Relevance and engagement in graphic design

Make it relevant, or don’t bother

Over the course of one weekend long ago, I observed two very different forms of visual communication: one was relatively effective, the other disastrously ineffective.

The first was a poster that caught my eye whilst attending to nature’s call at a local football match. The poster was rather unattractive to say the least, but there was a sales pitch cleverly contained within a graphic well targeted at the typical, football going, beer drinking male. Though I am more the artsy, wine drinking type who just happens to enjoy the footy, the ad did make me smile. Later I would realise that the content of the ad had made the ad relevant to me, even though I was arguably not within the ideal target group.

On the other hand, the second promotion piece made me cringe. Ironically it was a nicely designed business card. But the graphic designer and owner of the card, who had attached it to a pin-board at my local gym, had both neglected one critical piece of information that—in my humble opinion—had rendered the promotion completely useless. The owner of the card had indicated that he was a ‘professional consultant’, but had omitted the nature of the profession itself. That’s right, I had absolutely no idea what he would, if given the opportunity, consult me on. My guess is that nobody else would be able to decipher how this person would be able to help them and hence the consultant would get exactly zero leads from his beautiful and cleverly positioned business card.

The omission of this critical piece of information had rendered the card irrelevant to every person who happened to glance at it whilst catching their breath or having a drink. So my learning experience from this is that relevance is absolutely critical to good communication. Even if the piece is not particularly engaging, without relevance it is not even worth the very expensive card it’s printed on!

Is ‘engagement’ more important than ‘message’?

Traditionally, communication mediums have been a ‘one way street’. TV, radio, newspaper and magazine ads communicate a message to a target audience. The same principles apply to the work of graphic designers: publications, packaging and even identity systems. If the message is simple, it will be ‘clear’ enough for the audience to understand. Take for example ‘home brand’ sugar packaging, you know there’s sugar inside because it says so in a most simple way. This is called ‘passive’ communication.

So why do organisations and brands bother investing time and money into creating more complex designs?

Two reasons include differentiation and engagement.


Firstly, if everyone only used ‘passive’ or ‘clear’ communication techniques everything might look the same. If a package only had to let people know there was sugar inside, all it would need is that one word set in plain type. But how could the audience distinguish one parent company from the other, or the consumer choose a premium brand from a low-cost one?

The reality is that all organisations and brands need to distinguish themselves from other similar entities in the market place. This is the only way to let the audience know what they are buying, what value they should expect or even who they are investing their time and/or money with.


Engagement is about ‘active’ communication. Think about this as a two way street, where the message is open for interpretation. Active communication can still be very relevant and is highly effective because a strange or unique design is open to the audience for interpretation. Each audience member or consumer will interpret the design the way it means most to them. They are ‘actively’ applying their own meaning to the design, and hence it can be more memorable for them.

Please feel welcome to contact me with your opinion, comments or questions related to this article.

Frank Stillitano MDIA

Accredited Designer and founder of Flux Visual Communication