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Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Your Ego is a Bad Designer



If I were to ask, I'd bet that most people would anticipate that technical difficulties—such things as programming and server-level configuration—would be the greatest challenge of web development. Those things are certainly difficult, but they are rarely the greatest challenge. This is because the expertise required to do that work—even to understand it—is held by few, and those that do not have it tend to know that and be OK with it. Design, however, has no such clarity. In my experience, the design process always presents unanticipated difficulty to everyone, delaying production and introducing interpersonal stresses that had been absent from the project beforehand. In fact, almost every delay or drama that I can recall in the past several years worth of projects can be traced, ultimately, to matters of design. So, why, then, does this always come as a surprise? Why do we fail to anticipate these difficulties and address them proactively?

The reasons are many, of course. But the fundamental reason, I believe, is that design—specifically, when we start making visual decisions—is the first point in a project when we begin to engage one another in emotionally vulnerable ways. Every point in the process is an opportunity to second guess who is in control? and how do I feel about that? but design lacks the the social decorum of sales negotiations and the regimentation of information architecture planning—there's simply no way to anticipate how you will feel, client, upon seeing that first mockup, or how you will respond, designer, to that initial deluge of feedback. David Kelly, founder of IDEO, once said that "you don't find anything out until you start showing it to people." While he was specifically talking about getting functional feedback from prototypes, I think his point can be broadened to include design in general: A description of how something might look—"the site will be mostly blue"—will rarely elicit useful feedback, but once you show someone what you mean—an actual image of that blue website's homepage, for instance—things will get real. Real is good, if you know it's coming; not so good if you don't. Most of the time, we don't. Real is also vulnerable. But few of us establish the trust necessary to make vulnerability productive. Getting surprised by real without trust—that's what begins a fierce match of emotional-reaction ping-pong, and let's be honest, games like ping-pong are much more fun when you're tipsy and don't care about winning. So, what can we do?

Our strategies for dealing with the unquantifiable difficulties of design should take two forms: Strategies for beginning, and strategies for keeping things moving forward. Beginning and progressing both require leadership, and if there is one true thing of all good leaders, it is that they are willing to accept that they are often their own worst enemy and have the courage to change for the sake of progress. This is what we must learn to do. We don't fail at design because we lack tools, time, money or the right clients. We fail at design because we lack insight. We don't fail at design, we fail our design.

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Beginning

A beginning without philosophy is accidental—something you stumble into. So, to keep our beginnings intentional, some first principles:

 

Your ego is a bad designer.

Phil Johnson wrote a great line last fall about not letting your ego get in the way of your work. He says, "I take care of my ego at home," which frees him up to make better, more selfless decisions at work. This is a profound nugget of wisdom that applies to any work, by anyone, anywhere. But what of design? For you, designer, it's a matter of expectations. Are you using your work to take care of your ego? Or are you secure enough to do the work your job actually requires?

 

That doesn't mean "stop caring."

There's a difference between ego-driven design and design that has a point of view. The greater role your ego takes in your work, the more often you will feel disappointed by it. So ego-control is a necessary sanity-preserving professional survival strategy. But that doesn't mean that you cannot be you. Ego-control doesn't mean less of you, it means less pressure on your work to prove who you are. With that pressure off, you can be free to look honestly at your work and establish a point of view that will not only be sharper, but much more likely to benefit your client. As my colleague Justin said just the other day, ego is not the same thing as passion.

 

Also, your design is probably not art.

A fundamental difference between design and art is in whom each serve. Art first serves the artist; it is a vehicle for self-expression. From there, it serves others just by existing, by inspiring, by showing what's possible. Design, on the other hand, should never first serve the designer. The designer is always rendering a service to someone else. Design serves the client, the process of serving the client serves the designer. Unlike art, design is not primarily a vehicle for self-expression. (Designers may express themselves in their work; good design does not demand it.) In other words, design is not all about you.

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But your job isn't to make art, anyway.

Your job is to solve a business problem, not to create a thing of beauty. Your ideals—what you feel is attractive, innovative, or effective—are secondary to what your client needs. You may have good reason to doubt your client's assessment of what they need—it's common to want the opposite of what you need—but first question your own. It's just as common for designers to want the opposite of what their clients need.

 

By the way, good design is rarely recognized.

Don't expect recognition. If what you're creating replaces something of significantly less quality, then sure, some user down the line may think, "wow, this is well designed," but that fantasy should not stand in for your goal. Put it out of your mind immediately. Most people don't acknowledge great design because well-designed things always take a back seat to the experience they create. A designer may recognize the fundamental role that design plays in making great experiences possible, but most people don't. But they do recognize when design fails.

