Did you know there are two different kinds of graphic design mindsets competing on the intranet? Let me call them ”company brand graphic design” and ”graphic user interface design”. Often, an intranet project work with both at the same time, but in my opinion it’s really important to know the difference, and also to decide where on the intranet and in other systems one or the other of the design mindsets should dominate.
Company brand graphic design (I’ll use the abbreviation Brand design from now on) is about the visual brand identity of the organisation. An organisation has brand elements: the name, the logo, different kinds of graphics, shapes and colours it uses in their communication. Normally, a poster or a brochure use a lot these elements to signal who’s sending the content. This kind of design is also often about conveying the organisation’s values and culture—a ”feeling”. Here, blue, yellow and red are company colours chosen because someone decided those colours are the right company colours.
Graphic user interface design (GUI design from now on) is about making the transaction, the thing you want to happen, happen. In this case the graphic design is all about achieving a desired end-user result. Traffic signs are kind of an example of GUI design. GUI design has nothing to do with an organisation’s brand. No Roads and transport administration office would dream of branding the traffic signs with the organisation’s brand colours (brown and pink traffic signs, anyone?). In this case blue, yellow and red are codes for different actions: blue is guide signs, yellow is warning signs and red is stop or forbidden (at least in Europe, I should add).
Brand design is what most people loathe in business systems. An example: The HR system should not be about the system vendor’s logo, values and colours—the system should be about applying for leave in an effective way with minimal scrolling and clicking. Same thing with the business finance system, e-mail system and document creation program (e.g. Word). Imagine being forced to always see the vendors big logo and commercial intro, scroll past some messages about their values and some stock photos of happy people using the product before being able to apply for leave, register something or write something. You would go crazy in no time.
In other words: Good business systems have a lot of GUI design and only so much Brand design that it isn’t ”in the way” for the transactions.
This is a good design philosophy.
The two different graphic design mindsets are both relevant to consider when building an intranet. Naturally the same design philosophy valid for business systems is also relevant for the intranet; function before branding. But based on discussions with other intranet managers, I know that people involved in the graphic design decision process for intranets sometimes don’t focus at all on the GUI design. Instead they decide on design sketches with only the Brand design mindset.
Because of this intranets tend to get unnecessarily large mastheads (”The company logo must be this big!”, ”You need to use the company stripes in the right hand corner!”), culture-inspiring content carousels with slogans and mood-elevating pictures at the top of the intranet homepage (”It’s important that we convey our values to the employees!” *), difficult to read content pages (”This is the mandatory company typeface”) and transactions difficult to comprehend (”Always use the company colours red or pink for buttons, and remember they must be round since we are an agile company”).
* According to the needs analysis for our new intranet there are 32 things more important than info about our organisational values, according to the end-users. One could also question the effectiveness of using the intranet as a culture wall poster.
This phenomenon, the desire to make a brand statement through the intranet (e.g. values at the top) rather than making it a useful business system for general efficiency (things actually most needed at the top), is bad for intranets and for the end-users. This is how you get red and yellow funny-looking buttons for ”OK” instead of really great usability enhancing graphic design (=a green OK button). This is how your navigation gets confusing and content priorities mismatched. This is how you don’t solve the end-users’ actual work-related needs. In real life, a brand focused intranet often counteract the desire for a positive cultural statement! Having a business system intended for general end-user support and efficiency not focusing on efficiency and task management sends a negative signal in the organisation.
If you have a Brand design focused owner, stakeholder or a steering committee—how should you, intranet manager, counter this?
In general, I think we need to constantly remind everyone the intranet is a real business system and not a brochure. A good needs analysis (what content is most important?) combined with real end-user tests (how do users succeed using the most important content?), perhaps recorded and shown to decision makers, often help explain the importance of GUI design. I also think we need to educate our organisations about graphic design and use more of general design frameworks and best web practice.
A framework I really like is the Bootstrap component library. For example, look at the buttons and the great GUI design focus they have.
Here red is danger and yellow is warning, much like the traffic sign philosophy. I like!
Perhaps the ideal way would be to develop a new intranet with the Bootstrap framework throughout the whole project and only in the last project phase inject a light Brand design ”skin”, never so much that it gets in the way of the vastly more important GUI design objects? Then you could A-B-test the Bootstrap version against the adjusted version and see if and when the company brand starts to affect the intranet GUI design negatively. I’d love to one day build an intranet this way!
Blog post addition Aug 2019: I’m actually creating a Bootstrap-based concept intranet on my spare time! Read about it here.
More to read: The 8 types of graphic design