The Non-Designer’s Guide to Working with Designers

Seems there are some folks out there that find designers difficult to work with. An old Quora discussion resurfaced recently that asked the question, “Why are designers harder to work with than engineers?” Speaking as a long-time designer, I don’t know what they’re talking about. I do just fine working with designers. What gives?

I hope this post will offer all non-designers (someone that has not been educated in design) the insight needed to make interacting with designers much less difficult. To be fair I’ll offer some advice to designers on how we can help the situation from our side. To begin I’ll need to dispel certain misconceptions non-designers have about what design is, what designers do and how we do it.

Design is not Art!

The biggest misconception about design is that it is purely artistic expression, and this is the root of most other misconceptions. So what is the difference between design and art?

Art is about expression (artist) and interpretation (viewer). Art is subjective.

Design is about communication (designer) and understanding (user). Design is objective.

What do I mean by this? Consider the artistic work of artist Jackson Pollack. His early work included a lot of impressionistic paintings that the artistically challenged might view as just splatters of paint on canvas. Over the years Pollack’s work has drawn its fair share of love and hate from critics and viewers alike. I’ve heard people say things like “I have a drop cloth that looks like that.” or “My 3 year old could that.” Regardless of your opinion of Pollack’s work there are two things to note here; (a) there is no right or wrong way to feel about this work and (b) there is no meaningful way to measure it’s “effectiveness.” This is art and it is highly subjective.

Design on the other hand is, and should be, very objective. By this I mean there are qualities that we can test to determine the “effectiveness” of a design. Whether it’s a website, a chair, a service, or even a conversation, we can test to see if a design is useful, usable and desirable. These are the three pillars of design that enable us to approach it as an objective process.

A great design achieves a balance of all three attributes and it takes a highly experienced and educated designer to balance them. This leads us to another misconception.

Designers just design the veneer.

Au contraire. Great designers are basically creative scientists. We do research, create a hypothesis, design a test, evaluate the results, and make adjustments as needed, until we solve the problem (create something useful and usable) and then we work to make the solution desirable. Far from the process of an artists trying to express their inner vision. Design is about much more than just the appearance things.

What a designer realizes that non-designers often don’t, is that while our personal taste may be shared by some it may still not be right for the target audience. A mature designer, and by that I mean educated and experienced over time, knows how and when to set aside their own personal preference in order to appeal to the preference of the audience. A designer creates for purpose, not preference.

The veneer of a product, it’s outward appearance, is vital to the success of the product, it’s what draws the audience in. As such, it often gets the greatest amount of attention from stakeholders, non-designers, and the less mature designer. But it’s important to remember, as a good designer does, that it is only one of three aspects that will ultimately spell success or failure for a product, and that we need to pay as much attention to usefulness and usability as we do desirability.

Clearly desirability is the most subjective of the three pillars. Because it gets the most focus and is the most subjective it leaves non-designers with the idea that all of design is subjective. It’s not. It is however much easier to objectively test the usefulness and usability of a design. That said a good designer will find ways to test the effectiveness of the veneer to achieve optimal desirability.

Designers have a process.

It’s hard for non-designers to believe, but great design is built on a solid understanding of user goals, business goals, and how to align them. Great designers do this through research and applying the learnings from that to devise a strategy and implement a solution that satisfies all. It’s not all done by our gut feelings and personal style. Again, think creative scientist.

It’s easy to think that designer are just frustrated artists making pretty things, but nothing could be further from truth. Approaching a designer with this kind of attitude, and we can tell when you have this attitude, is only going to cause the designer get defensive, frustrated, and seriously limit the quality of work you get from them.

The design process can be as rigorous as that of any engineering or scientific project. If the designer you’re working with isn’t asking you for, or to do, user research and gather data, you’re likely working with an artist. A good designer will want that information so they can create a rich experience based on real needs.

Designers get so defensive.