Product reviews demonstrate this very well, which is why most of them are either best-in-the-world :-) or worst-in-the-world >:(. In between those extremes is the majority of responses to products and services, which can be positively expressed as satisfaction, or—perhaps more cynically—as "it was fine." Fine may not inspire any shouting from the rooftops, but it does get return customers. This isn't to say that you shouldn't aim for best-in-the-world quality—you absolutely should—just don't expect best-in-the-world accolades. Good design often hides itself; bad design can't be hidden.

 

Nobody wants to be a guinea pig, especially not your client.

Unless your client is one of the rare breed that is interested in paying for experimentation—there are such wonderful people, by the way—keep your project out of your laboratory. In general, you should consider your every impulse to "try something new" out on a client project suspect. Is that "something new" aspirational for you—see ego-control—or evidential, informed by your client's situation? I think you probably know the answer.

 

"Maximum idea, minimum stuff."

I stole this from Russell Davies. I've written it on a post-it note and stuck it up near my desk so that I remember it and apply it to everything I do. It speaks for itself.

 

Progressing

Your progressing strategies should kick in as soon as you're ready to present your work for the first time. Progress, from this point forward, has two meanings. The obvious one is the process of getting closer and closer to an approved design. The not-so-obvious meaning has to do with making relational progress. No matter what you've done by now—whether that be discovery phases, persona development, prototyping, or what have you—don't assume that everyone knows and trusts one another implicitly. Making progress here involves continuing to earn your client's trust.

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Always have the "things are about to get real and that's OK" and "baby, we gonna get through this together" talk.

More and more, I'm of the opinion that BEFORE YOU SHOW THEM ANYTHING, your client needs to be truly prepared for what the design process will involve. Not in terms of deliverables and schedules—what they'll see and when—but in terms of the unspoken but extraordinarily powerful subtext that will drive the process from this point forward.

Most design feedback is emotional, not rational. When design feedback is incoherent, for example, it's usually the result of your client feeling out of control and grasping for ways to express their discomfort. And you know what? They are right to feel that way. When David Kelly says "you don't find anything out until you start showing it to people" it's obvious that the "you" is you, and the "people" are your clients. But what if we were to switch those pronouns? "You" now refers to your clients, who don't find out how they feel until they see what you show them, and then, in that same moment, they start showing it to you. And what do you usually do? You get defensive. That's a shame, especially when what your clients really need is guidance, not an argument.

It doesn't have to be that way. Not if you prepare your clients with care for what they are about to experience. So, back to my BEFORE YOU SHOW THEM ANYTHING opinion…

Here's what I recommend: Never "post" work for the client to see and schedule a meeting to review their feedback afterward. I realize that this seems considerate—you letting them have space to look at the work, talk amongst themselves, etc.—but it actually ignores their needs, which, remember, are mostly for guidance. When you do this, you've dropped them in the middle of the jungle alone. While you're flying back to safe, predictable civilization in your helicopter, they're cursing you, the guide who abandoned them. Instead, prepare your work visually and thoughtfully, with detailed rationale and talking points, and gather internally for a pre-meeting huddle. Make sure you and your colleagues are of one accord on what you've done and why you've done it. Decide who on your team will be the mouthpiece. (It's not that only one of you should talk and everyone else hang back awkwardly. You can distribute your presentation, just do it intentionally.) Then, get in touch with your client to let them know that you're ready to show them some work and suggest a time to do that. Make sure it's enough time. 30 minutes is probably not enough for a first design review; 1-2 hours is more like it.

At the meeting, don't begin by showing your work. Start with an introduction that acknowledges the difficulty placed on anyone in seeing things for the first time. (Say that, not something condescending like, "we know this is going to be hard for you.") Give them permission to express themselves fully in response to what they see. Remind them that this is valuable to you, that outward processing helps to exercise emotional responses—which are natural to all human beings—and progress toward more rational ones. Remind them that this process will help you to improve the work you've done. That's the purpose of design reviews. They're not obligatory I-guess-we-have-to-at-least-show-them-what-it's-going-to-look-like-but-let's-make-it-as-quick-as-possible-because-god-there's-nothing-worse-than-client-opinions sessions; they're opportunities for you to further coalesce as a team and produce better work. You need to hear what is said at these reviews just as much as your client needs to see what you've made.

 

Now, you can show the work. Yes, really.

BUT, make sure you methodically lead them through that process, explaining your vision and rationale as you show it. This is not a big-reveal with an accompanying moment of silence. This is a presentation that is as much verbal as it is visual. You may believe in your design, but don't expect that "good" design will be recognized for its merits. That usually doesn't happen. Even good ideas need to be sold. You need to explain why you did what you did and why you believe it makes sense. Remind your client of their priorities and refer to them often. Showing them your solution means also showing them why it works.

