The following is an excerpt from You’re My Favorite Client, a book to help people understand design. Written by Mike Monteiro. Published by A Book Apart.
Why you need design
DESIGN RESULTS FROM human decisions. You can design with intention, which means you have a chance of doing it well, or you can let it happen, which means you’ll probably bungle the job. Design happens whether you’re aware you’re doing it or not paying attention. Nothing is undesigned. Things are badly designed, well designed, and points between.
What do I mean by design?
Design is how we communicate what an object does, or its function, through its shape or form.
Take a baseball mitt. Study it for a bit, and it becomes obvious that your hand goes inside. That’s form. The minute you have the mitt on, you understand it makes it easier to catch a baseball. That’s function.
Design is also the process we undertake to solve a problem. It fucking hurts to catch a baseball with your bare hand. A mitt is the solution to that problem.
If you ask five designers to define design, you’ll get five different answers. For our purposes, and because we have actual work to do, the above definition works fine.
When you think about the design of a chair, you consider both how it looks and how it feels to sit on. A well-designed office chair corrects your posture and enhances your productivity, while a well-designed living room chair lets you lie back and relax, watch TV, play with your iPad, and take a nap. An airline seat is purposely designed to fill you with regret and levels of sadness unknown in human history outside the Spanish Inquisition.
If you and I were to design a chair together, we’d have to consider some factors from the get-go. Of course, we’d consider the seat’s size, the height from the ground, the angle of the back, the materials, and the fabric. Before we made any of those decisions, we’d ask ourselves about the chair’s goals. Who would be using the chair? What would they be doing? How would the chair benefit the person sitting in it? These answers affect how we communicate its function. When a person’s expectation of the chair matches their experience of sitting in the chair, they get more joy out of it. This is design done right.
Will those considerations ensure that the chair is well designed? No, but they certainly increase the odds. Not thinking about them ensures that our chair is badly designed.
Yet when we build websites or apps, we often wait until the last minute to bring in designers to “apply” design, or look and feel. This is akin to baking a cake and then hiring a baker to make it taste good. (We’ve mixed our first metaphor!)
WHAT’S DESIGN’S VALUE?
Imagine two chair shops across the street from each other. One shop takes the chair’s design into consideration from the start. They hire the best chair designer they can. The chair designer researches other chairs on the market to figure out where they’re lacking. They ask people what they like and dislike about their current chairs, research materials, consider the chair company’s budget and profit margin, and source materials and manufacturing to make sure the chair is built right. They test different designs. They make adjustments. They test again. They come up with a solid design that meets both the company’s goals and people’s desires. The chair goes into production. It sells well. Everyone is now rich.
The people at the chair shop across the street also make a chair. They select adequate materials and make a seat, some legs, a back. This is definitely a chair! Then they hire a designer and say, “Make this a comfortable chair!” The designer adds a sad little foam rubber seat cushion. The chair bombs. Everyone dies of dysentery.
The value of good design is the increased possibility of success. We understand its importance in everyday objects like chairs, clothes, watches, coffee makers, and a good mattress. When it comes to websites, we tend to think of design as a surface layer applied at the end. In truth, that website’s design started long ago. It can be intentional or happenstance. For design to be truly great, you need to build it into your projects from conception. Because if you’re not doing it, you can bet your competitors are.
To get design’s full value, you need to hire a professional. You need a designer. Would you trust any other valuable part of your business to someone who wasn’t qualified to do it? Would you let your cousin’s best friend do your accounting because they had a calculator? Or let your neighbor reprogram your fuel injection system because they have three cars on blocks on their lawn? Probably not.
We hire professionals because we can hold them accountable. If you get audited, you better believe you’re taking your accountant with you to the hearing. If the credit card processing system on your site goes down, you want to know that your engineering team is on it. You also want to be able to call them into your office and ask what happened. When your users can’t figure out your site’s interface, you want to know you’ve got people trained in designing effective interfaces on the job. When you ask people to take on tasks that are neither part of their job nor something they’re trained at, you have no right to complain if they screw it up. Gift horses and whatnot.
