Last summer I gave myself a personal challenge: become a better designer. I didn’t sign up for any design courses or read books on typography or color theory. I didn’t attend any design conferences or subscribe to a trade magazine. Instead, I applied an old elementary-school lesson for when you approach a set of train tracks: Stop. Look. Listen. More than improving any of my technical skills or increasing my knowledge of the craft, “stop, look, and listen” has helped me become a better designer over the past six months.
The motivation to do this came from a couple of different sources. In March 2012, Chris Butler wrote a masterful piece entitled, Your Ego is a Bad Designer, which got my attention but evidently didn’t make a big enough impression for me to change the way I conduct myself professionally. About a year later, I started reading Who’s Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Client into Your Biggest Fan. It was part of a Newfangled recommended reading list and, among all the books on the list, it seemed like the one that most applied to me. I thought so because it coincided with a friend of mine who provided some tough love by telling me I had “room for improvement” when it came to professional relationships and responding to client criticism. Ok, you don’t have to hit me twice three times before I start to catch on.
No matter what field you work in, everyone has had challenging experiences with clients. But design seems to be especially rife with client/provider tension due to its subjective nature. Chris Butler explains it this way in Your Ego is a Bad Designer,
…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 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.
In other words, design has the potential to be the “drunk uncle” of your project; highly volatile and unpredictable. That may not sound like much fun, but there are ways to manage (and even avoid) these kind of situations.
Here’s what I’ve discovered over the past six months:
When a client’s feedback makes you think you might have been at a different planning meeting from the one they attended or you’re scratching your head and saying, “I’m pretty sure I read this on Clients from Hell,” it’s definitely time to stop. Stop before you rip off an email response dripping with negative emotions (which you’ll probably regret later). Stop before you rant and rave at the lunch table about how the client doesn’t “get it” and you wish you could be more selective when it comes to accepting client work. Stop and set the feedback aside. It’s unlikely that you need to respond right away (especially if the email hit your inbox at 4:40pm on a Friday). Take some time and put some distance between you and the feedback. Trust me, you’ll see things differently the next day. Or three days. The chances that your initial response to the criticism will be productive is very slim.
Here’s a (slightly painful) example that illustrates that point well: A few years ago, I was on a Skype call with a client and their team, as well as several people from Newfangled — including my boss. Someone from the client side made a flippant remark about our development process, and it irritated me. When the call was over, I took off my headset and began to rant about the client and their “stupid remark.” After about 10 minutes, I received an IM from my boss (who was with the client at their office) asking me to please disconnect from the call. I had neglected to quit Skype and it kept ringing back to the client’s conference room speaker phone. I’m not sure how much of my rant anyone heard on the other end of the phone, but the lesson was that I shouldn’t have opened my mouth at all. To this day my officemates jokingly ask me every time I finish a client call, “Is Skype still on?”
Feedback (whether positive or negative) rarely happens in a vacuum. The client (who is a person just like you) may be having a difficult day or have recently received some bad news. Their supervisor may be pressuring them to meet an unreasonable deadline or “dazzle” them with “cutting-edge design” (whatever that means). There is value in imagining what it’s like to be in your client’s shoes. You might be able to get a glimpse of their world by asking about their life at the beginning of your weekly meetings. Simple questions like, “How’s your day going?” or “Did you do anything fun over the weekend?” can go a long way to humanizing the relationship.
Also, maintain a long-range view of the project. As designers, we value what we do and view design as an important component of making the world a better place in which to live. But, let’s be real, we are not saving lives. Keep your ego in check and realize that, five years from now, no one will remember the work — but they will remember the experience.
Newfangled has a long-time financial services client that I hadn’t directly worked with in a while. A project came up last summer and I joined the kick-off call. Before we even began discussing the work, the client contact told me how delighted she was to be working with me again. I was a bit taken back because it had been probably three years or more since I worked with her, and I couldn’t remember anything specific about our working relationship that would elicit such a warm greeting. But obviously, she did.
Everyone wants to be heard because it makes them feel valuable and loved. Listening is a skill worth developing. I remember my grade school teachers saying that the reason we have two ears and one mouth is because we’re supposed to listen twice as much as we speak.
There’s a conversational tool called “active listening” and it involves repeating back to the speaker a summation of what you just heard. When the person you’re listening to hits a natural conversational break you respond with something like, “So, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying ______.” Active listening provides you an opportunity to clarify what you heard and gives the speaker an opportunity to amend anything they might want to say in a different way. I probably use this tool the most in my professional life because I’ve been practicing it at home for over 20 years with my wife. It has helped me avoid many trips to the dog house due to miscommunication.
While I feel good about my progress in subduing my design ego and managing client relationships over the past six months, by no means do I believe that I’ve figured it all out and can switch on cruise control. There’s definitely still room to improve, as my friend reminded me. I continue to improve my design skills and the knowledge of my craft as well but, as a wise person once said, “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” In other words: Stop. Look. Listen.