After you've shown EVERYTHING, open things up for outward processing, giving your client the space you just promised to say whatever they need to say. Listen and take notes—put the debate you want to have quietly down on paper and save it for later, when you are feeling less defensive and your client trusts you more because you didn't interrupt them and tell them why what they feel is wrong. This may feel risky, but what's the worst thing that will happen? They might say something aloud that they otherwise would have kept silent and expressed in some later action that perplexed and frustrated you? Right, better to hear it right away if it's true. How they feel is out of your control. But how they express how they feel is not. My sense is that having been introduced to the work through your detailed and thoughtful presentation and then granted the freedom to express how they feel about it, their outward processing will be mostly positive. Many land mines will have been diffused. In your willingness to hear what they have to say, you'll have demonstrated confidence that will, in turn, make them more confident in you.

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I'm a designer, dammit, not a therapist!

That's true. But you have a choice: Offer your clients the human decency that you've decided to dismiss as "therapy," or continue on as you were, building up a nice layer of angst and bitterness that you will someday pay a professional $120/hour to help you chip away. In therapy.

 

Moving on.

Once you're past the first review and have set a precedent for healthy communication, open processing, and trust building, all of that needs to be maintained without compromising the other sort of progress I mentioned—the getting closer to approval kind. So the rest of this has to do with the iterative steps forward you will take.

 

Don't accuse. Explain.

It's frustrating when feedback makes no sense. But you have to take the high road. The double-standard of designer-client relationships is that your clients get to be emotional, irrational, and reactive, but you don't. You get to absorb all of that and gently guide. That doesn't mean you don't push back at times, it just means that you do so respectfully, carefully and calmly.

Let's say your client has said for the third time that the way you've arranged elements in the header is "just not quite right." You're starting to feel that you're in an endless cycle of "…No? How about now? No? How about now? No? How about…" Maybe you are, but that's probably because you reacted at some point rather than explaining the rationale behind your decisions, which pushed the discussion into a battle of wills. You probably arranged those header elements with an earlier priority in mind—keeping the header shallow so as to get more page information above the fold, for instance—but if you don't explain that to your client, they won't make the connection on their own. By reminding them of that earlier priority, you are helping them to evaluate the header in much more specific terms.

Explaining design rationale is necessary, because without an explanation, your client will assume that design decisions are arbitrary and subjective. And if this stuff is all just a matter of opinion, there's no question as to whose opinion matters more. Oh, and if you really want to throw grease on the fire, go ahead and tell your client they're the ones being subjective.

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Going backwards happens. Deal with it.

If your client's feedback is a setback, meaning it questions things they've already approved and reverses your narrowing funnel of progress, remain calm. They're not trying to mess with you. First, get clarification that what you've heard is correct. Repeat what they've said in your own words to give your client an opportunity to clarify any misunderstanding. If you got it wrong, breath a sigh of relief. On the other hand, if you had it right, then yes, this is not good. But, if you overreact, your client will become defensive and what could have been resolved professionally will now be a matter of principle for both sides. They will feel like what they want is being withheld; you will feel taken advantage of. You will both be right. The best thing you can do is to create a track for a project that goes off the rails.

To do this, you're going to have to try on some new language and grow accustomed to it. It will take some time to feel natural. Try this:

"Ok, let's review: What you've said so far is x, y, and z. Is that right? I think we've got some ideas for how to handle x, but y and z are going to be trickier. We'd resolved them and gotten your approval in previous rounds, so revising them now will probably take more time than we'd anticipated needing at this stage of the process. What we do in this situation is take a look at where we are in the budget, estimate how much additional time we'll need for this phase, and then amend the budget and schedule to account for that. As soon as we have those details, we'll let you know where we stand."

Notice the diplomacy. Maybe most of their feedback is reversing earlier decisions and is just an all around pain in the neck. But there's probably something in there, that if you're willing to sort through it all calmly and prioritize it, is a minor point. If you can find one—an X—to consider no-big-deal, it will work to your advantage. By granting them X, you're acknowledging the validity of their point of view and softening the blow of dealing more strictly with Y and Z. If they feel understood, they will be willing to consider your needs, too. That's politics, by the way, which is not only helpful in moments of crisis, but can also help to prevent them.

 

Did I mention that design is politics?

Balancing expertise (i.e. knowledge of best practices, which is often communicated as "I know what I'm doing") with client satisfaction is an art. As your client steers your design in a new direction, you will need to learn to pick your battles. If you must address something, do so in a way that grants the client the power to act:

"My professional opinion on X is X. I understand that you may have reasons for feeling differently—and we'll go where you need to go—but I'd be remiss in not addressing this point."

This is you, the designer, politely drawing a line in the sand on principle, but demonstrating that you, the servant, will cross it if you must.

