As Thomas Watson once stated “Good design is good business”.
Good design is key to most successful business endeavors. Great relationships matter even more. Because success is never achieved alone, we hire experts in design to help our visions come to life. Maintaining a productive relationship with our designers is key to making our visions manifest. However, not every situation ends up being a productive one. We, as clients, don’t always know what success actually means when it comes to design. It’s difficult to imagine that we might have to reconsider our role as clients in order to get ahead with designers. We might even have to kill our designers to get our point across. This article is for any client hiring a designer and clients that may be experiencing Kill-My-Designer-Syndrome when collaborating with them. We will cover common misconceptions about the client/designer relationship and ways to curb a less than stellar experience. This article includes frank statements, so I would advise you skip it if you are sensitive.
Understanding why you’re hiring a designer (And why you want to kill them).
Why are you hiring a designer? If your answer sounds anything like “I need a pretty logo”, or “I need better visuals” you may be headed towards a dark and unfulfilling engagement. No need to panic. It’s generally the angle most entrepreneurs take when approaching a designer for help. In the client’s mind, it is common to think of designers as artist. No offense taken, but they’re entirely different skill sets. Chances are your reason for approaching them has nothing to with art. Although you may believe it to be art, your designer has an entirely different idea of the engagement.
This dissonance can lead to a great deal of infuriating misunderstandings down the road. To avoid this mistake, (don’t kill your designer) make sure you understand the difference between artist and designer. A designers role is to solve problems that help you achieve measurable goals, so we need them alive! Instead of asking yourself “do I like the design?” ask yourself “does this design do what it’s supposed to do?”.
Re-evaluating your relationship.
Clients often view design as a commodity. I pay the designer, they design me the logo. The problem is that design is not a commodity, and designers are not order-takers. They are consultants. We pay them to show us what works. Whether you like the idea or not, the designer is the practitioner and we, the clients, are the patients. If you are directing your designer, you may be in trouble (and your designer may want to kill you). This is because an experienced designer would never let the client direct the creative process. Much like how a surgeon would never allow a patient to self diagnose, designers do the same. If you find yourself telling a designer what to do, and they comply to make you happy, you have hired an irresponsible designer (You can go ahead and kill that designer). Just kidding. Don’t kill them, yet.
Designers are not order-takers.
A common misconception is that designers are there to draw pretty pictures and chose fonts and colors that “look good” together. If you are considering hiring a designer to simply make things “look good”, you have the wrong motives. A designer’s role is to make things work. This principle goes far beyond the aesthetics of a printed piece of collateral or font choice for a website. Looking good is just an added benefit of calculated decisions. If you find yourself in a position where your designer is unresponsive, you have messed up. You may have given too much direction or the designer might have felt that you’re trying to lead the engagement. The manner in which you express your opinion makes all the difference. Designers absolutely Hate (with a capital H) reading emails that look like this:
Pretty designs don’t convert into sales. Well thought out designs do.
I can’t tell you how many times I have had clients that poses this belief that a site must be beautiful to convert. They hire designers and tell them “make it pretty”. They would waste countless dollars in the pursuit of aesthetics, put zero investment into functionality, only to end up with a shiny, useless brick (and a new spot on the hit-list) because the designer did exactly what they asked for. But it was damn good-looking!
A great example is Craigslist. You might look at a site like CL and think it’s poorly designed because it’s ugly. If your concerns lie simply in aesthetics, you might be right. A designer would look at a site like CL and say it looks great, citing that the links are distinguishable from the body text with corresponding colors. The header size grabs attention, making it easier to see what the title of the post is for relevance. In that respect, CL is a beautiful site. Form follows function. Beauty comes from function, not the the other way around.
Are you focused on business objectives or design aesthetics?
A pretty site may be valued more because of the appearance of value, not the presence of it. That is, your customers may be perceiving your site as valuable by simply making a visual judgement. However, when it comes time for them to make a purchase, and the payment button is the wrong color, they leave. They feel fooled by a bad user experience resulting in a loss of brand equity. Regardless of how pretty your site may be, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t have value.
Are you giving your customers a “bait and switch” experience?
In his lecture, author and designer William Lidwell discusses this phenomenon in depth using the following slides:
From the front view, the house is visibly pretty, and your perception may be one of value. A strong brick house, sure to weather the storm. Great experience so far.
Then we walk around to the back of the “brick house”, only to find that the rear is constructed of cheap HardiePlank®. We find out that our pretty house is just a facade. Customers feel duped and wonder “what else about this house is not to be trusted?”. This kind of experience is highly offensive to customers.
Customers have the same exact experience when they arrive at a brand’s touch point (website, app, product, packaging or collateral), only to find that it doesn’t work. When you approach your designer with an over-emphasis on aesthetics, you will certainly end up with a HardiePlank® design. Take a poorly designed website for example. At first glance, your customers will perceive the site to be one of value with pretty fonts, great imagery, and modern design. Then, while browsing your site, they lose faith in your brand when they get an annoying opt-in form before having a chance to receive any value from your blog posts. You have now succeeded in creating a negative user experience. This costs you time and money.
Design should be and investment, not an expense.
So, where should your focus be when collaborating with your designer to avoid this? On function and effectiveness. The aesthetic conversation should be dead last, as it is the least important part of the design conversation.
