At some point back in the late ’90s, I thought about going into web design. Two seconds later I decided against it. My scant HTML experience had taught me that designing for different browsers was a pain. You could code something that displayed exactly the way you wanted it to in Netscape, but looked like a hot mess in Internet Explorer (or vice versa). I just wanted to make stuff. I didn’t want to spend half my time dealing with arbitrary software obstacles.
As it turns out, though, all designers deal with a metaphorical version of the browser problem eventually. And by “eventually,” I mean every time we design something that’s intended to be seen by more than one person.
The perfect example presented itself when I was developing a new promotional product for authors: Book Memes. A Book Meme is a little graphic that contains a short excerpt from your book and an accompanying image. The idea is to post the meme on social networks like Facebook or Google Plus—and hopefully get other people to share it too—making viewers curious about the book.
An author of a poignant coming-of-age novel I’d designed had agreed to be a test case for my new product. I created a couple of different concepts and asked him to compare. I also posted both versions on my own Facebook wall and requested feedback:
What do you think? Which Book Meme would people like better?
If you said the one on top, you’re right! And also wrong. Votes were split equally between the two.
“The blurb mentions a hawk, but there’s none in the [bottom] picture, and they couldn’t live underwater anyway,” said one commenter. “The first picture is really nice, and oh, there’s the hawk.”
“Top one looks too much like an inspirational poster,” another commenter argued. “Bottom one picture-wise looks a lot more intriguing. Would be more likely to click the bottom than the top.”
The moral of the story is, you can’t please everybody. So what do you do?
Know your audience.
If you don’t know your audience, get out there and learn. Do the sorts of people who’d buy your book go for happy images, or do they respond better to potentially disturbing intrigue? Do they like inspirational messages or snarky ones? Talk to people who read and enjoyed your manuscript and ask what they think would hook them.
Just as the same HTML will display differently in Firefox, Explorer, Safari, etc., the same design will be interpreted differently by different brains. If you know what kinds of attitudes your target readers bring to the equation, you’ve won half the battle.
Shameless plug: Cover to Cover Book Memes will be heavily discounted through November 2012. If you act quickly, you can hedge your bets and get two for the price of one.