Designing for your target audience

Default avatar.
December 27, 2011
Some of the truest words I've heard to date are, "If you don't plan on creating your own business, then you plan on being broke." While, there are many people out there who have made a nice living working for other companies, it shouldn't be crazy to think about going into business for oneself, whether it be a full time job or a part time gig. With the changing economic climate things aren't guaranteed and, quite frankly, the time spent helping someone else achieve their goals could be time well spent on chasing your own dreams. As graphic designers, freelancing and creating our own small business is usually a pretty common thought; it's almost a given. Even if we don't market ourselves as freelancers, I'm sure some of us have gotten into doing side jobs to put some extra cash in our pockets. Some designers just like to offer design services while others have full businesses revolving around clothing design or creating products, or perhaps partnering with someone else to offer more products and services. Regardless of what it is that you do, in order to see some growth in your business you've got to figure out who you are targeting. Many of us may believe that our product is for everyone, but trying to get your product in front of everyone is going to be painful and expensive. What you want to do is figure out who you are specifically targeting, figure out that niche and put your efforts into them. Finding out more about them will help your effectiveness and eventually help your reach because once you know who you're selling to, you'll better know how to design for them.

Before we get started...

If you've never taken the time out to do some customer research, don't go nuts now. Hopefully you have enough customers to try and figure it out, or perhaps you have developed your product or service far enough to know around about who you think you can pitch it to. The biggest mistake is to throw your product or service into everyone's face and hope that they bite. That's a part of working hard, but in business you want to work smart. So here are some things to get you started on figuring out who purchases and should be purchasing your product.

Who are they?

The first thing you have to figure out about your target audience is who they are. What kind of things do they do? What kind of music do they listen to? What products do they use? How old are they? The answers to these questions and many more will help you better understand the people you are designing for. Getting an understanding of these individuals helps you create with ease and make something you know will relate to them and end up communicating well. As a young designer, I notice that I take an interest in flyers and brochures that relate to me with great design techniques, a clear message, and a professional look. I've also been known to brake for really creative ideas or illustrations and things of that nature. I like that type of thing, so for me it's easy to want to create that type of thing but the truth is the audiences I sometimes end up designing for could probably care less about design and making things clean and professional. It sounds absurd but it's true; you've got to relate to the audience. Again, you have to know the target audience. If you or your client have no idea who you're designing for, you're really taking a stab in the dark and hoping and praying you come up with something. There are times when you may have a wide variety of people in your audience, but you've got to find a commonality between the majority of folks.

Do the research

Finding out more about your audience does not have to be rocket science and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It's not about how you get your information, but what questions you ask and what you decide to do with it. Let's say for example, you run a brick and mortar t-shirt store. You've got a shirt design that sells really well, but you want to know how to create more like it. If you have a low volume of folks coming through, just ask them what attracts them to the particular shirt. Not only are you doing research here, but you're making connections with your customers. If you have more volume, or you run an online store, create a quick and concise survey that asks the questions. Also be aware that you've got to ask the right questions. If I want to know why people like that t-shirt design, I'm not going to ask them what size shirt they wear, I'm going to focus on the design. For example, why they like the design or what it means to them. You want to ask questions that will help you figure your audience out and help you make educated guesses on the things they'll like in the future. Keep in mind, demographic information is only useful to a certain extent. You still need to figure out what your audience likes and what they feel (as well as what they like to feel). Don't get so caught up in asking the regular boring questions about age and income that you forget to ask about their interests as well. New products may make it hard to figure out your target audience, but you can research similar products and do beta testing. With your beta testing, you can continue to survey your group of users not just on the effectiveness on the product, but about all things design-related as well. Also, keep in mind that who you intend to purchase your product is not always the same person who will purchase it. Oftentimes, we will have a big great idea and we feel like we know who's going to buy it, but sometimes it doesn't always go as we plan. This is why beta testing and gathering information are important.

What are you doing?

Once you feel like you have a good grasp on your target market, you need to have an even better grasp of what you're trying to do or what it is you are trying to design for. If you are trying to sell a product or service, what are you trying to convey about that product or service? When you come to this step it's easy to want to set up some sort of feature-benefit analysis. This means, for example, if you are trying to sell your graphic design services, you may feature that you do great print design as well as web design, so your benefit is that you're a "one-stop-shop." That's really nice, but you've got to be more than that. Try to highlight what you can do for them and not just your skill set. Say that your print designs have the ability to captivate the intended audience, not just that you can do print design. Say that your web designs allow users to connect with a company in ways that were never imagined. Say that your product isn't just a product but it contributes to your life in much deeper ways. Knowing what your target audience likes and is interested in will help you come up with these types of things much easier. It's not wrong to display the features and the benefits—for some audiences that's all you really need. But in a competitive market, you have to know what makes your audience react and whether or not your product or service has that.

Design basics

After you have gathered all your information and you feel like you're understanding your purpose and your audience, then it's time to do your designing. Just because you're designing with greater intentions does not mean you forget any of your fundamentals. You must continue to incorporate all the theories of design so that you can make an effective piece of design. The greatest fundamental theory that you cannot ever lose is be visual hierarchy. As a designer, you have to remember and understand that you have all the power of figuring out what your audience looks at when they look at a flyer or a package. Use that to your advantage in everything you do. This theory basically states that you create hierarchy or importance based on what is the biggest and what is the smallest. While that's the first contributor, the second contributor is going to be placement. Your most important visual, whether it be a headline or a picture, should be above or at eye level. Putting it below eye level or out of the initial view is a complete and total waste of time. With visual hierarchy, you want to keep in mind the layout, the balance of the layout, and good proximity. These are just the basics to ensure that you have some sort of order and cleanliness about whatever it may be you are designing. A lot of times, we want people to stop and notice something crazy we've done with a layout or something, but we shouldn't be reinventing the wheel, we should just be making sure everything makes sense and is legible. You want whoever sees your visual to get the main points even if they're only passing by.

