The value of conflict in Design

I often compare my job as a designer for digital products to being a medical doctor. Not that I know too much about being a doctor but there is a particular situation that doctors seem to encounter as well as designers: Patients come with half baked solutions to problems they haven’t even identified yet. This is normally the start of a creative conflict, or at least it should be.

So Mister X walks in into a doctor’s office with a sore throat asking for antibiotics. Specifically antibiotics! Maybe they helped last time. Maybe Mr. X did some internet research beforehand or he simply thinks he has enough experience to rule out any other root cause by himself. (Like 90% of sore throats come from viruses that can’t be treated by antibiotics). This behaviour is not only potentially dangerous, it is plain stupid. Because whenever you think you are smarter than someone who put literally his whole life in becoming an expert in his field you are missing a great chance to learn something new. Or to simply benefit from someone who is better at doing the job than you are. You seeked an expert in the first place, so why not let him or her do the job you pay for.

So what would a responsible doctor do? At first: He wouldn’t simply write a prescription for antibiotics just because it is the patient’s wish, even he insisted heavily. The doctor would ask questions about the symptoms, the overall condition and the history of the patient and then most surely have a look at the throat and maybe go into some more advanced tests like blood analysis to get the full picture. And then, maybe… maybe antibiotics are part of the solution, or most likely not.


Avoiding conflict leads to loss of trust

I often ask myself where this DoItYourself mindset comes from, as it seems to be a great lack of trust in the expertise of the professional. Or is it just a symptom of the information age? Everybody knows everything? Information is just one click away? Or is it the fact that the patient is the one writing the checks and therefore feels empowered to influence the outcome of this event in his alleged favour? I really don’t know. But what I do know, when compared to my professional situation, sometimes I was the kind of doctor that wrote the desired prescription regardless of what the real problem was and without having gone in the neccessary amount of research or dialogue with the patient.

“Why?” you ask rightfully. Mostly because of pressure, time, money or just tiring clients. And I was conflict-shy. I simply didn’t want to stand up to the confrontation that would ensue when having to fight for the right processes, methods and solutions that I knew of. Many times I thought: „Yeah, you can have that, even it won’t work well. And it looks bad.“ And by acting so I undermined my own expertise and in the end maybe added my own part to the loss of trust in design professionals. Even worse, I became frustrated at a certain point.

I have encountered quite many designers over time that either gave up their whole career over that kind of frustration or became isolated unicorns building a mystery wall around their stuff — secretly hating everybody who won’t worship their genius works of art. As a client I would say: another reason to loose trust in designers.

And ultimately bad design decisions that come out of the avoidance of conflict will hit you like a boomerang. When your client will get negative feedback on the design from the outside world he won’t remember your warnings or your sour mood that day when he forced you to just make the logo BIGGER! He will remember, that he hired a professional and now he has a crappy solution.


Every view counts, even if you say no.

If I had reflected this topic earlier in my design-school-days, I would have saved myself a lot of energy in life. This is what I would teach my younger self if I had a time machine: There is always conflict in design efforts and it is not necessarily a sign of a poor project setup. You should embrace conflict as a vital element of the process, as it can lead to excellent solutions for all participants. There is no single truth in such a process and there is more than one possible outcome when dealing with design problems. We are not talking mathematics here. When all involved parties bring their viewpoint to the table and value each other for their unique expertise good things can happen. Maybe you’ll even learn something.

And… prepare yourself to say NO. In order to lead a valuable argumentation you need to have a standpoint and this means you have to draw a line somewhere. Design projects can be fights over power which can lead to one sided solutions. Many times clients won’t give up their opinion-based approach and simply want things to get done the way they want them to be, which forces the designer to become something like a “photoshop operator“ without any own opinions on the matter. Be sure to notice that a line has been crossed if you see yourself being pushed into this role. I have on the other side encountered projects where the designers had all the power and literally could do anything they wanted. This can lead to typography awards or nice looking portfolio projects for the designers. But it rarely helps to solve the initial problem and is most likely out of context in the client’s market. So each one-sided approach missed the valuable contribution of the other parts.


How to keep up the good spirit

So here are a few tips on what you can do to ensure a productive conflict without losing your soul:

  • Have a gameplan

Be awake and aware of the situations you are in and be prepared for the upcoming friction. Know how far you want to go in an argument and where to draw the line. What do you stand for and how much can you compromise? Be sure about those questions before entering a design project and you’ll be much calmer when things go crazy. It also helps if you are not alone, so get a second pair of eyes to help you reflect your situation.

  • Embrace conflict

Know that conflict will arise in one or the other form and embrace it as an opportunity to get to a broader understanding of the problem. It has the potential to lead to successfull products and this in the end it will make you also successfull as a designer. Things can get hard if you have to deal with different stakeholder requirements and technical feasability, so if there is no conflict or friction felt on the way, something’s going wrong in my opinion.

  • Build bridges, not silos

Try to connect and communicate from the first meeting on. Talk about your definition of design, your role as a designer and ask about how the client sees his role. Discuss the upcoming process openly and let the client know how much you value his input and perspective.

  • Be professional

When discussing certain aspects of design you should be the one using real arguments, because you’re the expert. „I don’t like it.“ is no argument. It is more or less an opinion. So get away from personal opinions and have solid reasons for your design decisions. And don’t get too emotional with it. I know how hard it can get when the client simply hates the colour red and you just showed him his new landing page design in this exact colour. Calmly explain why this is the colour you chose and be open to a compromise if you think that there is room for such. If there is no alternative to the colour red and you have a good argument for this decision: Stick with it, even he hates it.

  • Stand up and fight.

Be the advocate for your domain. If that external SEO agency tells your client to rework all the homepage designs you just finished and more or less forces you to create a mess in terms of visual design and user experience just to get a higher Google ranking: Put on the gloves and get into the ring. Aknowledge that getting a higher rank can be an important business goal but not for the cost of a poor user experience. Try to understand what the higher goal of these measures is and try to create a better solution that you can live with. Don’t get tired of trying.

  • Fight to death if neccessary

Not literally. But if you have given your best and you are still overruled by forces you cannot control or influence… if you are in danger to become a „photoshop operator“ and your voice stays permanently unheard… Do yourself a favour and quit. Go find a client that values your perspective and become happy again. Your work and your life will be better if you are happy.


A few last words

I know I may sound idealistic in some parts and real life forces you to compromise much more than you would like to. Some clients can be tiring as hell by insisting on false solutions or by treating you without the given respect. Don’t take it personal. Be a proud representative of your guild and simply set standards.

Also I was mostly talking about designer/client relationships, but everything I said could be applied to designers working in a corporate/employee context.

I hope my words inspired you to reshapen your role as a valiant fighter for better design. If you agree, let me know by pressing the green heart below or by leaving a comment. Also let me know if you disagree — but please don’t hate ;)

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