement, and work to understand where my own feelings, including my biases, might be coming from. 

Finally, are there any recent projects we can take a look at that show this approach in action? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about two specific projects from this year: our recent redesign of TBS and Mixteca, an upcoming strategy and visual identity we worked on for a grassroots, Latinx organization. Working on a brand for a big TV network versus a small nonprofit that works for immigrant communities feels so different. Even though the brand assets were similar, what we need each brand to do and communicate, as well as who we are communicating to, is totally different.

One of the benefits to getting to know our audience emotionally is that it makes the design process really fun and collaborative. I get to learn a whole new perspective, and it takes the design to places I wouldn’t have gone if I was just designing for myself. That’s what’s fun to me. It’s how I get to “unexpected,” and keeps me excited about doing this every time.