Sunday, January 15, 2012

Can Sociology Improve Your Designs?

An artist is a creative who creates to satisfy their own aesthetic pleasure, unconcerned with the wants and needs of others. However a designer is a creative who creates in hopes of satisfying the wants and needs of others with their art, casting aside their own individual creative desires. This is an important fact to always keep in mind for any professional in the creative field, because quite often we tend to forget that we make our living creating art that MUST be found appealing to others and not just ourselves. Of course for any person with creative talent this is a major downside, but that is what we sign up for when taking on the designer role. Now, what does sociology have to do with any of this?

Whether graphic designer, web designer, user interface designer, or any other profession that ends in the word designer, your job is to make art that others will enjoy. This logic behind this creative industry goes hand in hand with the principles of sociology, and corresponds with what the career sociologist does everyday in their respective field. To get a better understanding of the relationship of sociology and design, let’s first take time to understand exactly what sociology is.

Sociology can be best described as a broad study of the people, culture, living environment, and any other factor that may have the potential to shape someone into the person they are. This easily being summarized into one word, society. Now one can read that description and come to a conclusion that the approach of using sociology as a designer, is quite the same approach as using the well discussed psychology.  In a respective comparison between the two studies, psychology is better defined as the study of the mind and sociology more so a study of the society (people, location, culture, experiences, etc.) that shapes a particular person may be apart of.

To get a good grasp on Sociology, the only real way is to sit down and take the time to learn. Of course we all don’t have the time to do that, so we are going to look at a few Sociological principles that I personally always try to remember.

The culture of my target audienceThe age range of my target audienceThe social status of my target audienceThe geographical region of my target audienceThe current social changes(technology, cultural movements, political changes, etc.) taking place

In the introduction of this article, the idea that a designer’s main duty in their profession is to create art that is understood and appreciated by their audience.  While giving a brief overview of what sociology is, we learned that it is the study of societies and different social groups. The question presenting itself to us now is how do these two correspond with one another? Take a second, or minute if you must, and think about it. There is no rush, nobody is judging your reading and comprehension speed :).

All poorly attempted jokes aside, the career of a designer and the social science of sociology are a perfect fit together. Instead of presenting a  thoroughly descriptive explanation of sociology, we’re going to save that for a proper course and/or professor and look at a few common cases that showcase where a knowledge of sociology would be beneficial.

You are an American freelance web designer who has never set foot outside of the States. The only information you have about other countries is what you remember from school history classes, the little bit of news you read online, and a few TV shows and movies you like. Despite this, you are presented with a project from the Sudan’s Olympic football (soccer in America) club to design and develop their website. They give you creative freedom to do as you please, and their only request is that you make sure to embody cultural aspects of the Sudan in your design.

The Problem: The issue the web designer has here is that they have no idea about the culture of the Sudan, what interests the people, and how they like to be presented.

How Sociology Helps: The main concept taught when one is first entering into sociology is how to properly study, and understand the cultures of another society. By going over the basic structure of what makes up a society, what influences a society, and what procedures and customs are common to a particular society. If this said web designer in this situation were to have knowledge of sociology, they wouldn’t have nearly as difficult a time producing a work of quality for their Sudan client.
You are a graphic designer who specializes in creating graphics for promotional purposes. Your typical client is a company looking to promote a new product they are trying to introduce to a more adult audience. A new client approaches with a great project that really interests you, the only issue is that the client is asking you to create graphic work for a product being targeted at preteens.

The Problem: Throughout your career, you have always done projects whose key demographic was an adult audience. You have never even worked on anything aimed at teenagers, let alone preteens. To make this more difficult, you are well beyond the years of the preteen.

How Sociology Helps: One of the topics discussed in sociology is test groups. A test group is a controlled experiment consisting of different types of people in the demographic you are trying to reach. In this instance, the test group would be composed of preteens of  various social and economic backgrounds. If done correctly, based on the desired size of the test group, the graphic designer in this case would have selected a good diverse group of preteens and will have the knowledge of the proper questions to ask in a test group experiment.

You are a designer who specializes in working with musicians, bands, and other types of musical acts. Because of your affinity for Pop music, and your tendency to spend most of your time with those infused in the Pop culture, your clients are all musical acts of the Pop genre. One day you get approached by a Gothic band who plays Punk Rock.

The Problem: Unlike your usual clients, you have no idea how you can correctly approach this project. In this case you can’t use your own personal style or knowledge of the clients culture to create something of quality, simply because you are not personally interested in their culture.

How Sociology Helps: In Sociology one of the things discussed are subcultures. A subculture is formed by a group of people who develop their own culture, distinct and easily noticeable from the mainstream culture and other subcultures. In this case, the Gothic band is part of a subculture and the designer who is a member of the Pop culture would be considered mainstream culture. As well as properly defining this subgroup of a society, Sociology also provides knowledge base that teaches one how to properly study and learn about a subculture.

It is impractical for anyone to try and compact an entire subject of study into one article, especially one as multifaceted as Sociology. The purpose of this article was never to give a full breakdown of Sociology, and the ways you can use it to automatically improve your designs. Doing this would be unfair, and present a bad outlook of what this social science is. Like anything you study, the information may be the same, but the individual implementation of it varies from person to person. So hopefully by now you have seen how beneficial Sociology is to your design work, and will go out and further the knowledge you have on the subject. This can easily be done by taking an online course, maybe one at university if you are still in school or going back, or just taking the time to read some books. Here are a few things to remember to ask yourself whenever you are trying to approach an audience with your design that you are not accustom to.

What is the culture of their region?What are influencing factors that shape the society they live in?Would it be practical for me to conduct research using a test group?Is the outcome of my normal design approach going to bring a result that is offensive to them?
To learn more about how design differ from culture to culture, read:

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