 

You are not entitled to burnout. If you give up, they will know it and take it personally.

Burnout happens, but not because of the job. Burnout happens because of you. Burnout happens because you fail to provide yourself with the energy you need to do your work. You do this because you believe you don't have the time to recharge, but that, too, is false. You do have the time, you just distribute it poorly.

You can prevent burnout by doing one simple thing: Know yourself. What gives you energy? What takes it away? Design is hardly a solitary job, so ask yourself what you need to do to present your best to others? If interfacing with clients leaves you exhausted, then do what you need to do in order to enter that meeting fully charged, as well as recharge afterward. That's your responsibility because the terms of the job are not going to change to suit your threshold. One bit of advice: Many designers think that they recharge in the studio—that quiet time away from clients spent being truly "creative" provides them the energy they need for their next meeting. I've never seen this to be true. As soon as you've met your client or gotten your first bit of feedback from them, they will—appropriately—haunt your studio. They may not be there in the flesh, but, if you're doing your job right, they will be there. The point is that if your work requires you to recharge, don't recharge by doing work.

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Your speck, my beam.

I realize this is written from a strongly pro-client point of view and that yes, sometimes clients can be flat-out wrong or even "bad" for your business. But in a world where Clients from Hell exists and it's opposite is DOA, I think this perspective is a healthy and needed balance to our natural preference toward the other.

I wrote this just as much for myself and my colleagues as I did for you, because I needed to hear it again just as I imagine you do, too. You don't learn this stuff once.

Comments

Noush | April 9, 2014 4:08 PM
Wow. This us so refreshing. I have somehow been surrounded by designers. I did my degree in interior architecture and decided to leave that industry because of the self inflated egos. Those that were more interested in how their portfolio looks as apposed to the quality of the product they were designing. Because I was a caring person, caring about the customer, I was told I wasn't a designer.
Ben Leah | May 25, 2013 8:44 AM
Great article Christopher - a highly relevant outlook for many I'm sure. I agree really on all points and like at least to think I'm already taking this course in my work - I would add though for me there is still a place for ego in design... On those rare occasions where you serve your client with work akin to choices your ego would ave made... Those are the portfolio pieces.
Christopher Butler | June 1, 2012 9:35 AM
Merlijn: Thanks! Took me about the same time, too ;-) Just shows there are no shortcuts!

Marco: Sorry for the confusion there. We run an engine on the site that does a bit of moderation for us, and sometimes it can be a bit too aggressive. We'll work on the UI issues around that…

Glad you enjoyed the article! As for being unnoticed, I think we all grapple with this. But we need to try to remember that there is more to life than being seen.
Marco Berrocal | March 24, 2012 5:49 PM
One quick observation. I just wrote an article (Firefox) and received no confirmation that my message was posted or not. Think you ought to change that. Message posted waiting for moderation, sorry your message wasn't, etc.

I just wrote a reply to this and don't know if it made it or not
Marco Berrocal | March 24, 2012 5:47 PM
Jesus Christ this article makes me want to splurge a wall of text lol but I am going to keep it short for the sanity of it.

@Christopher Butler: Fantastic article first and foremost. Some points I am going to keep floating around inside my mind to see how I will go on with it and change them.

@Leban: It is true, however it is up to us to expand the knowledge even further, which might relate to other fields such as business administration.

As far as your work going unnoticed, I get the same feeling as well, but whenever I do, I remember this quote:

"Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent. "

And last but not least @sam; AMEN!!!!
Merlijn | March 24, 2012 2:07 AM
Spot on Christopher. Excellent article.
Took me about 10 years of desiging to get to this point of understanding what you wrote in this one article. Wish I read this article 10 years ago.
Christopher Butler | March 22, 2012 10:24 AM
Liza: I was wondering if someone was going to take issue with that. I actually questioned it myself, as I was writing it. I wish this wasn't true. I wish there was far more latitude in our field to experiment, that people would value what that experimentation might produce enough to pay for it. In fact, I've thought a lot lately about how the unwillingness to experiment with digital marketing is even somewhat bizarre and indicative of a skewed perspective on value. Let me explain: If you go to the doctor with a cold or the flu, she'll probably hardly even look at you before doling out some sort of prescription, be it medication or just an admonition to drink lots of fluids and get some rest. This isn't laziness, it's economy; for the simple stuff, experimentation isn't necessary. The doctor knows what works. But if you find yourself with something much more serious, experimentation is the norm. The doctor will be very careful to manage expectations as she suggests treatment approaches because there is no certainty of success. I could list other examples of this--similar experimental approaches are often taken by electricians, plumbers, mechanics, etc.--but the point is that the more complex the problem, the more we seem to accept experimentation. Yet, in digital marketing, where things are becoming extraordinarily complex, it's common for the slightest unpredictability to be labeled as "unacceptable." It's frustrating, but it's the culture for now. I do hope it will change, but in the meantime, I think it's risky to be overly experimental on our clients' dime.

