One of the most difficult (and least talked about) facets of designing in any environment is presenting the work. As a designer, it’s been your job to determine how important content should get delivered to customers and prospects and readers, and the success of that presentation and interaction is directly tied to revenue and peoples’ jobs.
You were hired (in whatever capacity) because you’re the expert. You have training and experience and knowledge that others don’t, and you can leverage that to make the best choices possible. As such, you owe it to whoever hired you to insist on being the expert and to take full responsibility for the things you were tasked to do.
Yet, if you come into the meeting having busted down the door with a battering ram, immediately take a condescending tone, and talk about your design decisions like you just taught a master class a Harvard, you’re only going to isolate and demean the people crucial to the design’s success.
In my experience—and in others’, as I’ll show—there are some choices you can make to set the right environment for design presentation without having to take a negative or defensive tone. Here are three that I find highly important, and I’d encourage any designer (but especially greener ones) to give these some serious thought.
One of the more common problems which tends to create doubt and confusion is caused by the inexperienced and anxious executive who innocently expects, or even demands, to see not one but many solutions to a problem.
Paul Rand (not to be confused with Rand Paul, mind you) was one of the most influential designers of all time. In “The Politics of Design”, amongst several hangups that can occur in a corporate setting, he calls out the frequent request to see options. This is a bad practice that needs to be nipped in the bud—yet, just like spec work, you can’t wholly dismiss anything that looks like it on the surface.
It’s your job as the designer to explain why throwing several approaches out and merging together everyone’s favorite parts is the only approach that will definitely not result in the best work.
Theoretically, a great number of ideas assures a great number of choices, but such choices are essentially quantitative. This practice is as bewildering as it is wasteful. It discourages spontaneity, encourages indifference, and more often than not produces results which are neither distinguished, interesting, nor effective. In short, good ideas rarely come in bunches.
You must guide the process in which everyone does their part, but understands that it must be a singular effort. Multiple options simply gives room for personal preference to dictate direction, and that should have little-to-nothing to do with achieving business goals.
The designer who voluntarily presents his client with a batch of layouts does so not out prolificacy, but out of uncertainty or fear. He thus encourages the client to assume the role of referee. […] Bent on impressing the client with their ardor, they present a welter of layouts, many of which are superficial interpretations of potentially good ideas, or slick renderings of trite ones.
As Paul Rand points out, your uncertainty or fear can put clients/stakeholders in the exact wrong position. You’re essentially telling them you don’t know, but you had a few decent guesses. That’s an abdication of your responsibility. No designer knows the answer (because there usually isn’t one), but you shouldn’t pass that uncertainty on to others. It’s your job to bear and parse that uncertainty.
That said, options themselves aren’t the problem, and you shouldn’t dismiss it wholesale. For instance, I recently gave a client two choices during a branding project, but I didn’t start by saying, “Here are two things I thought of. Which do you like?” Instead, I clearly communicated that a branding process, especially for a new company, is often an exercise in unearthing existing concepts of identity. As such, I wanted to see which option seemed to align most with the client’s perception of the company. I presented an option that was playful and an option that was exceptionally refined, but made it clear that neither was to be considered a proposal for the brand. I asked for trust by going through the exercise.
It worked. Options aren’t wrong, but using them to pass along uncertainty is.
Asking About Personal Preference
I think it’s safe to say most designers understand that nothing should be build because Janine likes blue or Rahul likes the look of Amazon.com. We understand that personal preference is beside the point.
However, it gets tricky when the people who insist on advocating for their preference are the people who get to make the decisions. On one hand, you certainly want to please them enough to get a good design through. On the other, you know you’re not doing yourself any favors by following every whim conceptualized by the only people in the room who are not designers.
Too far one way: you’re completely dispensable. Too far in the other: you’re a complete jerk.
The secret is in your focus on the goal and your ability to get everyone focused on the same thing—that often begins by guiding the feedback.
You should almost never ask, “Do you like this?” Anyone who’s not a designer thinks “this” means “what we’re looking at”, but what you often mean is all the work that went into it to get there.
What you should really be asking is, “Does this align with your brand?” Or, in product design, you might ask, “Does this seem to enable users to accomplish the task?” You need to explicitly tell people what kind of feedback you need to get to move forward.
Personal preference isn’t irrelevant, but once you let that cat out of the bag, it tends to turn into a litter and take over the room. Your design deserves better. Even when I ask for thoughts, I’ve framed the conversation so that the thoughts are on that.
If someone is going to break the flow of the conversation to give you completely subjective preferences, they’ll at least have had to think about it and consciously decide to do so. Your job is to relate your design decisions back to research, best practices, or experience, and show how your decisions will lead to the ultimate success of the client. If you can’t do that, either admit that you don’t know the answer, but it’s worth finding out, or explain why you think it’s not important to the end goal.
Taking It Personally
Design is not pure art. It ought not be a personal expression of your life story. It can be artful; it can appear artistic. But you were not hired to be an artist. You were hired to solve problems, and those problems don’t need to be taken likely. Design is a job.
A wholesale rejection of your design is not a wholesale rejection of you. In fact, if you can remember this and not get all self-conscious in the middle of a conversation, you can very easily find all the things that people do like about it. The more you can explain about your process and decisions, the more places there are where agreement can occur. Go back to where the client stops agreeing with your process and discuss how to move forward from there.
When you find yourself getting bombarded by critiques that seem unfounded, heed Mike Monteiro’s advice:
When the client starts critiquing the work, listen to what they are saying. Don’t feel like you have to defend all of their decisions then and there. You also don’t have to promise them anything then and there. Sometimes it’s best to sit on it for a while. It’s perfectly fine to say something like “That’s interesting feedback. Let me think about it.”
Be the expert. Keep your authority, but understand that authority exists to help your client meet their goals. Tie everything back to that, and you’ll find yourself selling designs with more ease and less stress.