5 Problems With ‘Universal’ Design

In the past, I’ve interviewed potential clients who have asked me for a design with ‘universal appeal’. On the surface, I completely understand their concern: they don’t want to alienate any potential customers with visuals that are too ‘out there’ in terms of design. That’s a legitimate desire (and I let them know that) but it’s also stupid (I don’t let them know that).

These clients are suffering from a malady that I myself and probably most fledgling designers once suffered from: the desire to appeal to everyone. It’s not my job to disabuse these potential clients of their bad marketing tactics. My job is to design highly targeted materials for clients who know the power of the niche. So I typically send these people – very likely to be horrible clients, were I to work with them – politely on their way.

But if you’re a designer struggling with a similar problem, don’t worry. Today, I’m here to help you, by exposing 5 of the biggest problems with ‘universally appealing’ design, and how to avoid falling for its seductive trap.

1. It’s Actually Not Universal At All

Think about who you’re really trying to please when you make a so-called ‘universal’ design for a client. While you’re thinking about it, let me tell you a story about a friend of mine who works in catering.

She serves hundreds of pre-planned meals to large groups of people at all sorts of events. Very often, she will encounter a lone person who comes up to the catering cart and demands a special type of dish that the crew hasn’t prepared. Chefs must become very good at declining weird requests, especially if they work on the go.

There’s just not enough time to attend to every specific person’s needs when there are hundreds of people to feed. The goal of any chef catering an event is to make sure the most number of people attending have the best dining experience possible.

Know Your Audience

When you’re designing a practical solution for a niche audience, you have to ignore the wishes of the outlying individuals in favor of the entire group. So that client who asks you for something ‘universal’ actually isn’t trying to appeal to the masses. He’s simply an outlier attempting to appease his own idea of what his target market wants. It’s clear he hasn’t done any kind of research to find out what the majority of his market would actually best respond to.

2. It’s Bland And Tasteless

Just like the world’s best fine dining, the world of design has many, multifaceted flavors. Making the ‘perfect’ design that will appeal to everyone is impossible. However, this doesn’t mean you should always be striving for the most unique and peculiar design in the world. Some people actually prefer to eat fast food versus an elaborately prepared gourmet meal, and that’s okay. You just have to know who you’re serving.

Remember, fancier doesn’t always equal better. Just like many people think opera music is boring and may prefer pop music instead, your niche audience may not be getting much out of your super high level design work.

If you’re a gourmet chef, embrace that. But if you’re a short order cook, then embrace that instead. Whatever your market’s definition of ‘bland’ might be, make sure you embody the opposite to make the biggest impact.

3. It Violates The ‘Magic Mirror’ Rule

If you’re familiar with the fairy tale Snow White, you know that the evil queen looks into a magic mirror that tells her who the fairest lady in all the land is. The answer, of course, is supposed to be herself. The queen has no desire to see anything not directly supportive of her hypothesis that she is, in fact, the fairest one of all. Am I getting way too analytical about Snow White? Perhaps, but I have a point, darn it.

In our modern world, where people have infinite choices, if they see that a product or service offering is not like a ‘magic mirror,’ directly for them and them alone, they tune out completely and close the browser window.

‘Why should I waste my time finding the bits of your sales copy that are relevant to me when your competitor is targeting me and my needs specifically with all of their copy? I don’t want to see examples of people and situations not relevant to me. I’m the fairest one of all, and I only want to see targeted marketing that supports my opinion.’

4. It Only Comes In One Size

And if you don’t think it is the case that people tune out and devalue things not directly targeted at them, consider your own buying habits. When was the last time you purchased a product or service from a ‘one size fits all’ company? Did you genuinely treasure that item?

Where is that item now on your hierarchy of possessions? Could you easily replace it with any one of a hundred different items from a different store? That’s what clients think when they come across a designer who tries to cater to everyone.

I’m not trying to suggest that cheap or bargain items don’t have their place. It makes little sense to purchase, say, an expensive designer pen when a cheaper one from the dollar store will do the same job. But for important purchases, like freelance design work, your client has to know that they’re getting real value, and not simply a generic solution that only comes in one size.

5. It’s In The Wrong Language

Lastly, consider the language you use to appeal to your target audience. I don’t mean literally hire a translator, but just that every niche group has its own idiosyncratic ways (that are quite distinct) of communicating with one another and digesting information.

This applies to visuals and user experience as much as to words and copy. You will have to adjust your communication style depending on which age ranges, income brackets, or education levels your viewers are in.

For example, if your target is men aged 25 to 45, that’s way too broad and ‘universal’ to make a real impact. A 25-year-old man has almost nothing in common with a 45-year-old man in terms of his life goals or desires. Even a niche market’s sense of humor can have a drastic impact on how they will view your design.

Don’t make the mistake of using the same language for every niche. Learn the specific needs of your target market and become fluent in them.

In Conclusion

Designers who try to cater to too many different individuals end up shooting themselves in the foot. It may seem intuitive, but really, it’s just the opposite. You wind up trying to please everyone in your target market, and ultimately because of this, you please no one.


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