All of that said, my main point in writing about experimentation was to focus on the intent behind it, and it's tie to ego. In some cases--and this relates to what I wrote above--experimentation is warranted. But what I was trying to warn against was being experimental just because you want to be, because there's something new and spiffy you want to try and in your opinion, now is just as good a time as any to try it. That's not solid reasoning for taking an experimental approach.

Hope that all makes sense.

Garry: Wow, thanks for jumping on that and ordering a book! I think you'll really love it.

J: I read that yesterday, too. You and I must follow some of the same people on Twitter. I agree, Linds really captured a fear that I've been experiencing a lot lately--that one day I'll regret how I've spent my time. Time is precious, and without much of it to spare, it makes that evident up front. Though the culture of our industry is very much like what he describes, I'm thankful to work in a place that values time differently, making it possible to take the time needed to do something right, to think through something, to rest, to have meaningful relationships outside of the workplace, etc. At Newfangled, we believe that limiting the time we require of people gives them the best opportunity to recharge when they need to and bring their best selves to their work.

Boris: Ha. Thanks for having my back, bro.
Boris Bananas | March 22, 2012 9:08 AM
D(r)ear(y) Michael,

How dare you! How dare you call Mr. Butler inhumane! You may Mr. Butler many things, but never inhumane! I'm afraid the time for your name-calling is nigh, you prickish pet! You truculent traitor! You impatient impostor! You unintelligble usurper! You abominable apparition! You bespectacled bellicoso! You dilettantish dust-mite!

Your insolence is at an end! That is all.

Very un-fondly,

Boris B.
j | March 21, 2012 10:22 PM
This was really outstanding, and a needed perspective. Funny, I ran accross another article today with a much more sad but similar perspective on why we do this and what that means, so for those in the string interested, here's the link:
http://www.thesfegotist.com/editorial/2012/march/14/short-lesson-perspective
Garry | March 21, 2012 6:49 PM
@ Christopher -

"Garry: Agreed. I tipped Mark off to comment on that, mostly because that's the central theme of his book, - A Website that Works-. Check it out if you haven't already."

Thanks for that. I've been working on a small book of my own on the basic elements of SEO for design professionals. And Why understanding the the market and SEO strategy is so important.

I'll have to check out Mark's book.

Reality is that from an SEO perspective, design is completely intertwined with the onsite aspect of SEO. The ability to engage a visitor is more and more important in ranking a site.

If a site needs traffic, learning how to be open to and work with an SEO professional before any design starts is crucial. And once it all comes together . . . form and function . . . it can be a beautiful thing.
Liza | March 21, 2012 5:10 PM
Great article and discussion.

I'm in general agreement, by the way, especially as far as our egos needing to chill out, etc.

But I thought the part about keeping experimentation out of your work was a bit odd, or at least not in line with everything else maybe? It seems like experimentation could be a very valuable aspect of what we do for our clients?

Thoughts?

Thanks all the same for a thought-provoking read.
Christopher Butler | March 21, 2012 8:48 AM
Garry: Agreed. I tipped Mark off to comment on that, mostly because that's the central theme of his book, A Website that Works. Check it out if you haven't already.

Ben: You're welcome, and thanks for reading it!

Nico: You're right: things rarely end up neat and tidy. And I do agree with you that Clients from Hell exists because it represents something real, though I'm probably thinking of a different something. I assume you mean that it exists because the client service experience for designers is often quite negative—I take it largely due to the client being unreasonable. Here's where I'm going to disagree. I think Clients from Hell exists because designer resentment is very real, and designer resentment exists because of ego issues, not because of clients. Sure, there are bad clients. But I think it's far more often the case that there are bad interactions between well meaning parties. And that, I think, is far more complex than the designer-as-victim story you're telling.

Brandi: Thanks! As usual, I had a great time making them. Creating imagery for my articles is something I usually look forward to every month. Glad you appreciated them.

Sam: Wow. You're bringing some really important issues into this conversation and I'm glad for it. I've struggled for a long time now with the degree to which vanity drives so much of what we do online. Especially among designers/marketers/technology professionals, there is a culture of just constant striving—of pursuing, at all costs, a position of recognition that is probably never going to be satisfactory anyway. I know the conference experience you're describing, too, where people describe themselves in this strange way—an outer layer of false humility, beneath which is a thick layer of arrogance, beneath which is a core of insecurity and fear. It's bizarre to hear from someone at a conference why they don't really need to be there. Yet, there they are. But to express a need requires vulnerability, which requires that we get over the shame of not knowing it all, having it all figured out. Like you, I wish we could get past this. And also like you, I think it will require a critical mass of people willing to cut the BS and start being honest, enjoying the learning process, and pursuing goals that enrich their lives rather than pollute them. I want to be one of those people, and it sounds like you do, too.