Can I guarantee that hiring a professional designer will result in good design? No more than a college can guarantee that studying there will make you smarter. But it certainly improves your odds. Especially if you find the right fit. We’ll go over that in a bit.
Look for thoughtful, inventive problem solvers with excellent communication skills. Don’t get dazzled by the “creatives” trap. If you catch yourself thinking, “We could really use some of this energy around here,” put down the Kool-Aid. Treat your designers (and call them designers) as adult professionals. Hold them responsible for measurable job performance goals, the same as other employees. (We’ll go over how to do this in a later chapter.)
WHAT DESIGN CAN’T FIX
Let me tell you a story that’s playing out among every media company in the world. The editorial team is arguing to make their website look more modern, offer a cleaner reading experience with better typography, and hey, while we’re at it, let’s kill pagination. Across the table, the sales team is arguing for their ad units, for placement above the fold. (The concept of a fold will outlive every newspaper on the planet.) They’re arguing for three or four or five ad units on every page. To be fair, their job effectiveness is measured by those units. While I’m generally (always) on the editorial team’s side, I empathize with the sales team as well. This isn’t unlike Stringer Bell pushing for the co-op as Avon Barksdale screams back, “I want my corners!” (This is the first reference to The Wire. Won’t be the last. Be ready. Everyone in business should watch The Wire.)
So the company hires a design team to help solve their problem. If the design team’s good, they’ll tell the truth: the problem is that the stakeholders have different goals. The site can’t solve the problem, because the two sides need to agree over the conference table first. Otherwise, they’re passing a compromised intent to readers.
In our experience as a design firm, it’s common for client team members to disagree among themselves. They get to the point where some people want one thing like exposed navigation, and others want it hidden. They ask us to devise a solution that meets both teams halfway. Or someone higher up has a drastically different reaction to the work than the core project team. So they ask us to design something that tricks the CEO while staying the course. Or worse: “Can you show us both variations to help us make up our minds?”
The answer is no.
As my good friend Jared Spool says, “Design is the rendering of intent”. When the intent isn’t clear, the project stakeholders can’t agree on goals, or two founders veer in two directions to take their company, no amount of design can solve that situation. Design doesn’t work if you don’t know your intent. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in the land of mullets, half-cafs, cran-grape drinks, platypuses, and El Caminos. (Granted, platypuses are pretty cool. But they’re filled with poison.)
Designers can design a solution to a problem, but they can’t design a solution to a disagreement.
Some designers try to apply the wisdom of Solomon by coming up with a solution so terrible the disagreeing parties have no choice but to finally agree. This never works. And they soon find themselves breathing life into Frankenstein’s monster. A designer should never put something in front of you they don’t stand by.
Before you commit to the design process, make sure your goals are clear and your team’s on board with those core goals. Bring in the designer once you’ve done so. Bring them in to help you work through the details and the strategy, and then leave the solutions up to the designer.
The only way out from unclear goals is to talk through them until you’ve achieved clarity of intention. (Pro tip: do this in a room with no windows and no chairs that also smells like eggs. You’ll cut your time in half.)
Here’s a handy list of problems you may need to solve before spending precious time and money on design:
Imaginary business model
One of the first questions I ask potential clients is how they’ll make money with the thing they want me to design. Everyone (hopefully) remembers the underpants gnomes episode of South Park. The gnomes have a foolproof plot to get rich:
That’s right. It’s the exact plan we used to build the internet! The lovable rapscallions of South Park couldn’t help the underpants gnomes execute their plan and were wary of giving up their underpants without knowing the purpose.
You can’t design a system for profit unless you understand where that profit comes from.
At the least, you can’t design it well. To tell whether something is designed well, you need clear metrics. One such metric should be whether the business model is successful, if you want to stick around. With a clear and reasonable business model, you have a chance at a successful design.