Yes and no. An inexperienced designer may in fact get defensive when their creation is challenged. They are still likely to be working from personal preference and therefore have no tangible explanation for the design choices. A young designer is often convinced they know everything and everything they do is awesome, so how could you ever challenge it. With your help they will grow out of it.

A mature designer on the other hand can offer specific reasons for each of their decisions. In fact, the details of a designers answers will tell you a lot about their maturity. Non-designers should keep in mind that taking a designers rebuttal to your critique as defensive may be a sign that you have the “designers are frustrated artist” attitude. Offering the rational behind a decision is not the same as being defensive, non-designers need to learn to recognize the difference.

If you, the non-designer, question a design choice and a designer offers you a their rationale for the decision, pause for a moment ask yourself this, “Do I have a better or different rational reason for my choice or is it just my preference?” If you can’t offer your own rational reasoning then trust that your designer has a purposeful, not personal, reason for the choice. If you can’t trust them you need ask yourself why?

Designers need to check the ego at the door.

Nothing perpetuates the notion that designers are just frustrated artists more than throwing ego-centric hissy fits when one of our creations is challenged. The reality is that no one individual holds all the answers for every problem for every audience. It’s time to get over it.

In his article “7 ways to keep your design ego in check.”, David Burns describes what every designer should be doing to improve their career and in turn build a better reputation for themselves and designers as a whole. Here’re the highlights:

  1. It’s not about you, it’s about the project.
  2. You don’t have to come up with all the ideas.
  3. It’s the user-centered process, not the you-centered process.
  4. Incorporating key stakeholders into the design process is crucial.
  5. Collaborate with your design peers.
  6. You are not being paid to create designs for your portfolio.
  7. Great ideas evolve.

One thing I would add to this is

  1. Learn to kill your darlings.

Read the article now.

The thing that designer and non-designer alike need to remember is that designers are also users. As such it can sometimes be difficult to separate our personal preference from our design. Both sides need to find ways to objectively assess the design to ensure it really does serve the users and businesses best interests, and not the ego’s.

Sidebar for non-designers and stakeholders:

Before requesting innovative or flashy additions to a product, make sure it’s not just your ego at work as well. If you do the research and your audience tells you something, you need to give careful consideration before going against their wishes and plowing forward pushing your own preference on them.

Innovation is double-edged sword, especially when it’s used for the wrong reasons, like satisfying ego. Don’t pressure designers to innovate in order to out feature the competition. Ask them to innovate to improve the users world.

There’s no room for rock stars in design.

Let me clarify this before it gets completely misinterpreted. What I’m saying here is an extension of the check your ego issue from above. Rock stars want to hog the limelight. They put themselves and their needs and desires before all others. This is not the attitude of great designers.

Great designers realize that great ideas can come from anywhere and it’s their job to uncover them. They know the difference between collaboration and “design-by-committee” and embrace the former. They give credit where credit is due. They place the good of the many over the good of the individual.

Don’t try to be a rock star, be part of an all-star band.

Moving the relationship forward.

Non-designers, stop treating designers like frustrated, touchy, feely artists who are only trying to express their inner vision. Respect that they are, or at least they should be, applying a rigorous and objective process to find creative solutions to difficult problems. Keep in mind that real design is far less subjective than you may think. And finally, don’t assume that a designers rebuttal to your critique is simply them being defensive.

Designers, learn to work from and support your design decisions on research, testing and data. Learn to present those findings in a way that builds trust with non-designers that you’re not designing just from the gut, but from the mind as well. Embrace and encourage collaboration with non-designers. Stop trying to be a rock star.

I hope this will help bridge those gaps and heal those wounds that we’ve all been suffering with for some time now. Please share your thoughts.

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Mike Donahue

Just a guy that's passionate about creating useful, usable and desirable experiences for all humans. I love nature and wildlife photography, it's my source of artistic expression and inner peace. I live and play in South Florida with my wife Nikki and our girls (dogs) Layla and Cassidy.

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