It might be because of where I work – in-house at a University.
Both these things, the kind of studio it is and where it is, bring with them an awful lot of baggage. There’s politics, fiefdoms, acronyms and a thousand other pieces of tape that get in the way of doing work.
But one of the things that has constantly amazed me is how much people fear change. Any change at all. There’s always at least one or two, or sometimes a dozen or dozens of, people who will throw their hands in their air and say “Nope, it was fine how it was, we don’t need to change it, what a waste of resources.”
I take solace in learning from other designers that they’ve got similar clients. Ones who ask for change but aren’t necessarily comfortable with it once it arrives.
It’s probably human nature – some kind of protective instinct fear what’s different.
The problem is that we’re in the business of making things different.
It could be the client’s product, or it could be their idea of what their shiny new website is going to look like. But if we can show why our solutions are effective, we can help tackle some of those fears and resistance they might have to our solution.
Aesthetic is a Given
Fresh out of study, this is what we think change looks like:
Ugly -> Not Ugly.
We’re the arrow.
Then we keep working and start to notice that “Ugly” and “Not Ugly” sit within a broader scope:
Not Functional -> Functional.
Again, we’re the arrow.
Add a little more experience and we see that there’s more needed for success:
Non-effective -> Effective.
Yup, our process is the arrow.
What we need to learn is that aesthetic is only one level.
It’s the easiest level though. How hard is it to find an ugly piece of design and point at it, showing what you’d change? “Wrong font,” “bad kerning,” “poor colour choice,” “awful photo,” or “ugh, ugly” slip from our tongues as we dance around drunk on arrogance. It’s kinda fun.
Even if we make something pretty, that doesn’t mean we’ve solved any problem to make the product more functional, nor does it mean it’s effective at what it’s trying to achieve. As Debbie Millman has written;
“Talent is essentially a given, a point of entry. A career in graphic design brings with it the assumption that you have talent, and in isolation, talent will not guarantee success for any designer or design program.”
Today I want to skip to the end and focus on effectiveness and explain why you must be able to show why it works.
If aesthetic, or talent as Millman says above, is the foundation, then you have to assume that everyone is taken it as a given. It’s like going to a restaurant and expecting food. It’s the whole reason you’re in on the discussion in the first place.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t be able to explain your aesthetic and design reasoning. That’s just the start, and something you should be able to do well, but not rely on as the only selling point.
Level 1: Why The Aesthetic Works.
But let’s start there, as it’s what we’re more familiar with.
Here’s the deal: You must be able to explain every single pixel and pigment on your page.
Every element you’ve included, every color, every positioning. It all must be built upon a foundation of reason and have its effectiveness within the scope of the design as a whole explained.
“It there ‘cuz it look good” gets you no points.
“It might be small, but the role of this rule is to divide the content. The content on either side is related, and generally on the same footing hierarchically, but mustn’t be confused as being one and the same or too strongly connected. It’s only a light grey as we don’t want it to be become a design feature, nor distract from the reading experience.”
This might get a couple points on the board.
It’s a given that you can explain why every element is pretty, but you need to be able to explain why every element makes the whole functional and effective. It shouldn’t be a problem to explain what each element’s role is within the context of the whole design.
Level 2: Within the Bigger Strategy
This is where it gets tricky and where communication across multiple people, often departments, is essential.
It’s important to explain the effectiveness of the project you’re currently working on (say, an App) within the broader context of the campaign and all its parts (A website, social media strategy, print advertising).
The smallest version of this is the call to action.
If you can show how a call to action (buy something) on a website works well within the larger strategy (getting sales) for the website, which sits within the broader plan for the business (Sales empire!!), then it’s harder for arbitrary changes to be made by the client.
Hell, you might get to the point where arbitrary changes don’t even matter.
If you can see and show the lineage between the smallest of elements (a button on a website) connects to a bigger strategy (building a sales empire), then not only are you able to show that you care enough about the project to make these connections, but it gives you a birds eye view of it.
It’s only from this view can you see mistakes or missed opportunities. It allows you to see strategy and how the client might be trying to do one thing but is simply using the wrong tool.
They might being asking for something that is perfectly functional, but it might not be particularly effective.
You might have come up with a perfectly functional plan to build up a social media footprint bigger than anything ever known before, but when you can look at things from a high-enough view, you might notice that this isn’t effective for their goals.
It sounds lofty, but this is where we need to be heading. Aesthetic is a given, and it’s a skill that’s getting easier and cheaper to either obtain or to cheat.
To get to this higher level of strategic design thinking, then each of us needs to practice. And what a better place to practice than showing why your option for a tiny little button is more effective within the design than the client’s idea. It’s good practice for where we’re heading.
In being able to show all this effectiveness, we’re able to elate some of those fears we all know clients to have. We show our professionalism and why they can trust in us.