Here’s an example that doesn’t involve gnomes. Say you hire a designer and your business model is ad-driven. The designer does an excellent job optimizing the ad spots to generate revenue and places them where advertisers will pay a premium. Two weeks after launch, you decide your most important metric for success isn’t ad revenue but the number of newsletter subscribers, which was a low priority during the redesign. You look at the number of newsletter subscriptions, and it’s a weak number. Does that mean the site wasn’t designed correctly? No. That’s the site working as designed. When your business model shifts, you need a redesign — so hammer out your business goals before you start.
Since we’re becoming friends I’ll tell you a secret. No one comes to a site because of the design. They come for the content or the service, like booking air travel. The design should encourage them to stay, offering a wonderfully easy-to-understand and even delightful way to interact with that content or service. Bad design can certainly bury good content, but you can’t design a “premium experience” and pour crap content into it with any expectation of success.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of working with ProPublica, a team of investigative journalists who do incredible work. Their initial strategy was to partner with newspapers (many of whom had laid off their own investigative reporters) and publish stories through these partners. ProPublica intentionally focused their resources on reporting rather than their website. Over time, the pool of available partners dwindled, and ProPublica realized they needed to create a suitable platform to publish their work. We were lucky enough that they chose to partner with us. Our job was relatively easy. All we had to do was create an effective showcase to highlight that work. These days ProPublica is gobbling up Pulitzers like Pez. Is this because of the site design? No. But the design makes reading their stories a more pleasant experience.
It’s all about content, people. Design is what holds it together. So before you drop a chunk of money and time on design, get some writers and content strategists. And beware of people who talk about “consuming content.” No one has ever woken up with the desire to consume content in their life.
A lack of resources
The first part of our design process is what we call the discovery phase. This is when we examine every aspect of the design problem. We talk to people in the organization. We talk to your users, discuss your goals, and find out how you get things done. Only after we’ve done this research can we think about how to solve anything. Most studios have a similar research phase. Be leery of those that don’t.
The most crucial thing we discover is how you work as a team. We need to know how many people actively publish to or maintain the website, and how much time they commit to it. We also need to know their skill sets. Any decent design solution takes your resources into account.
So when a client says, “We want tons of big photos,” my next question is, “Who’s going to source those?” When we don’t have a clear answer, or when the indicated individual lacks the skill set (and sourcing photography is a skill), the website will probably fail. The same applies to infographics, only it’s ten times worse.
If I design a system that you lack the resources to sustain, I’m not doing my job. I haven’t designed a solution to the problem; I’ve created a problem.
A good designer can’t in good conscience deliver something to a client knowing it will fail.
Be wary of gravitating toward a design that calls for a nonexistent resource. On the plus side, you could become a job creator!
“They’ll come around when they see what great work you’re doing.” Sure they will. They’ll come around and kill the project because they’ve been left out of it.
I’ve unfortunately gotten myself into this position a few times. A well-meaning team hires me. I ask if all the stakeholders are aware of the project. They say, “Yes,” or more likely, “Sure!” We proceed, do a ton of great work together, and when the project’s about to go live, a previously invisible stakeholder emerges from the shadows like Batman. The specter sometimes manifests as: “We need to get the board’s approval before final sign-off.” Replace board with investor, dean, silent partner, dad…you get the idea.
No work is so good that it makes people happy they were left out. As difficult as the conversation or logistics may be to get those people on board before the project begins, I guarantee you (and I’ll give you few guarantees in this book) that conversation is easier than the conversation when they realize they’re out of the loop.
So before you scope the project or interview designers, ask yourself, “Who can kill this project?” Involve that person! Make an ally, not an enemy. Include your designer in the conversation. I’d much rather help you convince your CEO at the project’s onset than stand in her office three-quarters of the way through the project to explain how I’ve been spending her money.
Conflicted chain of command
Nothing halts a design project like hazy direction or contradictory client feedback. As I mentioned at the start of this chapter, we often get conflicting feedback from clients who haven’t sorted out their priorities.
Clients ideally handle internal disagreement before feedback reaches the designer, but since hearing the source of the disagreement is often instructive, I’m okay with not drawing a hard line and hearing what the disagreement is about.
