SoftServe Design
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SoftServe Design

Fruitful Design Requires a Supportive Mindset

Understanding the design requester’s responsibilities

While endlessly discussing the designer’s responsibilities, we don’t pay enough attention to the design requester — even though project success or failure often depends on both roles. In commercial design, the work is incomplete until it is accepted by the design requester, who may be a client, a manager, or a peer. To understand this dynamic, I interviewed other designers about their experiences fulfilling design requests. Designers attribute many of the problems affecting design projects to a lack of adequate information, access, and feedback at the appropriate phases of the creative process. I view all these as the responsibility of the design requester to provide. By taking the right mindset from the beginning, design requesters can avoid common pitfalls and enjoy better outcomes.

Actively participate in the briefing

Design engagements almost always begin with a briefing period, where the designer receives information about the task at hand. What I found in speaking with other designers is that briefings can range in formality, and may or may not include an official written design brief. Briefing is often communicated verbally, through meetings or a less structured conversation. In some cases, the briefing period is prolonged, with fragments of information revealed only in intervals.

Often the designer needs clarification as they interpret the information provided. One approach they might use is to capture this information with a formal intake questionnaire. If the designer and design requester have healthy communication, there may be ongoing discussions, until there are satisfactory answers to the open questions.

Tomasz Sygnowski, a Polish-based experience designer, explained to me how he uses mood boards as a means to clarify expectations.

“I’m a highly visual person, so back in the days when I was freelancing, I was asking clients to provide as much visual material as possible. That material was used to create a mood board that was supported by a basic interview.”

The mood board, in this case, is collaborative documentation, contributed by both the designer and the design requester. By framing the information visually, the two collaborators are interpreting the brief into a shared language. This process works best when the design requester is willing and available to work with the designer, helping them overcome the initial learning hurdle.

During the briefing period, the design requester should keep a supportive mindset. The most effective way to ensure success is to willingly supply the information that the designer needs, in whichever form most useful to the project. Thinking holistically, briefing includes a combination of written documentation, verbal briefing, and ongoing communication. The design requester is the conduit of the information transfer.

A written brief is one proven method to provide structure. There are some excellent and easily accessible templates to use, such as Jared Spool’s Magical Short-Form Creative Brief. What I look for in a good brief is an answer as to “why should this work be completed?” Receiving responses can be a challenge, as gaining a deeper understanding of the design problem will question the surface assumptions. Be flexible enough to reframe ideas as you work through the brief together with the designer.

Facilitate access to conduct user research

Once the design requester has provided all the current information they can, the designer needs to start gathering external inputs to inform the creative project further. In the field of experience design, the end-user is the main focus of the research. In my experience, lack of access to end-users is a major problem for a design project. Without first-hand user research to inform the work, the designer is only making guesses based on assumptions, which aren’t validated until the end-user interacts with the design solution.

Yurii Voroblevskyi is an experience designer with an idealistic outlook, who moved into the field of design to make the world a better place. Speaking with me about his own challenges, he points to lack of access to user research as the biggest challenge in achieving design success.

“My designs are just hypotheses, and without access to the end-users I can’t test them.”

The preference for first-hand user research is common among designers and heavily emphasized in both academic and professional frameworks. On commercial projects, access to user research can make or break a project. Questions arise, to be answered through empirical evidence, gathered through interviews, surveys, or testing prototypes. Without evidence, the decisions driving the project will be ill-informed at best.

It is in the interest of the design requester to provide the designer as much access as possible to conduct their research. As the beneficiary of the design work, it is the requester’s place to advocate for the importance of it. They are in the position to clear obstacles and make connections on behalf of the designer, keeping open those avenues for researching as the project progresses.

Supply direct feedback

Constraints provided by the design requester inform all design decisions. Throughout the process, a designer will present the work-in-progress to stimulate feedback, validating whether it’s the right direction and course-correcting when something is off. Capture feedback through in-person sessions, static notes made on design artifacts, or sporadically through emails and other touchpoints.

Unproductive feedback is an obstacle to project success. To make use of it, the designer must see the reasons behind it. If notes are too prescriptive without providing reasoning, the designer cannot understand the spirit of the feedback and may still miss the mark when revising the work. At the same time, if the notes are too vague, the designer has nothing to use. Balance constructive feedback with enough objective information, without infringing on the designer’s creative responsibility.

Yuliia Domaretska is an experience designer with a focus on visual storytelling and a background in illustration. She regards indirect feedback as one of the biggest blockers to design success.

“If I don’t have an opportunity to ask someone questions, then things can go wrong.”

She has worked on projects with no direct access to the stakeholders requesting changes. In this dynamic, a project manager is acting as a proxy design requester, and filtering the communication in both directions. When working on an illustration project featuring figures with stylized proportions, Yuliia received notes to change the design of the hands to make them more realistic. The project manager could not offer insight into the reason behind this change. With no recourse to justify her creative choices, Yuliia could only execute the feedback against her better judgement.

In my own experience in the role of design requester, I usually bend over backward avoid giving explicit suggestions, because I prefer the designer to come up with the ideas themselves. Working with designers I trust, I can usually depend on their solutions to exceed my expectations. In other situations without established trust, a design requester may be somewhat more prescriptive to move the project forward. As long as both parties keep a collaborative mindset, the designer should be able to take the spirit of the feedback and form their conclusions.

In Summary

Responsible design requesters proactively contribute to the success of a design project by providing information during briefing, facilitating access to user research, and supplying feedback on working designs. The key is keeping a constructive mindset throughout the process, recognizing that the designer must fully understand the design problem in order to produce quality solutions. Learn more about the solutioning process in my article, Ideation Drives Design.

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Leonard Reese

Leonard Reese

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Supposed Experience Design Expert, design educator and community organiser, based in Singapore.