Ode to a Post-It Note
The Enemy of Great Design

Strolling to Conclusions


Roads lead to alleys. Alleys lead to dead ends. And you can't see them all before you've entered into a client engagement—no matter how much of a "design expert" you say you are.

"I've done a ton of logos, so this project is a cinch for me. In the client meeting, I'll share with them some design themes I've been exploring when drawing up my estimate. Just some riffing, really... nothing too serious that I can't back out of when the paperwork is finalized... It'll just help me land the gig."

What a bad habit. Sure, we get excited about the possibility of a new project and start sharing initial impressions that come to mind. But sharing your opinion like that—off the cuff—can be very damaging for the project you're looking to start, your long-term relationship, and the design profession in general. It belies an assumption that you are more important than the gazillions of people out there that form the basis of your client's design problem.

Let me provide a few examples.

This habit is even worse when you're being asked questions that range outside the scope of your observed experience, such as projects that require strategic positioning, usability research, or the planning of large-scale physical experiences that begin to verge on the discipline of architecture. We start to rely on what we've experienced and observed in related situations, as opposed to what the real context of the client's situation entails. It's a terrible kind of tap dance that gets repeated over and over in the highest echelons of our design profession.


A hypothesis is not a solution—and both can still be wrong

In a set of usability studies, seven people out of ten bailed on making a purchase in an apparently wretched and broken shopping cart. You watched the studies. It's a known issue that has boiled to the surface.

Rewind four weeks. Your client is considering hiring you to improve their shopping site for candles. Part of their interview process is grilling you regarding "best practices" and other illusory yardsticks of knowledge that imply we are worthy of being deemed design "experts." Through this process, the actual skills you'd need to fulfill your job are married up to observations of trends in their market that the client will then leverage for some great work.

In this case, you're being hired to suss out the problem in their user base, confirming or denying their worst fears in the process. And boy, is this scenario rare.

When first meeting with a client and there is a less cut and dried scenario—meaning anytime we offer a service that does not include customer validation of our work—we get into trouble in a matter of seconds. Your prospective client often wants to test you to see if the problems that they've identified with their Web site (or brand system or whatever deliverable you've been tasked to improve) align with your experience and point of view.

The client assumes that in the meeting, they will get to see how you will think about their design problem, which is then enriched by your having seen similar types of problems in the eyes of other people (i.e. customers/users/human beings that are likely oblivious to the existence of said client and brand). This reflection of their existing impressions—or the provision of new and unconsidered thinking from outside their realm of expertise—is what they're seeking, and what we should be paid for. It should not be given away.

You do not get carte blanche in such meetings to say your observed problem is indicative for all customer segments. Ever. When you're dealing with discrete data, it's easy to tell a client, "Provide me with the appropriate data and any research you have on this problem, and we'll be happy to help." End of discussion point.

Secondarily, this leads to a much larger issue. Even if you and the client agree, you've created rapport, and you land the work as a result, both of you can still be wrong.

And you need to be ready to be wrong. The mark of a weak designer is a tendency to glom on to patterns to yield simple solutions without thorough exploration through the design process—and we need to resist our pattern-making processes as much as possible when describing our ideal approach to any problem of importance.

I'm not talking about band posters and other designed artifacts that exist for their arty sensibility, however. I'm talking about anything that you're designing to mean something for a good long while. This requires you to expend a bit of energy in not pre-solving your client work. Your approach should always fit the problem, not vice versa. And you should be focused on the needs of the work for your customer and your customer's customers, not your own desire to do great work. This is something I heard recently from a great designer, and his words ring true.


Deferring judgment can be a mark of maturity

What I've noted above runs counter to certain trends we seen in today's designer culture, such as the belief that the emotional/gut response should be trusted beyond anything else. That the creator's intuition is the guiding force for connecting a novel design idea with a customer. And that testing, especially in the realms of such things as advertising, branding, and packaging, is a complete waste of time and money—especially when taking a huge risk or dramatic leap forward that has no context for customers.

In meetings with new clients, adopting this point of view can come off as arrogance—that out of all the design contenders vying for a client's attention alongside yours, you have the secret sauce inherent in your intuition to bring the right solution to bear. It can also win you business... though it may not pay off for you in the long run.

If you're interested in taking a more humble approach, however, you can easily use your openness and measured judgment as a point of differentiation in an increasingly competitive design market in the following ways...

Ask as many challenging questions as possible, and use those as the basis of your initial proposal and design discoveries. If there isn't a signed contract, you should be teasing out as much information as possible, not providing it in spades. (Unless you're showing relevant case studies.)

Call your opinion a hypothesis until your point of view is validated. Being an expert means knowing when you should ask for more data before providing an opinion. That's why you're being hired, right? Think like a scientist if the project warrants it. Never assume anything, because it's likely that you're missing something. And unless you've verified your impressions with the support of metrics and other data that aligns with your gut feeling, always call out in any written documents that the point of view you're providing isn't firm.

If you observe a pattern, point it out when appropriate. But don't start fixing it right then and there. Clients are impressed when a designer is able to wield their powers of observation and intuition to suss out the root cause of an issue—especially in those new business meetings. You don't have to start designing right then and there or start calling out political issues that won't help your cause. Feel free to defer such thinking until you deliver a written proposal or have the room to start a more difficult conversation outside the context of a formal new business meeting.

Know when to stop explaining yourself. Early discussions are not the time for education. You don't have to be terse, just be professional about the use of your client's time. Say enough to get your point across.

Know what can and can't be validated over the life of a project, and choose where you can exert the most control meaningfully. Problems of aesthetics—red vs. blue, for instance, or which tagline goes best with the logo on the packaging—can be tested, but you may be wasting money compared to even larger issues. Practically everything that we create as designers can receive valuable input from customers (and clients), so it isn't a matter of testing vs. not testing. It's a matter of testing wisely, and where the best result will emerge from the most appropriate choices.

When you share a conclusion, make sure you share how you arrived there. There's nothing worse than a brilliant design divorced from the context by which you arrived at it. You'll need to trace the journey you took to arrive at your proposal, your initial design thoughts (after the contract's signed), and so forth over and over again through the life of a project. Without an awareness of where you've travelled, it's unlikely the work will see the light of day how you'd intended the work for your client's customers. And that's why we're doing this work. Right?


The comments to this entry are closed.