Road map laid out in the front of a car

3 Ways Design Gives Directions to a Destination

Months ago, a friend asked me during lunch this question–is a website an advertisement or a destination?

We both had nerdy grins at the prospect of a philosophical design & marketing question. After a brief discussion we came to the conclusion that a website is a destination. That answer came too quickly for me so I had to unpack it further. Keep asking questions.

First of all, I decided that the word “direction” fits better than “advertisement.”

Too often in my first years, I stared at an empty photoshop document all set to design but didn’t even know where to start. When I worked under an agency even, I was given web projects with no content strategy. The blank page made me question my abilities as a designer and if I would even be able to handle the job. I was lost.

But after a few humbling run-ins with that cluelessness I developed the understanding that the issue wasn’t in my ability to design a page. It was the process in which we went from concept to execution. We weren’t creating any sort of roadmap or even thinking about why and what content should be on the page. It finally hit me, the foolishness of running into a project completely blind.

Once I came to that discovery, I started thinking about the mindset to have when going into a project. That when we start to analyze the decisions we make, there should be solid reasoning behind them.

A brand, a website, a video—any piece of design—has a story arc to it that can be broken down into a series of directions that lead to a destination.


Pretty self explanatory. Directions, like advertisements, point to something. They guide the action-er from whatever stage to the next. We often start a process by reading the directions—advice I should have heeded when assembling my bookshelf from Target or attempting to jump my car… I really need to start reading the manuals.

When we view this in the realm of marketing, think of billboards, business cards and mailers. The purpose of each element is to direct the users to the next action. It is a series of steps to a final goal.

This is commonly defined as a “call to action.” Thrown across the web by gurus like a not-so-secret ingredient. But CTAs are important. They are the doors that get your user to the next step.

Dysfunctional advertising behaves a lot like poor directions. If a kid came across a page of a lego instruction book that added 37 different pieces at once, they will get bored and frustrated and make a helicopter out of Harry Potter pieces. That’s great if the goal is the creative expression of the individual. But if there is a goal to make something specific, bad directions will have a bad result. Now imagine the audience trying to follow those busy instructions while driving 70 miles per hour! Or even worse, trying to scan a QR code while cruising along. I wonder how billboard QR codes can even be legal.

The ultimate goal is to reach the destination. If the directions are bad, how are we supposed to progress?


It’s not much of a newsflash that businesses have goals. There is a story arc that has a beginning, middle and end. And that end is a destination that they want the customer to reach. These end goals often mean sales and brand loyalty.

My grandparents have a mansion/cabin on the shore of Lake Superior in Marquette, Michigan. I have been there almost every year as long as I can remember. I love it. It’s off the grid; internet is nonexistent and cell service is nearly so.

This year though, I drove separately with my sister and friend. It was my first time driving there. Many years previous, I sat in the back with eyes glued to my GameBoy Color or the later years to my iPod. Now it was my responsibility to get there.

It was night and everything looked different. My phone’s turn-by-turn did its best until the cell service dissipated into the cold Upper Peninsula air. Suffice it to say, we got lost. Despite many past trips and our back-up written directions, we spent another forty-five minutes wandering from road to road, deep in the woods.

Even with our familiarity with our cabin and our deep loyalty to it, conditions changed and we couldn’t turn the directions we had into the destination we wanted. But we finally made it. We had to.

This distinction helps us define our own marketing plans. We can take a few concepts:Reaching a destination costs something.

Whether it’s time, money or effort, reaching a destination takes something. Especially today, the commodity of attention is among the most valuable. It is almost rare for a potential customer to willingly run down that yellow brick road.A destination must reward.

Why would someone want to reach the end of that road? To get back to Kansas, to get a brain, a heart, some courage! When presented with the possible outcome and the path to get there, it becomes a no-brainer (sorry, scarecrow).

A destination has a reward to it, be it fun, rest, sentimentality, freedom, etc. There is a reason we want to go to that place. Right now, I’m in a coffee shop with obvious rewards. And even though their Kenya pour-over was $4.50, I ponied up to enjoy the subtle notes of lemon candy, raspberry and angostura. I didn’t get that flavor profile all on my own, they had a sign that said it. But it was delicious!The cost of the directions cannot outweigh the reward of the destination.

I’m not huge into math but we have a formula here. If the ratio of loss becomes greater than gain, it loses its purpose. Since that cost and reward can be such a variety of things, this equation can look very different from case to case.

So it makes sense on a literal marketing level, but how does this affect the way we design?

1. Define your objective.

While it is connected to marketing and advertising, design goes even more in-depth into that overall story arc. There is a desired business goal, now every design decision should lead that way.

The first step to giving directions is selecting the destination. Solving a problem starts with figuring out exactly what the problem is. In design, we often jump to the first goal that pops in our heads but if we spend a little extra time deciding what location will have the most impact, the path to get there will be laid out much easier.

2. Weigh your design decisions.

Design is about hierarchy—putting emphasis to the monotonous. How do we prioritize content if we don’t know why it’s there or where it’s leading to? A deep understanding of the overall story arc reveals the subtle cause and effect that happens along the way.

With a clearly defined goal, we have much more to reference as we develop our layout, typography, colors, etc. Is this the simplest way from point A to point B? By continuously questioning what we create, we can make our design more efficient and effective.

3. Connect everything.

Lastly, use the clearly defined destination and directions to extend it to all applications. We’re working in the third dimension not a linear progression; meaning that potential customers can come from anywhere. Anticipate all of the potential A points that various people would be starting from and find the best way to get them to that B point.

Applying that extra thought to the beginning of design process affects everything thereafter. Our success is an end product that accomplishes the client’s goals. When we understand the relationship between the directions and the destination, we can make work that does what it sets out to.