9 Tips to Becoming a More Effective Designer
It’s happened to us all. You put in the sweat and tears, hitting the streets and talking to real users. You’ve blended your insightful research findings with the talents you developed in your $300,000 design education and your innate creative sensibilities to produce that one smart and innovate design that is just oh so right.
You walk into the client meeting room with your chest puffed (invisibly of course, don’t want to be obnoxious). You talk through your fine handiwork with pride (an appropriate amount of pride, of course, don’t want to seem arrogant), and you make sure to explain every detail.
And it falls flat. No standing ovation. No tears streaming down faces. Nothing.
What went wrong?
Photo credit: Dan Herman
I’ve been there. You’ve been there. And we’ve all probably seen our peers falter in this same way at some point.
Here’s the problem: too many designers don’t think like business people.
“Well, Joe, of course I don’t. See, I’m not a business person. I’m a designer.” You say as you take a gentle sip of your six dollar 8-oz cup of organically sourced, fresh roasted, pour-over Ethiopian coffee with floral notes of fragrant bergamot and mixed berries. Your thick-rimmed non-prescription glasses steam up.
Photo credit: Bondi Hipsters
Let me rephrase: too many designers think they’re artists.
And there’s a key difference.
An artist is an expressionist. Artists don’t have to pitch their work. They don’t have to sell themselves. They don’t have to align client business goals with their work. They are who they are. They create a piece and it is what it is. If you don’t like it, well — you just need better taste.
A designer is a practically skilled individual contracted to visualize the solution to a problem. And because designers are contracted workers, they have to inspire confidence in and be able to pitch their work to the people who are paying them.
You are not an artist.
- Your work has business dependencies, and you’re being paid to design something that satisfies them.
- You have to be able to explain your work and sell it, and you have to do both well.
- You have to be able to own the room.
- You have to establish yourself as the expert.
- You have to talk about how your pretty pixels equate to business value and ROI.
- You have to develop the difficult talent of managing client expectations.
Selling is a core design skill
All of the following tips are dependent on one thing: your work is good.
None of these tips will change a thing if you’re bringing crap work to the table. You’re setting yourself up to fail if you have not backed your design decisions with real user research and best practices, arrived at a solution that you yourself are proud of, or had your work peer-reviewed and critiqued.
And you’d better not have any grammar or spelling issues.
Get the hard stuff right. And sweat the small stuff.
Before you even set foot in the meeting room, you have to do a few things:
Tip #1: Forge a connection with the influencers - Who are the decision makers? Who is signing the check? Know who these people are and forge a connection with them. You need to understand what makes them tick and what they expect of the work you’re doing. You need to intimately understand their business objectives.
When you’re talking to the person actually writing the check, the goals of your presentation shift. ~Karli Petrovic
Tip #2: Limit surprises - Who is your main contact? Whatever you’re designing, you need to be in constant contact with this person, sharing rough drafts of your work with them daily to validate your approach against their expectations.
Avoid the big reveal. ~David Cancel
They should be entirely on your side going into any large meeting with key stakeholders.
Tip #3: Set a personal agenda - Your project lead or the client may have a meeting agenda, but you need to have a personal agenda too. Ask yourself:
- What does the client want to get out of this session? What are their business objectives?
- How will I show them how my designs or material fulfill that?
- What business benefits do my designs provide?
- In what order will I present my material?
- What’s my angle?
- What tone and voice will I use?
- How does my user research, current trends, market data, or design best practice support the design decisions I made?
- What next steps will come out of this meeting?
- How do I want to receive feedback?
- Share your agenda with your project lead and even the client so they know what to expect.
Tip #4: Practice, practice, practice - Are you pitching a design? Meeting for a workshop? Regardless of what type of meeting it is, you need to do a dry-run. Practice pacing. Practice pausing. Practice wording. Practice with colleagues, having them play the part of your client.
I’m often guilty of tweaking my designs until the last minute before a presentation. I’ve found that this always hurts me more than it helps. Intentionally cut yourself off an appropriate amount of time before the session and conduct a dry-run of the presentation.
Photo Credit: Bohemian Bacchante
You’ve arrived at the meeting. You should probably just hook up the overhead and get your little circus performance kicked off, right? Wrong!
