Working with a Designer Part I

I’ve been working as a designer for a little over 15 years now, and while each project is unique in some ways, there are themes that run through almost everything that I work on. Client interaction is one of the biggest factors in determining the success of a project. Most clients want a good return for their money and don’t knowingly sabotage their own projects, but a lack of basic understanding of their role in the design process can ensure a poor result from day one. Here’s a look into how to keep this from happening.

See your designer as a partner, not as a vendor

Designers are professionals. Good ones are trained, have experience, knowledge, skills that are unique to their craft. However, to do the job well, designers will need another unique category of knowledge: yours.

You see, in other professional services – let’s use a dentist as our example today – it’s assumed that the professional knows more about every aspect of their work than the client does. You get in the chair, the dentist does their thing, and they expect very little advice from you about what your teeth need.

Designers have a skill set built around solving problems, making communication simple for end users, and editing content to help people find what’s important. What we’re missing is good data about what those problems are, and which users need to find what information. That’s where you come in. A good designer is going to be very curious about how your organization works, what you want people to know about it, who will be using your project, and how much is known about them. What may seem like idle questions about shopping and entertainment preferences are helping to build a composite identity for an optimal user. Our curiosity about your organization helps us better understand, and therefore better represent, your message to your audience. You’re going to want that.

In a bad project, the client doesn’t want to talk to the designer very much. We’re instructed to look around at what other companies are doing, modify existing materials, and just make it look nice. But the problem is that the job doesn’t call for just making it look nice. If we miss the audience, we’ve just made a nicer looking version of something ineffective.

You know more than you think, but also less than you think

You may no be the only one we need to talk to. It could be people in your organization, key clients, or experts on a given subject. But all of those little pieces of data help us build something better. All the details that you don’t think we need to make something that works tend to be exactly what we need.

Here’s the touchy part about knowing less than you think: clients tend to want to engage is in areas where they have little knowledge and few skills–working only from opinions and gut feelings. Once I had a client point to something and say, “That’s a bad color.” There was no discussion to be had, no clear motivation, just an assertion that the color (it was green) is objectively bad. That’s not helpful interaction and doesn’t move the project forward.

This type of subjective over-ruling leads to aesthetic decisions that are not informed by research or usability. It’s natural, and a very common way for people to interact with the project if they don’t have guidance. But it almost always makes the project worse.

If you want to see mock-ups of how things will look and you don’t want to discuss content or user experience, you’re essentially telegraphing instructions for a basic, template-driven design because the lack of real information could not result in anything else.

A good designer wants to educate you

There’s good news, though. A good designer wants to help with this. Most clients and users lack any vocabulary or language for describing design (pro tip: the word “pop” doesn’t mean anything regarding design). They tend to get insecure when they can’t express themselves, which leads to making unilateral decisions to shut down an uncomfortable conversation, or retreat from the project when they have legitimate concerns. Neither outcome is good.

When a client asks me about changing a color, a typeface, or an arrangement of information, I always first ask the reason why. I also offer my rationale for the way that I’ve presented it. This is not an argument in the making, this is a design discussion intended to keep us on the rails of the project needs, rather than getting into a fight over subjective opinion. Through additional give and take, I can help my client better express what they want, and we can arrive at a successful outcome. I am not always right, and I want to know what they know.

Discomfort goes better with trust

Designers will ask you to think about things that you probably don’t think about all that much. Fight the instinct to end the conversation, and use the discomfort to better understand your own organization as well as your audience. If you see your designer as a trusted partner rather than a paid vendor, you’ll get a better outcome.

Please note that all of this only works if you really do trust your designer as a professional who knows how to achieve an optimal result. If you’re not sure you can trust your current designer, you’re dealing with another subject entirely. Ensure you’re working with someone that will ask questions like those listed above, and please, please, answer those questions.

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