When the feedback contradicts itself, our job is to point that out and help the client clarify and prioritize. Someone on the client side may have to step up and make the ultimate call. We need to know who has the final say, which means you need to know first.
Let me tell you about Larry. Larry is one of my all-time favorite clients. (Unseating Larry should be your goal.) Anyway, Larry had a team of bright, opinionated people. I loved working with them. During one of our early meetings, everyone was arguing a point I’ve long since forgotten, but the opinions were flying around pretty fast and Larry was sitting there listening. Mulling things over.
At one point, someone made a fairly impassioned case and Larry shouted, “Sold!”
The argument continued.
Larry, in a friendly, authoritative voice, said, “You don’t understand. When I say ‘Sold,’ it means that you’ve convinced me and the discussion is over.”
In that moment, there was absolutely no confusion about the chain of command. I’ve since adopted yelling, “Sold!” during our own internal meetings, much to my team’s dismay.
WHAT’S A DESIGNER?
“Bring in the creatives!”
When most people think of designers, they picture something exotic. A rule-breaker! A free spirit. They may picture Edna Mode from The Incredibles forcing her newly designed suits on a freaked-out Elastigirl. They may see Stan from Mad Men lighting a joint in the office. Or Will Ferrell’s character Mugatu from Zoolander. And god bless those of you imagining Darrin Stephens from Bewitched, who was unable to solve a client’s problem without the intervention of forbidden wife-magic.
We’ve been trained to think of designers as people who are a few cards short of a tarot deck, out in left field, creatures of instinct. They don’t follow rules. They accidentally set conference rooms on fire. And they only work when inspiration rolls up for a visit. Even worse, we believe that those are the qualities we should value and seek out in designers.
The myth of inspiration has a strong hold on designers and their clients. Both share in its perpetuation. (Can you imagine letting any other employee get away with only working when inspired? I hope not.)
The world of advertising, whose list of sins runs deep, has sinned most by branding these people as creatives, which the world of web design sadly adopted as its own. Calling someone a creative doesn’t elevate. It marginalizes. The label excludes designers from conversations about strategy, product definition, business goals, and metrics. It sets them apart from other employees as people who aren’t bound by the same expectations and requirements. It diminishes their opportunity to be seen as people capable of analytical, rigorous thought.
Saddest of all, people who went on to become designers grew up with those stereotypes and adopted them as their own. This is why you have people self-identifying as creatives. Coming into work when they please. Skipping requirements meetings. Blathering about inspiration while the money you’re paying them is flushed down the toilet, along with your deadlines.
And here I am telling you to hire these people.
Except I’m not. I want to redraw your mental picture of a designer and tell you what you should expect of them.
I’m here to say it’s okay to tell them to take off the stupid panda hat at work.
A good designer behaves like a skilled professional with analytical, persuasive, creative, and social skills. You can count on them to solve problems, present good work in a timely manner, be accountable, and argue from an informed point of view.
Designers aren’t artists. Design isn’t self-expression.
Nothing special or magical marks design. While designers come in many flavors, some bitter and some with a lemony aftertaste, don’t tolerate any of those flavors if the designers don’t behave professionally.
Let’s explore the vast world of designers and learn more about what they do and what you should expect:
Designers make things
This is probably the part you already associate with designers: the making of the thing. Yes, with the mockups (don’t call them mocks!), the layouts, and the coding. I won’t spend too much of your time here, except to emphasize that the reason this part works is all the attention to the parts that come before it: the research and the strategy. Understanding the problem.
Sitting down to execute is the easy part if you did the prep work.
Designers solve problems
Once upon a time, I did a research interview with a young designer who worked at a big company. I asked him at what point he got involved in projects. He told me that the product team, the management team, and the engineering team — basically everyone but him — got together and defined the product strategy. They wrote product specs, made wireframes, did most everything but tie a bow on the project, and handed it over to “design.” I asked this kid, and he was a good kid, why he didn’t attend those meetings. He said he wasn’t invited. (Small aside to any designer reading: don’t wait for an invite. Get your ass in there. Your boss may not even know it’s important for you to be present. I’m about to tell them, but part of your job is knowing where you need to be and telling people you need to be there.)