Thanks for the rant. I hope others have something to say about this.

Kashyap: I'm glad to hear that. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment!
kashyap | March 21, 2012 8:16 AM
Hey Chris,

That was a wonderful article. Though I work in a company where we work for lot of consultant companies and rarely work with direct clients; I found this article useful in every situation. I can relate to it even when I am consulting with my boss.
Worth reading.
sam | March 20, 2012 10:44 PM
This (both the article and the conversation) has opened up so much for me. I agree about the holes in design ed - business, psychology - but I feel like there's something deeper going on here. I think theres a fundamental insecurity in designers and without beating around the bush too much on this, I guess I'd just come out and say that designers seem to constantly be pretending that they are more than they really are. Whether it's more accomplished, more important, more in control, more money, whatever. Go to any conference and you'll see it. We want so much and need to believe in our own success that we'll scorn every opportunity to come together and share what we do and don't know with each other and learn. When we could be communing honestly, we're framing up the situation and putting ourselves only in the best light, or otherwise hiding out in our hotel rooms and feeling angry that we're not in the in crowd. But the big problem is that the only person who could actually help to stop this is the person that doesn't need to because they're already ahead. I'm nobody, so even this comment doesn't stand to make a difference. Even if you read this and relate, it's too risky for you to say, yeah, she's right, this is a bunch of BS and we all need to start getting real. We won't do that because we're too scared to admit that we're not "winners" or because we're all still under the spell of our own egos.

Great piece. We need more like this!

P.s. sorry for the rant!
brandi | March 20, 2012 10:23 PM
Cheer up Michael and Nico, and let the illustrations do their magic. Really guys, the images are just a perfect compliment to a thoughtful and rousing piece. Well done!
nico | March 20, 2012 4:29 PM
i've been a designer for years and have never seen things end up neat and tidy. clients from hell exists because it represents something that is ultimately real. clients are often wrong. clients often hire professionals without a shred of openmindedness or intent to listen. sometimes they do this and don't even realize it but it kicks up the dust and when the designer loses it, there's reason to part ways. sometimes they're forced to work with outside designers but intentionally subvert it. i think the realities can be much more complex than your describing and often much more negative. my 2.
Ben Krogh | March 20, 2012 4:27 PM
Thanks so much for writing this, it's great to read such a well thought-out take on the designer/client relationship. I've personally experienced both amazing and awful client experiences, and all seem to either stem from a lack of communication, ego, or poor politics.

I could go on, but I think you've stated it well enough and I'll leave it at that.
Mark O'Brien | March 20, 2012 4:01 PM
Thanks to everyone for all these great comments. We were really excited about what Chris wrote this month, and were eagerly anticipating the response of the community.

Garry, I'm 100% with you. We always approach our work with an eye toward how it will impact our client's bottom line. I think this also speaks to Leban's comment and question. If the thing being designed, say a website, has a positive and measurable impact on the client's business, there will be plenty of acknowledgement given, and there will be plenty more work awarded as well (which positively impacts *your* bottom line).

Setting the actual business goals as the top priority isn't yet another way design is being limited or controlled, it's just a context within which great design can occur, and be truly appreciated.
Garry | March 20, 2012 3:44 PM
Coming from the perspective of an SEO professional, I have to say this article is a breath of fresh air.

One of the biggest challenges I face is designers that don't seem to get that the client's needs come first. . . and that often the client doesn't really know how to articulate their need.

A client may approach a designer saying they want a new or improved website. Almost always though what they want is to get more business from their website. Helping the client define their needs, knowing that it's almost always about making more money, is a first crucial step.

After that, identifying the market and what it will take to put that site in a position to receive it's lifeblood: TRAFFIC (aka visitors) is step 2.

Then the creativity of design comes in, incorporating the criteria and functions needed to actually receive traffic..

I've seen too many designers bring SEO and traffic in as an afterthought . . . handing me truly poorly designed sites from an aspect of ranking in the search engines, or even receiving good social approval . . . then want me to work magic on them. They cripple the client's business in the process of having their artistic vision come first.

Great design is an essential element and extremely important. The question is just, what does it serve? The ego of the designer, or the business needs of the client?
Christopher Butler | March 20, 2012 3:42 PM
Sean: So glad to hear that, and impressed by your honesty. Who among us isn't still struggling in some way, even if we've been working for years and years. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Jon: Thanks!