Take some time to warm up the room and only then get into your presentation. Before and during your presentation, make sure you’re following these tips:
Tip #5: Exude Confidence - From the moment you step into the room, onward, you must be confident, outgoing, pleasant, and professional. Don’t take a back seat to your account manager or project lead. Give a firm handshake, make eye contact, introduce yourself with gusto, and participate in small talk. Make your client feel welcomed in their own meeting room.
During the presentation, stand up, speak up, and use your body language to communicate sureness and excitement. Be comfortable with silence. Pause for questions often. Stay on task (skip, redirect or park tangential questions and watch the clock).
This may seem basic, but I’ve consistently seen people really struggle to establish a presence in the room.
Tip #6: Establish context -When it’s time to present, please don’t just jump into explaining the designs. Ease into your presentation by building a narrative. Paint a picture of your surroundings for everyone in the room.
- Why are we here?
- What did we do last time we met?
- What objectives are we trying to solve?
- What user(s) are we focusing in on and what tasks are they trying to accomplish?
- What do you want the client to really watch for in this presentation? (e.g. you could say something like: “As we walk through these designs, really keep an eye out for how your new brand is weaved into each page.”)
Tip #7: Communicate business benefits, not design features - Nothing is worse than a real estate tour. You know what I’m talking about. It’s when a designer describes precisely what’s on their screen. I have eyes. I can see that you put the logo in the top-left corner.
Good design does not sell itself. ~Adam Haas
Focus on describing business benefits:
- Explain why the colors you used will elicit a reaction from the user and drive them to a specific call to action.
- Explain how white-space works to direct the eye to the things that matter.
- Explain why the use of provocative and specific imagery enforces their brand values with their customer base.
Help your client see that your beautifully simple design is exactly what they need to solve the problems and headaches they’ve been facing for the last 3 years.
Tip #8: Be an expert - Because your design is good (remember, we agreed earlier that it would be), you must believe it’s the right path for your client.
You are the design expert they hired. You are a consultant. Freely give recommendations. Share your informed opinion.
You are not there to please the client.
- Counter questions with “What are you trying to accomplish” and enforce why you’re the right person to design an approach that achieves those goals.
- Don’t fold under pressure, stand up for the design you believe in by answering questions with confidence.
- If you don’t have an answer, don’t flounder — and definitely don’t promise anything stupid — but instead confidently explain how you will go about finding the answer.
For example, if the client asks a question that you don’t really have the answer to, like: “Do you think the user will be able to find that page easily?” Answer with: “The flow I designed was intentional, but ultimately we should really do some user testing to make sure this is the most effective and efficient design for users.”)
Tip #9: Handle confrontation gracefully - Clients are going to ask questions. Don’t wilt under the pressure. Most of the time a simple explanation is good enough to satisfy them. However, if they keep drilling you on one point, it probably means that either you didn’t explain it very well and need to revisit it, or it’s really not meeting the goals they have.
If they’re starting to get confrontational on a point, absolutely do not, under any circumstances, get defensive. Your work is not you, and you are not your work.
Take a moment to address their concerns by establishing common ground then working towards a solution.
For example, reinforce that you’re all on the same team and have them revisit their business objectives for the work you’ve done. If you missed the mark, admit it and let them know that you’ll revisit the design direction. If they’re being stubborn and you truly disagree with them, bring the conversation out of the weeds of design and explain what best practices, design methodology, or data you have that prove that this is the best approach for their business objectives (see Tip #8: Be an expert).
Let me quickly dissuade the pitchfork brigade with this point of clarification: Design requires an immense amount of artistry. But it must be equaled by excellent business acumen, strategy and showmanship.
Know who is in the room, gather validation along the way to avoid a big reveal, have an agenda, practice, be confident, establish context before you present, explain how your design impacts the business, be the expert the client is paying you to be, and actively resolve conflict.
Here’s the recap:
- Forge a connection with the influencers.
- Limit surprises.
- Set a personal agenda.
- Practice, practice, practice.
- Exude confidence.
- Establish context.
- Communicate business benefits, not design features.
- Be an expert.
- Handle confrontation gracefully.
The designers who can carry themselves effectively in a business meeting are the designers who become leaders, owners, and entrepreneurs. Be a business-minded designer, and you will deliver better work, make clients happier, solve problems more effectively, and be more successful in your career.
Here’s honest truth: we need more CEOs and leaders who understand design. So become one.