updated: February 14th, 2020 / Ross Johnson / 0 Comments

Using Design Adjectives to Determine Look and Feel

One of the biggest challenges in interface design is identifying the tone or personality the visual layer should convey.

This is commonly referred to as “look and feel,” however this terminology glosses over an important caveat— something can be aesthetically pleasing while communicating the wrong message (i.e. a website for kids could look beautiful but the visuals could feel closer to an accounting firm than something for learning environments.

Ultimately we’re talking about communication. The colors, typography, imagery, whitespace, etc… all work together to send a particular message to the viewer. This is the fifth layer in our Six Layers of Design methodology.

So how do you figure out what the design should communicate and what emotions it should invoke? If you’re working with an organization that doesn’t have clearly established brand guidelines or is looking to change their visual language this could be a tricky task.

You could ask stakeholders within the organization directly, “What should this communicate and how should it look and feel?” Unfortunately, this rarely produces the right insights. Not everyone has the experience and training to answer that question, and more often than not, responses refer to personal preferences over what’s the best fit. You could ask to see examples of design that the stakeholders feel is a good fit but again becomes more focused on personal preferences than actual outcomes.

Having a conversation is a good starting point, but you need to ask the most efficient questions. This is where design adjectives come into play.

Exploring Look and Feel with Design Adjectives

While everyone might interpret an adjective differently, it’s a good jumping-off point for a conversation. A constructive discussion about how the organization wants to be perceived and how the target audience would feel about the perception might begin with questions like, “Should this feel progressive? Why or why not?”

Comparisons are even more valuable. “Should this feel progressive or conservative?” Now stakeholders will not only have to think about what feeling the design should invoke, but also what feeling it shouldn’t invoke. Again, understanding the “why” to this question is equally if not more important than the answer itself.

This is the approach we took at 3.7 Designs for years. We asked stakeholders to compare near opposites, and while it was effective we noticed a sticking point–it was too easy to interpret the adjectives as extremes. If we asked, “Should this feel fun or serious?” a common response would be, “well, we don’t want it to be tax law serious.” So we modified our approach giving stakeholders a scale so they could indicate 1 – 5 how serious should it be.

Now you’re probably wondering what design adjectives should I use?

The Design Adjectives We Use

We’ve found that characteristics are often more effective than descriptors. For example fun is a characteristic, a personality trait. We can both imagine someone who’s fun, and while you and I will picture different people the interpretation invoke the same feeling. Clean; however, is a descriptor, and you and I will likely have very different interpretations of what a clean design looks like.

With that narrowed down, we’ve found the following adjectives most useful in a wide range of use cases (note: we didn’t invent this list, we’ve just found it to be effective):

  • Conservative
  • Progressive
  • Warm
  • Cold
  • Fun
  • Serious
  • Casual
  • Formal
  • Energetic
  • Laid Back
  • Trendy
  • Classic
  • Spontaneous
  • Orderly
  • Solitary
  • Popular
  • Unique
  • Familiar
  • Young
  • Old

Here is an example of the comparison range we have stakeholders respond with.

What’s Next?

This approach works very well most of the time, but you may run into challenges. One common issue we encounter is the over-reliance on scoring items as 3’s. On a 1-to-5 scale 3 is a neutral answer, and if you were to design something with all 3’s it wouldn’t convey a strong message. If you find this happening run through the exercise again and remove 3 as an option. Now stakeholders will be forced to pick 2 (i.e. very little) or 4 (pretty high) and you’ll get much stronger direction.

If you use design archetypes, this is still a good exercise to help the selection of the most appropriate archetype.

Finding the absolute best fit doesn’t stop with having these conversations–these are suggested starting points. It’s worth having similar conversations with members of the target audience and running design tests with early concepts to validate your approach is having the impact you desire.