Brad: Wow, that's high praise. I'm really glad to hear that this has resonated with so many people, yourself included. I think that the humility that Jeff Barnes is talking about is absolutely necessary in our work. Without it, we're not listening, nor are we helping anyone. The second bit of advice is spot on, too.

Don: Ha. And yeah, I got what you meant ;-)
don | March 20, 2012 3:04 PM
...that doesn't refer to the comments immediately above mine btw. Sorry for double post, but I didn't want to misspeak.
don | March 20, 2012 3:02 PM
Haha wow. Someone's ego isn't good at leaving comments either.
Brad Cathey | March 20, 2012 3:00 PM
Absolutely one of the best articles I've read on design-presentation-clients. I've been in this business for 33 years (they were still doing hot type) and I couldn't agree more with the sentiments expressed.

I once asked the amazing Jeff Barnes, of Container Corp fame, what he did when a client rejected an idea. He said, "I assume they might be right. No one knows the client's business like the client."

One more piece of advice relating to the presentation itself: never ever show any idea that you wouldn't be 100% excited to see published. The client almost always picks the safest design, so it better be a good one. One that you love.

Thanks for a great piece. Should be required reading for any new designer.
Jon Thomas | March 20, 2012 2:35 PM
Very, very good stuff.
Sean Boone | March 20, 2012 2:03 PM
What a substantially helpful article for a struggling designer of 13 years... you have spoken some truth!

I like how you tack the psychology and "therapy" involved in being a designer with the relationship with a client. The explanation is blunt but swallowed softly, something all designers can appreciate as becoming defensive is our first response.

Thanks again!
Christopher Butler | March 20, 2012 1:36 PM
Perla: Glad you enjoyed it!

Michael: I'm having a hard time making sense of your comment. Initially, that—plus the fact that it's rude and rife with profanity—had me considering deleting it altogether. Instead, I've decided to keep it here but censor the language (just a few words).

It's important to me that if a conversation happens here, it be free to go where its participants want and need it to go. But that being said, there are limits. Comments like yours are just as likely to offend or make someone feel uncomfortable as they are to portray the freedom that I want to provide here to our readers.
Michael | March 20, 2012 12:00 PM
to author: How dare you trying to make us feel guilty about our designs being fine and useful (usually quite opposite than final thing)? We can't predict all s***** comments and build them in while designing - and even if we did, there simply won't be any design - just some inconsistent rubble. We do nice and useful designs over and over and getting them blown into pieces by some ignorant idiot because we STILL HAVE HOPE it changes some day.

"I'm a designer, not a f****** screwdriver!" - some fella did a piece on devArt saying that, and its genious. For article: every salesman saying the same as author: "WE pay you, so you do whatever the f****** mindless decision WE make right now and change right after you finally did it, and you'll do that right away, or instead we hire someone who will." Well, thats terrific, isn't it? Welcome to the beautiful world of graphic design, young one.
Perla | March 20, 2012 11:53 AM
Chris, great read... Gracias! :)

We don't want to see this but it's so true:
"Burnout happens, but not because of the job. Burnout happens because of you. Burnout happens because you fail to provide yourself with the energy you need to do your work. You do this because you believe you don't have the time to recharge, but that, too, is false. You do have the time, you just distribute it poorly."
— Christopher Butler
Christopher Butler | March 20, 2012 11:21 AM
Leban: Thank you!

You raise a very important point: the role of design education in all of this. I agree, design programs are far too light on business preparation, but that's not the only area where they are lacking. They also don't put designers in a position of gaining more self-awareness and building the insight they need to do their best work.

I have plenty of memories of critiques that digressed into heated and emotional discussions of ego, perception, and awareness, yet never once did I see these psychological matters treated seriously in a course. We need that, too. The creative act is ultimately overly prioritized, and yet interpersonal insight and business acumen are really what make careers.

The frustration you describe is to be expected. When I was studying film in school, I remember how excited I would get watching films and being able to perceive how things were done—how lighting created certain effects, how complex certain shots actually were, etc.—I was discovering this whole new layer to filmmaking for the first time that had been completely invisible to me before. But I only saw it once I began to learn the techniques myself. Once I began making my own films, I felt constantly frustrated by how people who watched them would never acknowledge the hard work and ingenuity that went into them. It wasn't because they didn't care about that. It was because they just didn't know. How would they know how difficult a certain shot was? Especially if it was successful. If it worked, it created an illusion so good that the viewer had only to think about the story. If it didn't work, they might start thinking about the camera. The worst feedback a filmmaker could get from her audience would be technical. The same is true for designers and design.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt some to have all of that effort go unacknowledged. It does. And the really meaningful question isn't whether we can change that about ourselves—I imagine we'll always feel that way to some degree. The meaningful question is what we do in response to those feelings.

