Applying the Panofsky method to understanding design

Erwin Panofsky was an art historian who, in 1932, studied the significance of iconography and believed that for an audience to find the meaning behind artwork or design, a cultural context of analysis needs to be applied.

Panofsky conceptualized three levels associated with any piece of design or art. Any great work begins with research or understanding the design challenge. The first level is your Primary Analysis; often, this detailed observation compiles the information into a body of research. If the audience is viewing the piece, they can immediately bring meaning to an image by associating it with their own experiences. The first level brings some familiarity but not complete understanding or appreciation into what they are seeing.

The second level, Conventional Analysis, is a layer of understanding from a good base. It brings prior knowledge of the conventional meaning and allows the visual to communicate more by recalling the events taking place within the image. Typically, this level’s purpose has a deep connection to cause and effect or the concept of affordance. Visual hierarchy is established by using whitespace, branding, and other effects such as colouring and aesthetics, and composition. The audience begins to understand the meaning behind what he or she is noticing.

The third level, the Intrinsic Analysis, is where the audience does understand why the designer or artist is taking a particular direction with the visual. Because the audience has spent significant time analyzing and interacting with the design, there becomes a philosophical belief of trust and a manifestation of expressed values. When the design’s visual is abstract, and the viewer finally understands, there is often an ‘aha’ moment. This is the value of going on a guided art tour. The curator often provides the details necessary for one to appreciate the artist’s vision.

Time to improve your brand​

Many good companies are addicted to paying for advertising when they should be paying attention to their customers — their brand. Too many leaders depend upon sales promotion to drive sales and are inadvertently training their customers to expect deeper price discounts. Business should not be in a race to finish on the bottom. Regardless of the reasons for paid advertising, strengthening your brand can remove this promotional based dependency.


01 | Have remarkable experiences

Give customers a wow experience — something to talk about long after the touchpoint has passed. Plan your customer journey map with “Wow-Way” stops along each touchpoint.

02 | Have an extreme purpose

Align the brand with values that customers care about such as the environment or social causes. Raving fans are more engaged by what the brand stands for rather than what you sell. Tie-back the profitability of a brand to a purpose for good, makes good business sense. Customers reward brands that are good citizens.

03 | Inspire first from the inside

Begin with the core of the company — its employees. Create internal alignment to the vision of the brand and staff advocacy will soon follow. First, rebrand and appoint brand champions before introducing the brand externally.

04 | Be approachable

The most meaningful brands personify and celebrate people’s diversity. Create opportunities for high-level emotional engagement so the brand’s personality can shine through tangible actions.

05 | Involve your best customers

Brands that co-create with their customers and communities in exciting and unexpected ways learn more because they are open to listening. Customers feel empowered with a sense of ownership when their views create action and change.

06 | Be seen not heard

Brands that weave themselves into the social fabric of their customers’ lifestyles by intercepting rather than interrupting, enjoy more ultimate access to their audiences. What’s more — customers are more apt to seek out communication unaided with brands that are respectful of the relationship.


Developing timely content


The goal of content creation is to provide relevant information to your core target audience. The most decisive task is to start with a commitment to a defined cadence. Defining the talent of who writes, photographs, and illustrates the content is just as crucial as defining the editorial calendar to keep the commitment real. When developing your strategy, there are three different types of content to consider.

  1. Foundational content includes ebooks, slideshows, videos, motion graphics, interactive graphics, white papers, editorial stories, and case studies. This is the most expensive content because it involves the creation of new material. Behind the scenes, the production of this content should be scheduled as a daily commitment. Don’t expect to complete a full-length article in one day! In developing this content consider who has the skill internally and what services need to be outsourced. The goal is quality as defined by your target audience and assigned editor, art director, or creative director.
  2. Snowball content is lean content that is repurposed from the foundational content into smaller information. It is meant to provide a steady stream of publishing across media channels. Remember the hard work done to create the foundational content. This is cherry picking the best-of-the-best and leveraging across relevant media channels.
  3. Newsworthy content is timely content that capitalizes on news, trends, or industry events. Having slack in the schedule enables you to be proactive so you are ready to develop content when your industry makes the news.

Once the content is created, have a plan to leverage it across as many media channels as is relevant to your industry. Creating new content is hard work. Don’t expect immediate results. The development of content is a long-term strategy. Lastly, just because you want to create content doesn’t make it a reality. Assign the proper resources: people, budget, and the time to generate the material.


The D4 design process

The D4 process is simple to integrate into teams that have to solve for different design challenges. Regardless of whether you are an industrial designer or graphic designer, this framework adds clarity to the process of creative effort. Without process, the energy becomes a non-linear duration, and endless cycles of revisions are the outcome. The painful result we have all experienced is an unhappy client. Clients accept a certain amount of uncertainty and risk, but they become fearful when they don’t understand where they are in the development of the product or service. It is the designer’s job to articulate the process they will undertake. The designer should be able to show the business lead the status of the project and their current design thinking. The design process is a journey. The D4 process is the map.


The success of the design is defined by the scope, resources, schedule, and quality of the product or service you want to create. The output is a creative brief and a project plan with a clear statement of what the business challenge is and listing of the deliverables.


Before design can occur the content needs to be written, approved, and the digital assets created. At this stage, initial mood boards or prototypes are developed to show the design direction before work occurs. If the solution is known, the designer refers to the templates and double checks this against the business process to ensure alignment to the visual strategy.

As part of this process, convergent and divergent thinking between the team is required to push the design concept beyond the expected.


The design stage is where the designer assembles all the content and elements from the holistic visual framework including logos, typography, colour pathways, photography, patterns, and iconography. The resulting solution is shown how it fits upstream and downstream of the business process. At the client meeting there should be no surprises because they would have agreed to the milestone approvals that lead to the final design.


Files undergo a preflight check and deployment to publishing platforms occurs across relevant touchpoints. The project is closed and archived.