You hire designers to help solve your problem. To do so to the best of their abilities, designers need to take part in conversations where everyone discusses the problem and bandies about solutions. This helps them better understand what you’re asking them to do, and it puts people in the room who may have a different approach to the problem. You want as many diverse points of view as possible. If you’re worried about bringing a designer into the room because you’re batting around half-baked ideas, that’s exactly why the designer should be there: to throw in ingredients you wouldn’t think of and keep you from fully baking the bad ones.
Design starts with understanding the problem and helping to set the strategy. Not having your designer participate in the problem solving is like a restaurant investor handing the daily menu to the chef and saying, “Make this.” Neither of us would want to eat at that restaurant.
And, yes, if you have a designer who hasn’t asked to be involved as early as possible, you should be a little worried.
Designers advocate for your users
Your success depends on how well your product or service meets the needs of the people who use it, and how many people you get to use it. Good designers understand this. They find out who your customers are, how they behave, and how they think. Some designers even create personas to better represent these people so it’s easier to plan and design with them in mind.
I once worked with a designer who bought frames with photos of strangers at thrift stores. She stashed the photos in a box under her desk. When she started a project, she flipped through them until she found people she felt matched the users we were designing for. She kept those frames on her desk for the project’s duration to remind her that she wasn’t designing for herself. She was designing for them.
Every good designer is a bit of a method actor. We try to design through the eyes of the people we anticipate using the product. Does this mean we disregard your business needs? Au contraire! We make sure that your business needs match the needs of the people you’re trying to win over. Ultimately, that’s the best thing we can do for your business.
Designers work well with others
It’s almost impossible to design anything by yourself. It’s also stupid. You improve everything when you talk to people with different viewpoints, experiences, and skill sets. The myth of the solitary genius is just that: a myth.
Design is a team sport. And a team with cohesive chemistry always beats a team with a few prima donna superstars. Even if the solitary genius manages to squeeze out a couple of good projects before everyone tires of their attitude, the door will eventually close on how long people are willing to put up with them.
A designer is a communication professional. When I start a project I get to know everyone on the client’s team. I learn what they do, how they tick, how best to communicate with them; I develop relationships and trust. Projects take a while. You’ll work together for a long time. You have information in your head that’s crucial to the project’s success, and I’m guessing you may not be quick to give it to someone who doesn’t treat you with respect and kindness.
You don’t have to put up with the solitary genius or the asshole genius.
Designers have reasons
Designers need to be able to explain decisions in a rational manner and tie them to project goals. By letting you know how their solutions relate to research findings. By backing up their decisions with quotes from user interviews. By using data and analytics where applicable. They have to explain their decisions and do so convincingly. They have to sell it.
A designer who can’t explain their rationale is useless — open to the whims and desires of everyone around them. If they don’t understand their own decisions, they can’t advocate for your users or replicate their choices across projects. They can’t argue. Every designer in the world needs to be able to answer: “Why did you do that?” If their reply is, “I can change it,” you’re absolutely fucked.
“I think it looks good” is not a rationale. It’s a red flag.
Designers take feedback and criticism
A solid, thoughtful rationale also nicely sets the table for good feedback. If your designer says they made a decision based on research and best practices, they’re doing their job.
But a designer who says they were “inspired” to do something opens the door for a stakeholder to give feedback that’s just as subjective. Whim begets whim. Now you’ve got a roomful of people arguing about their favorite colors.
But isn’t inspiration important? Absolutely. Remember the scene in Apollo 13 where the astronauts cobbled together random parts from around the ship to make an air purifier? Using everything at your disposal to meet a goal is inspiration. Throwing shit together and hoping it sticks isn’t.