Putting the two together

Knowing your fundamentals of graphic design is essential. That's going to make sure your audience, whomever they may be, can understand what it is you are trying to say. The purpose in researching your audience and getting to know them is that when it is time to design, the visual speaks to them and gets them to move. As I said before, as a graphic designer, I just want to do fun designs with crazy colors, cool shapes, and illustrations. For my own personal business that works, because I tend to cater to trendier, younger folks who are interested in trying new things. However, sometimes I get a client who is less interested in that. I sometimes get clients who are extremely corporate, so I have to pull myself in a bit as they aren't interested at all in cool and crazy designs. I don't bore them to death with my design, but I will make sure there is focus on what needs focus. Many times we can get caught up in ourselves and what we want, but it has nothing to do with what we want, and everything to do with what the audience wants. If you feel like in your design you want to be extremely creative with what you're doing, you have to have a purpose for that. You have to know that that is something your audience will respond to. Being unnecessarily creative and crazy can alienate a large portion of your target audience if that's not what they are into. The ultimate goal with whatever you are designing is to get the people to move. You have to relate to them in a way in which they get. If you are catering to 60+ year-olds, you're not going to use pastel colors and illustrations to attract them. If you are trying to attract teenagers, you probably aren't going to use earth tones and photos of older people to get them to do something. You have to know the demographic and, most importantly, the psychographics (how they think, feel, etc.). When you have a real understand of the psychographics you can get them to do anything. If you want them to feel excited about your product and elite for owning it, you should know how to convey that to them. You should also know that's what they want to feel about your product. Creating a visual doesn't have to be extremely forward. You do want them to think about your product a bit and let it relate to them. Basically while you are worrying about your target or niche market, every so often you have a person that comes along that doesn't fit any of your research, but you don't want to shut them out completely. Use design to tap into making someone feel a certain way because that's what gets people interested in your product or service. Try to put yourself in their shoes—what would you like to see and what would you not like to see? Even if it's unrelated to your product, put yourself in a consumer's shoes. For example, I dislike picking up a flyer or seeing a site for a real estate agent and the only visual given is a nice glamor shot of the agent. What is that doing for me? How does that make me want to purchase property? Well, it doesn't. If you were to create a visual and just have a picture of yourself or even just the product or service, how would that really make a customer want to make a purchase?

Designing your website

One of the most important visuals you will have and use, is your website. Some people are just going to stumble on it and want more information, and some are going to go to your website specifically in an attempt to gain more information. You have to keep your research consistent with the visuals on your website. Part of your research should indicate why customers come to your website and what they desire from the site. Many designers and owners believe a website's sole purpose is to tell everyone about your product or service and why it's completely awesome. Well, I beg to differ. A website is supposed to be an extension of your business and should be used to communicate with current customers as well as potential customers. Keep it consistent with your target market and make yourself available on your website. Make sure you have a clear message on your site—if you sell several products try to highlight one. If you have several different services highlight one or highlight the reasons why people keep coming back; create a feeling. No matter the demographics of your audience, your website should be clear and consistent.

More on research

As graphic designers and/or as business owners, we have to learn how to understand marketing tactics as well as research. Determining a target market doesn't take a lot, but you do want to make sure you're doing it in a way that suits your needs. Your business and your clients depend on the visuals you make—if they end up being non-effective, that tends to be a direct reflection of your work. Once again, you want to make sure you are working smart (by doing your research and utilizing it), rather than working hard (creating a bunch of blind visuals hoping someone picks it up). It can sometimes be a tough concept to understand, so I've added some pretty solid and helpful resources. Have you had experience switching from a large audience to selecting your target? What was your experience?

Kendra Gaines

Kendra Gaines is a freelance designer from Virginia, USA. Connect with her.

Read Next

20 Best New Websites, April 2024

Welcome to our sites of the month for April. With some websites, the details make all the difference, while in others,…

Exciting New Tools for Designers, April 2024

Welcome to our April tools collection. There are no practical jokes here, just practical gadgets, services, and apps to…

14 Top UX Tools for Designers in 2024

User Experience (UX) is one of the most important fields of design, so it should come as no surprise that there are a…

What Negative Effects Does a Bad Website Design Have On My Business?

Consumer expectations for a responsive, immersive, and visually appealing website experience have never been higher. In…

10+ Best Resources & Tools for Web Designers (2024 update)

Is searching for the best web design tools to suit your needs akin to having a recurring bad dream? Does each…

3 Essential Design Trends, April 2024

Ready to jump into some amazing new design ideas for Spring? Our roundup has everything from UX to color trends…

How to Plan Your First Successful Website

Planning a new website can be exciting and — if you’re anything like me — a little daunting. Whether you’re an…

15 Best New Fonts, March 2024

Welcome to March’s edition of our roundup of the best new fonts for designers. This month’s compilation includes…

LimeWire Developer APIs Herald a New Era of AI Integration

Generative AI is a fascinating technology. Far from the design killer some people feared, it is an empowering and…

20 Best New Websites, March 2024

Welcome to our pick of sites for March. This month’s collection tends towards the simple and clean, which goes to show…

Exciting New Tools for Designers, March 2024

The fast-paced world of design never stops turning, and staying ahead of the curve is essential for creatives. As…

Web Tech Trends to Watch in 2024 and Beyond

It hardly seems possible given the radical transformations we’ve seen over the last few decades, but the web design…