Talkin’ bout Design Talk

Communicating effectively with clients, customers, and users is a critical component of being a great designer. Graphic design usually gets associated with shiny graphics and awesome animations, but our main goal is visual communication, which is why clearly communicating our decisions and objectives is key.

A great design might fall short if its designer can't justify and explain their decision making process; the session will move forward based solely on visuals and not on messaging or experience. On the other hand, a design that may not be so great but has a solid understanding of the problem and a great way to communicate a solution, will probably end up as a perfect fit. It’s in the hands of the designer to make their decisions work.

Designers are communicators, so why are so many of us failing at communicating our ideas?

Ego

Ego comes first (pun most definitely intended). As designers we need to be humble, and listen to everyone involved in the process. We might know more about grids and pixels but the clients usually understand their needs and problems far better than we do. A designer that knows best will shut up and listen as much as they can, before coming up with an amazing solution to the client’s and users’ problems. Be humble enough to recognise that you don’t know everything- you’ll learn something, it’ll be appreciated by the client and users, and it will enrich your project. That means that when you do interject it’ll be with the weight of all the knowledge you have in the areas you excel in.

Understanding

Part of delivering a great result is understanding our target audience (users). Another key component is understanding our client, as these might not overlap (ie, client might not be the end user), and it will strengthen your relationship with them. You may want to explain the fantastic grid system you’ve created, and by all means do so, but make sure you frame your decisions in terms of how this will help communicate the message they are trying to get across. They already know you’re super talented- they hired you! Now show them you understand them, too.

Terminology

After years of being in school and in the industry you might be used to some very specific design lingo, and not everyone in the room will know what you’re talking about. Be patient and explain yourself in layman’s terms without being condescending. There’s people that might even find it a little bit on the aggressive side if you’re heavy on the design speak, and honestly, you shouldn’t even need to go there. Explaining your decisions and thinking shouldn’t need overly complex design-talk.

In the words of the mighty Michael Scott: Keep it simple!
Wherever you can, use the client’s own vocabulary, especially when referring to a part of their business. It can help build trust and reassure them that you understand them. Showing interest and incorporating their terms will make you relatable too. It’s a win-win.

You ≠ your design

Make sure you can justify your decisions without being defensive, you are not your design. Leaving room for criticism will only enrich your project, and might give you a new perspective you may not have considered yet. It might be difficult to separate ourselves from the work that has taken us countless days to produce, but remember that you don’t hold all the answers and the team’s input could really benefit the project.

A simple thing like a font choice might be a really big decision for us designers, so make sure you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and explain why it’s a good choice for your project. If we can’t explain the reasoning or logic behind a choice, then, Houston, we have a problem. Arbitrary choices are very easily revoked, and might reflect poorly on the decision making skills you were hired for.

Speaking of criticism, you should always try and welcome it. If you’re getting destructive criticism or feedback you don’t understand, ask questions! There are usually good reasons behind negative feedback, and if there aren’t, asking questions is a good way for the group to figure out if that request is a dead end. I have never encountered a client that wanted something based purely on a whim; we’ve always been able to guide them back through their thinking process and find out the nature of their request. Having someone ask you to “make that button red” might sound like a whim, and it might even be a whim in some instances, but more often than not, if you guide them and follow that train of thought back you’ll find a valid reason behind a poorly formed request.

However, because our practice is so visual (meaning it’s easier to have an opinion on it), we will get personal choices delivered as feedback. It’s in our hands to separate the personal choice from good practices. Again, a good way of doing this is by asking questions. If no good answer can be found, the request can either be dropped, or a little compromise can be struck. Showing you’re able to adapt and give space to the client’s requests not only reflects really well on you and your team, but also will allow the whole team to feel more empowered in the project. At the end of the day, it’s a group effort, you are the designer, not the design.

Design is a group practice

You may be the visual executioner of the message, but the message originated elsewhere. As designers, we are brought to the table to solve a communication issue, so we need to be open to listening to other voices, especially those that bring the issue to us. As designers, we are taught empathy for our users, we come up with user stories and personas of who those users could be, their backgrounds, how they will interact with our end products. As designers, we should use those same tools with our clients. Ultimately, they are the key holders for us to deliver a great project, so why not make it work?

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Written by
Vicky Jaime 21 Nov 2017

Creative Director, ocassional artist & space nut

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