The image below shows how clients typically approach designers in regards to design work. The client is solely focused on the discussion of pretty, while the designer is focused on a discussion of goals. The result is dissonance between the two parties because they have different priorities. The confident client thinks the designer is incompetent, while the snobby designer thinks the client is stupid. Needless to say, this ain’t productive.
kill your designer or Improve your conversation?
Like the image above, clients often give feedback to their designers citing only how the design looks. Using looks to justify how “good” the design is. If you find yourself relaying feedback such as “I don’t like the color”, you’re giving the wrong kind of feedback. To be frank, your designer simply doesn’t care as type of feedback is meaningless to them.
Designers can be snooty (especially the good ones). They may take note of your complaint with absolutely ZERO intentions of revisiting it (and rightly so), if they suspect your suggestion isn’t helping to reach a goal. This type of feedback usually annoys a designer and can lead to a bad and unproductive relationship.
An experienced designer will always steer the conversation away from aesthetics to focus on goals. However, if the conversation always ends in subjective opinions, the designer is more likely to fire the client (or pull their hair out). Because they have done so much research and much of the thinking involved to solve a problem they don’t return deposits. This can be infuriating for clients. Trust, it’s even more infuriating for the designers because the work they have completed is worth a lot more than the money clients have parted with.
But why does this happen? Why do designers feel this way?
They feel this way because designers are practitioners, not order-takers. If you could envision your designer as a medical practitioner, explaining that you don’t like their execution would be exactly like telling your surgeon that you don’t like their scalpel. It would be irrelevant to your surgeon and probably annoy them. What matters to them, is that they remove the diseased organ to save your life. In this example, saving your life would be comparable to completing an execution that successfully solves a business problem. That is literally all the designer cares about; does it work?
A side note about deposits and compensation:
When designers start a project, they will spend a great deal of time finding a solution to your problem. They research your brand and your competitors. This process is known as “discovery” and it’s the most critical part of the design process that can take hours, if not months to complete. That’s a lot of risk for a designer to take on. The deposit serves as way for you and the designer to share that risk. An experienced designer will never, ever, ever start a job without a deposit (unless the job is not that important, or when doing pro-bono work for friends).
Never offer “more work” as compensation, especially if you are receiving work at a discounted rate. This is known in the industry as “Dangling a Carrot”, and to a designer, it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. You should avoid saying things like “this will lead to other jobs” at all costs. To them, this is the equivalent of saying “I can’t afford your regular rate now, and I want a discounted rate in the future“. Designers are seasoned to ignore statements like that because it’s difficult to get a low budget client to pay normal rates down the road. This may not even be your intention, but that is how it will be perceived. It’s just a bad way to start a business relationship.
If your budget is low, don’t be scared to ask for help. A lot of times designers may be shifting into a niche and your project may be a perfect fit for them. They will be more willing to overlook a low budget In that case. If they agree to take the job, It’s still a favor to the client and it should not be overlooked. Experienced designers qualify every potential client depending on niche, budget and quality of client. So, be ready to discuss your budget within the first 5 to 20 minutes of the engagement.
Just Make Me Happy.
Often times, clients believe designers are supposed to make things look good for them. The problem is that clients are basing their opinions solely on whether or not they like the visual appeal. This is a rout to disaster because your taste is not your customers’ taste. What you deem to be aesthetically pleasing may not necessarily be the same thing that your customers respond to. Your personal taste is, for the most part, irrelevant to your customers.
So, how do you have a conversation that matters?
By providing useful feedback that takes measurable goals into the consideration. You will know that you’re working with the right designer (and don’t have to kill them) when they ask you questions about your customers and your goals. They might even ask you “why” several times until they uncover an unspoken goal. They might even be able to suggest a better designer for your job that isn’t them. This is the mark of a trustworthy designer that you won’t have to bury later on down the road.
Feedback is only great when it aligns with measurable goals.
Every interaction you have with your designer should be free from subjective opinions and focus solely on what makes your customers happy. This is a hard thing to let go of sometimes, but it’s what benefits the you the most (so put the ax down). Hiring a designer to design what you like would be like hiring a DJ to play music that only you enjoy, completely disregarding what your guests prefer.
Try to asses if the given design execution will reach your target market, help you project a certain brand message, or reach a certain measurable goal, other than just “make it pretty”. The most valuable critique you can provide as a client would be “I don’t think my customers will respond to that” or “this design will help us reach our goal of x”. In order to know what “X” is. These are metrics that designers work really well with.
Some great example could include:
“I need a logo that will help me gain X amount of customers in X market”
“I need a site that will get me X sales by X deadline”
“I need help connecting X product to X market”
If you’re not having that kind of conversation with your designer you can be sure that you are wasting your money making it pretty.
Not one of us is perfect and it’s not easy to hand over the reigns sometimes, I know. It’s important to know that when you have aligned goals, it makes it easier on everyone to work effectively. At times, designers can seem like our enemies rather than our allies. Just try to remember that they’re on your side and sometimes that involves things you might not agree with. Hopefully, your designer isn’t worth the prison visit and you have found some value in this. Share this with your colleagues if you got a kick out of the satire.
Thanks for reading!