A designer confident in their decisions is confident enough to listen to criticism. They’re showing you results based on systematic thought not a magical moment. People are more open to their math being wrong than having their fairy tales spoiled.
I’ve gone into presentations convinced that I was about to show a great solution. Fifteen minutes in, someone on the client team says, “You forgot to take x into account.” And holy shit. They’re right. At that point, my job is to shift gears and get everyone involved in solving for that case. And thank the awesome individual who uncovered it.
My friend Jared Spool, whom I’ve now quoted twice, says, “The best designers are passionate about design, but dispassionate about their own designs.” It’s a good line. I wish I could take credit for it. (I eventually will.)
There’s a big difference between defending work, which a designer must know how to do, and being defensive about work, which a designer should never do. When you point out an obvious problem to a designer and they keep fighting, they’re no longer fighting for the work’s quality. They’re fighting for their ego. A good designer is confident enough to fight for what’s right and acknowledge what’s wrong.
“The best designers are passionate about design, but dispassionate about their own designs.” — Mike Monteiro
Of course, you should make sure the criticism focuses on the work, not the person presenting the work. (We’ll go into how to give good feedback in Chapter 4.)
How do you know if you have a good or bad designer? Let’s find out.
RED FLAGS TO LOOK FOR IN DESIGNERS
Beware of designers who’ve only worked by themselves.
A designer who’s worked alone only knows what they know. But a designer who’s worked with other designers, taking in everything they had to teach, knows what they all know and isn’t afraid to tell you what they need. A young kid who’s the sole designer in a company founded by and filled with engineers or developers has a harder time learning how to make the case for their craft. They don’t work to convince someone of a point, because they never feel like they have the backup. They’re a pair of hired hands.
Beware of designers who wait for you to define their job.
The designer is the expert in what you hired them to do and what they need to get that done. After all, you hired them because they’re uniquely qualified to do this. Good designers empower themselves to do their jobs. If you’re in a situation where your designer asks for a lot of direction, you may need to remind them that you expect them to take charge of the things under their purview. Your designer should come to you for feedback that evaluates their proposed solution — but not direction, which asks you to come up with the solution itself. That’s what you hired them for.
Beware designers who limit themselves to things they enjoy doing.
Let’s be honest. No one in their right mind enjoys a requirements gathering meeting, but it helps get the job done. Anything that helps you do your job is part of your job. Combing through that information — and sharing in your teammates’ pain of attending said meeting — makes the job’s enjoyable parts more fruitful.
Beware a designer who doesn’t ask questions.
I mean “Why are we doing it this way?” type questions, not “How do we do it?” questions. A designer, heck, everyone in your company, should be curious about why decisions are made the way they are. A good designer takes every decision apart to see if they can put it back together better. It’s in every good designer’s nature to improve what they’re handed.
Beware a designer who doesn’t argue from a strong point of view.
Once a designer is convinced that a specific choice is right, they should be willing to argue their position. They should also be open-minded enough to be proven wrong, but only if the opposing argument is strong enough to persuade them. Slight pushback shouldn’t change their mind.
Beware a designer who wants you to like them more than they want to do good work.
Every designer has an aha moment in their career when they realize they’re designing work the client hopes to see instead of work they know is right but needs a harder conversation to get the client’s approval. Until they have that moment, they’re not giving you their best work.
Your interactions with the designer go a long way in determining whether they’re showing you their best work. You don’t hire them to be your friend or to design to your own whims. You hire a designer to solve a problem. I’ve seen too many designers throw their research and good sense to the wind because the client expressed a personal preference and demanded they follow it. You don’t want a designer who ends up doing the best work you can come up with. You want them designing the best work they can come up with.
Hiring a designer
Ok, you’re sold on design. Now you’re ready for more knowledge. Pick up a copy of You’re My Favorite Client. If you’re a designer pick up a box of them and give it to all your clients. You won’t regret it. You’ll get fantastic insight into things like:
- working together
- evaluating work
- giving feedback
- how to tell when things are going well
- how to tell when things are going wrong, and what to do about it