The design community–and I’m not just talking digital here–loves to gloat about how much better we are than everyone else. We try to convince the world, and ourselves, that what we design today will be found in the graphic design textbooks of tomorrow–exclusively revised for our work, of course. Our magically delicious ‘design sauce’ won’t just make projects look great; it will revolutionize design itself, while simultaneously ending world hunger.
We use our arsenal of buzzwords and rhetoric to convince clients how that last designer they hired didn’t really have the know-how necessary to achieve the results they were entitled to. We hang our grossly overpriced and overrated awards around us like armor to deflect those “dull-witted” arguments from others and use our expert-experienced-expertise to beat the unmotivated masses into super-buying consumers through our irresistible design medicine.
I’m convinced that it is one of the most ego-driven professions out there. Heck, I’d even gloat about us having bigger egos than programmers if I had the chance (see The Ten Commandments of Egoless Programming). From agency to freelancers, when clients need design work done we designers are always talking about how we’re the next hotshots on the block who know it all–which in turn shows that we really know nothing.
A mindset of pride and arrogance doesn’t help us do what we’re supposed to do: solve problems and add value. At best, this mindset masks problems. At worst, it creates unrealistic expectations that let both the client and the consumer down. Starting a project requires that we take the awards and glitter away. We must set aside our own opinions in order to best meet the needs of those involved in the project.
Design is more than the designer, and even more than the finished product. One of my favorite graphic designers was Paul Rand. I wasn’t drawn to him so much for his work as I was for his thinking. Paul believed that “design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit; it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse…” Does our design matter if we like it, but the client that requested it doesn’t? Does it matter if the client likes it, but the consumer doesn’t see the value? And does any of that matter if our developers can’t build it or we don’t have the budget to make it happen?
Design only matters when it adds value to the brand, enriches the life of the consumer, and can actually be built.
Having taught at an introductory course at a university for the past 2 years, I found that the best way to convey the role of a designer is to think of them as a mediator. Designers find themselves in a unique role within businesses, which may be part of the reason why we get such big heads. It is our utmost responsibility to judge and weigh consumer wants, client requests, project manager requirements, and developer needs with our own experience and creativity. Being a designer is a balancing act. Each of us has our own knowledge, experience, and expertise that we draw from. These qualities we offer are good and of value but at the right time and with careful consideration.
Not everything we make will be a masterpiece. Actually, most of what we make won’t be–at least not to us. But that’s just it. What we want and what we think isn’t all that matters and it isn’t what makes a project great. To quote Paul Rand again, “if a company is second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as second rate.” There’s a lot more at play than our designs. We need to take a larger role in helping shape the values–not just the perception of those values–of the brands we work with.
When establishing a company’s brand, I begin by asking what that company values. “Quality” and “Integrity” are always the first words on the list, but when actually faced with a circumstance that requires those values, many of those companies buckle and compromise under pressure. It’s not because they want to. Oftentimes they don’t see their decisions as compromising, or don’t have processes in place that help secure those values. We can’t just label a product “quality” and people believe it. Quality and integrity are hard things to come by. They take time and require sacrificing what we want for what we really need.
Here at RevUnit we have a saying, “Build Small, Learn Fast, Iterate Often.” It’s the cornerstone to who we are. We don’t claim to have a magic prescription that guarantees success. What we do have, though, is a process that helps guide our clients down a path that increases their chance of success and curbs the cost of failure. Instead of building a fully loaded, galactic-edition piece of software that flops on launch and bankrupts our clients, we choose to start with the minimum viable product–the bare essentials to accomplish the task at hand–and methodically apply learnings from user testing as we build and iterate. Instead of requiring our clients to blindly trust our opinions and experience, we provide tested proof on their own projects.
Designers must have a mindset like RevUnit: humility rather than arrogance. It’s important for us to question everything–even ourselves. Questioning doesn’t come from a disregard for authority or selfish skepticism, but out of a curious respect for the truth. We should always be willing to put aside our ambitions in favor of doing what is right.