How to Achieve Design Clarity: Listen

Every question you ask should cut the possibilities in half, until you have a narrow target to hit.

What a game of 20 Questions can teach you about how to be a more powerful listener. The rules of the game are simple enough. Ask only yes or no questions and try to deduce the mystery character. 19 questions or so later, you might start to panic, because you aren’t much closer to figuring it out. The problem? Are the questions clarifying? By that I mean, did they reduce the field of options down in any significant manner?

The beginning of any design process should start like a good game of 20 Questions. Every question you ask should cut the possibilities in half, until you have a narrow target to hit. But if you’re making a guess 3 questions into this process, chances are you’re probably going to miss the mark, every time.

Being a great listener and asking the right kind of questions is something I learned by spending years on client calls with my mentor Chris Do. The first few times, it felt like I was witnessing a magic trick– watching him conduct half of the entire design process on the first call. At the end of each call, there was clarity and alignment across the board for what we needed to do, and what the client would be expecting. It usually took me days and lots of preliminary work to get to the same point he arrived at on the first call.

Your goal on the initial creative call/meeting with the client is to define the goal, and the creative parameters to work within.

“Without a goal, it’s impossible to score” — Paul Arden

The problem with most designers is that they take these initial meetings with the client, hear what they want to hear, and then go off in their caves to try and tackle a HUGE undefined problem. When in fact, if you utilize the time upfront to really dig deep and surface the core issues to deal with, you’ll realize the problem you’re trying to solve is actually much much smaller. You’ll save time, energy, and reduce friction with your clients.

Design is part science and part art. It’s your best educated guess at solving a problem. Ask plenty of questions. Then be creative.

Learn to Spot and Translate Coded Language.

You and your client will be limited to the words and vocabulary you’re equipped with. Often times it may be difficult for your client to articulate what they want, so they’ll use what they know.

A typical client brief will usually sound like this:

“We want to create a an epic video to launch our new product and appeal to everyone. We want to showcase our product in a premium way using simple and elegant design.”– Client

Did you spot the coded language in there? Some of you might be grinning, but the problem with most designers is that they’ll take that brief at face-value and run with it. There’s a term for it from the sales world: “Happy Ears.” Where you stop listening to what the client is actually saying, and only hear what you want to hear. With designers, they hear a particular word, get excited, assume a solution, and immediately want to go off and create something. I often have to fight this urge myself.

The problem with words like “epic,” “premium,” “simple,” and “elegant,” is that words can mean very different things to different people. “Simple” can mean Saul Bass to me, or it could mean Apple to you.

The client brief is usually littered with coded language, and it’s your job as a designer to listen, identify, and decode them.

What does “simple and elegant” look like to you?
Is it like Apple? Which apple, 1984 or 2016? 
Apple iMac, iPad, or do you mean iTunes?
Is it the minimal type, how they shoot the product, their use of negative space, or the grey and white color scheme?
Oh so it’s the use of negative space that feels “simple and elegant” to you. Now I’ve got it.

With a series of probes, you dig a little deeper with each question, and get much closer to a possible solution.

If at this point you can’t get your client to articulate specific examples from their memory, and you’ve exhausted your angles of inquiry, don’t fret. Put this off to the side and follow up later with curated visual references to spark up a deeper conversation. I know it’s tempting, but resist the urge of creating (free) original design work before decoding what they really want. You can save a lot of time and effort by just doing a little research, and pulling a few references.

Walkaway with a Simple Recap

If you’ve asked the right kind of questions, you’ll walk away with a simple and clear recap of the goal and creative parameters to contain your design exploration. Keep it very short and use simple language. This should be your blue print, your north star, and checklist for the entire design process– for you, your team, and the client. In fact, after the call/meeting, send the recap back to the client to confirm you’ve interpreted the assignment correctly.

  1. They’ll know that they’ve been heard, and you understand them
  2. They can have a chance to edit, if something was misunderstood

From the original creative brief, you should be able to extract clear guidelines and have a narrow target to aim for. Mine usually looks something like this:

GOAL: Create a 60 second 3d animated video showcasing the updated features of the new product X.
- Use a lot of negative space
- Use 60% red brand color, avoid competitor color green
- Need to show features A, B, C with Macro shots
- Use line art illustrations vs. photographs of people

Now You‘ll Have a Clear Direction

If you goals are unclear and you haven’t defined creative parameters to work within, the creative process can waste a lot of effort and take a very long time to arrive at a solution.
With a clearly defined goal guiding you and parameters to keep your exploration focused and contained, your creative process will have direction and you’ll arrive at a solution much sooner.

If you do this all right, you’ll drastically refine your process, get to the design solution sooner, have alignment with all parties involved, and reduce friction with your client.

At first, it’ll be difficult finding the right questions to ask or how to silence the thoughts in your head to become a great listener, but there are plenty of ways you can practice. Play 20 questions, ask your girlfriend what she wants to eat, or ask your boyfriend to share his feelings. If you can get an answer for those last two, then you can get anything out of your clients.

If you found this piece valuable, can you do me a favor by recommending it below? Have thoughts? Leave a comment. I’d love to discuss further. Thanks!

About the Author

Matthew Encina is a creative director at Blind, focusing on brand strategy, design and video content. He also authors content on pitching, design, and animation for The Futur Network.

Follow him everywhere @matthewencina

For those of you who have to pitch creative ideas to win business, but are struggling to land these opportunities, check out The Pitch Kit. I created this for those seeking clarity and structure in their design and pitch process.