Strategies/Advice for Thoroughly Understanding Target Audience

Hi! I’ve been a designer for around 12 years so my technical ability is reasonable but I’m looking for a bit of advice/mentorship on the business/strategy/communication side. I recently started a new role as the only in-house graphic designer with a large automotive company. It’s a great company but has limited experience working with designers/marketing types which results in a large knowledge gap between departments that I want to bridge. One of the recurring pieces of feedback I receive when I present work to senior team members is that it is too intelligent for our customers who are simpler people, even when I have made designs as simple as I believe possible. When I push for specifics on what elements of the design they are referring to or how I can rectify it, they are unable to articulate their reasoning and it leaves me uncertain of how to continue with the project. Brand guides are virtually non-existent and offer very little assistance.

I think the best solution would be to arrange meetings or focus groups with the clients directly to determine who they are and what types of designs appeal to them, and that is something my company is open to, but I am uncertain what specific questions to ask them during these meetings. I want to understand them better so I can create designs which connect with them on an emotional level, but in order to achieve that I first need to understand who they are and what identity they are trying to express by using our products and services. I am wondering if there are any existing surveys or design examples I can give them to see what they like best, to help organise them into a framework that will help me understand who they are. There are a lot of personality tests like the Myers Briggs test, which categorise people into personality types based on their answers. I am wondering if there is something like that for design, which categorises people based on visual tastes. Has anybody here been through anything similar and can offer any recommendations?

Great questions!

I’m not sure it’s necessary for you to meet with them, although it’s never a bad idea…

However, your company should already have much of their own customer demographics. So I would spend your energies on getting this information from the database peeps.

Statistics like age, income levels, culture, employment status, marital status, credit standing, etc., should give you a good start toward learning how to reach them.

Once you know who your typical customer is, it’s much easier to make design decisions.

For example, you would take one approach toward customers who work for Microsoft and drive a Lexus, vs a different approach to blue collar customers.

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Okay, this isn’t really all that complicated. The “automotive” market is already rather, uh, let’s say . . . figured out. And the design flavors aren’t so difficult to research. You just have to narrow your focus, perhaps by first putting your attention less on the market and more on the company and its products. Look at the history of its marketing; there must be an established image to some extent. Then, what is the nature of the product(s)? Is it cars, parts, accessories, detailing supplies, or something else? Are the products consumer–performance-aftermarket? Pro/hobby racing? Custom/aesthetic embellishment? Chassis? Body? Interior?

To put it simply, the first step to understanding the target audience is understanding the product. Who wants it and why? Where will they take it and what will they do with it? Then you look for those places where people are doing those things and drink in the setting. A family who uses your products on a camping trip is in a different mindset than a 19 year-old using your products at a Saturday night dirt track race, for instance. Someone restoring barn-finds has different needs and tastes than someone customizing a tuner.

Conducting a focus group imposes your predispositions on a sampling of people who’ve been invited to your environs. You can try having the data come to you that way, but IMO you’re better off going to where it is—where they are. Follow the product.

To be clear, I did mean to “drink it in,” as in using your powers of observation to take in all you see; the way they talk, dress, interact, the things they see where they hang out, the ways your competitors vie for their attention, etc. Having a drink in the setting is surely optional, but personally, I try not to miss an opportunity.

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Great points already brought up! I would add that you could try to find out why a customer doesn’t buy (their objections), what prevents them from taking action, as well as what makes them decide to buy (“buy” meaning product or service).

If there is no brand guide and all of their marketing materials look different from one another or in disarray, then perhaps that is resulting in a trust issue with the audience. That could be for you to determine, as you wouldn’t ask someone who works there or a customer, because they wouldn’t realize that is an issue. But you, as the strategic visual communicator, could figure that out.