Susie: Great! Thanks for taking the time to say so.

Michael: I'm glad to hear it. I wish you all the best as you get going!
Michael Calkins | March 20, 2012 10:53 AM
Chris,

Thank you for writing this. I'm a young dev/designer right now (Working towards designer) and I've been going through a lot of the relationship problems you mentioned here and this was incredibly enlightening for me. Ty!
Susie | March 20, 2012 10:51 AM
Bang on! I'm a "designer", and I completely feel what you wrote. Thank you!
Leban | March 20, 2012 10:50 AM
Chris,

Well written, as usually. I can't say that there is anything in this article that I disagree with. It is all good medicine, my friend.

I think it is a shame that most design schools leave out an integral part of being a designer: the business. I've had to learn that part hands on, for the good and for the bad. I feel fortunate to have had several prior years experience in client-facing services where your relationship with the client was the blood of the business. So, it wasn't too difficult to port those customer service skills over to the business world of design. Not every young designer is as fortunate.

It is also unfortunate that good design is often unrecognized. But that's okay, especially in user interface design. You don't want the user tripping over the design to use the product. So if they don't notice what an exceptional job you have done organizing the elements on the page so that they feel more "intuitive", then no news is good news. The struggle I have with it all is establishing my value, as a designer, to the business. If good design often goes unnoticed, then how do we quantify our worth with respect to the client business model? It's a bit of a paradox.

I believe that, that there, is where our egos become inflamed. I still have to manage myself professionally when there is a design that I feel strongly about (in the context of a client presentation). I can attest that explaining the design decisions that have been made in regards to the goals of the project at hand do wonders. It's all a work in progress ;-)

Cheers!
Christopher Butler | March 20, 2012 10:41 AM
Pilgrim: When I first read your comment I laughed, thinking, wow, you really took the church metaphor to the next level! But after looking back over the article, I can see the foundation for it: the main image, the dogmatic writing (somewhat new to me, I admit), and of course, the Matthew 7:5 allusion. I did want this article to be challenging. But fire and brimstone—not exactly intended. In any case, I'm glad it resonated with you.

As far as the art vs. design stuff and you still being "a liiiiitle bit there," I completely understand. In fact I wanted to start there, where things are raw. I wanted to strike a nerve. You—and you are not alone in this—want to make high art and sell it to your clients, but your clients aren't in the market for art. They're in the market for a service. One that, yes, produces things that are made by way of a process that sometimes feels a lot like art-making, but that are, in their nature, the opposite of art. They are not a manifestation of personal expression or even really for looking at. They are for working—for communicating an idea, for engaging with others, for provoking a response that is most often commercial in nature. And that's the root of it, I think. The commerce part. It collides with the notion of art-making so radically that it creates deep discomfort. After all, most of us began with art and made our way to design.

I'm obviously not saying that there is no art—as far as art is an "expression or application of human creative skill and imagination" (dictionary)—to design. But art-with-a-capital-A—Art—is another thing altogether. I just want to make sure that when we practice design, we do so artfully, not Artfully.

Thanks for kicking off the discussion with such enthusiasm!

Justin: That's a great quote, especially given that the more we refer to our clients as "clients," the easier it is to think of them as something other than people.
Justin | March 20, 2012 9:43 AM
Chris,

Thanks for your thoughtful (if at times stinging) analysis of the client/designer relationship. I had forgotten that it IS a relationship, and the psychology of the design process is as important as aesthetics. Your article helped me see myself in each illustrated circumstance and admit that I have been guilty of design-ego-centricity from time to time.

The leadership guru John C. Maxwell said, "People (clients) don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." I believe it a little more each day.
Pilgrim | March 19, 2012 7:46 PM
First off let me just say, phew~ I've just been through the full range of emotions, brother Chris. When you were first talking about clarity of roles, I thought you were headed down the old "everyone thinks they're a designer" path (which is preaching to the choir but don't we just looove that sermon). But you didn't. You put us back in the pews. Fire and brimstone! So now I'm on the defensive. Our work isn't art?!?! What? Don't experiment?!? Huh?!? Those are the deep dark secret aspirations of designers. We want to make high art and sell it to our clients. I feel you, but I'm still a liiiittle bit there. I need to believe there's some art left in design.

But you're right, about all of it. If we can't get a grip on the business of design, the job of it I mean, not the part that we're identifying with, we make everything so much harder on ourselves and our clients.

The presentation is the perfect example. We are all about the drama there: The BIG reveal! We want to get our Don Draper on. But who wouldn't react negatively to that? And since we've built up so much hype around it (ego!!) we can't take the heat. I've been there! Everyone who thought that Clients from Hell was the greatest has been there.

By the time I reached the end you had me back up to the altar, confessing. I will go and sin no more!

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