For nearly 30 years, I have bought and sold design services, and since 1996, I have worked with website designers. Wait, I shouldn't count those first years of web design, because they were horrifying experiments in this crazy new medium, but I can legitmately herald 2000 as the year that I discovered web designers who were doing some pretty wonderful web pages. And today, I literally love the designers with whom I work.
I just read an article called, "Your Ego is a Bad Designer," by Christopher Butler on the Imprint blog (a blog that sets out to expand the design conversation). It is thoughtful and smart - and if you buy, sell or create design, it's a must-read.
Butler is speaking directly to web designers, but the lessons apply to anyone who must (first) have, (then) develop and (finally) present an idea to an audience. This can apply to a lawyer who is presenting a deal strategy to a merger target or mapping out the approach to a patent litigation case.
Here are some of the points that I took to heart:
"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 thing true of all good leaders, it's that they're willing to accept that they're often their own worst enemy; understanding that, they generate the courage to change themselves 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."
I have worked with designers who are so incensed that a client doesn't like aspects of their design - in toto or in part - they refuse to take the 30,000-foot view of the relationship and project. They become part of the problem, not the solution. They quickly lose their objectivity and their ego prompts them to fight the client for control. This is typically when design charges begin to sky rocket and when the satisfaction of the client starts South.
"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 a colleague of mine said just the other day, ego is not the same thing as passion."
The line, "The greater role your ego takes in your work, the more often you will feel disappointed by it." is poignant. Yes! This is a hard lesson to learn - we assume that our self assurance, confidence and success are the by-products of our extraordinary work when, in fact, they are the result of maturity, hard work, commitment, experience, successful relationships AND good work.
Perhaps my favorite paragraph in Butler's post is this:
"Also, your design is probably not art. (ouch!)
A fundamental difference between design and art relates to the audience for each. Art first serves the artist; it is a vehicle for self-expression. From there, it benefits 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 benefits the client, and 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, though good design does not demand it.) In other words, design is not all about you."
In so many words, Butler is saying that the designer's design doesn't matter without the client and the client's problem that it is trying to solve. I love it when my company designers create memorable, hard-working, beautiful design. But I don't like it any less when they create design that isn't as visually stunning, but that delights a client because it is exactly what he or she needed to take advantage of an opportunity, launch a new brand or build the company reputation online.
So, what is the designer's job?
"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—clients are sometimes confused about that—but first question your own needs. When approaching a project from a more ego-oriented motivation, it's common for designers to want the opposite of what their clients need."
Sadly, it's common for a lot of professionals to want the opposite of what their clients need. Because they live the problem-solving day-in-day-out, their egos drug them to believe they are the only ones who know anything. Lots of buyers of legal services complain about this quality in their lawyers. Arrogance, ego, whatever you call it.
The next part of the post is kind of depressing - especially the headline, "...good design is rarely recognized." I silently disputed this for awhile, and it was thinking about a comment that a general counsel made to me a few years ago that convinced me it's true. He was the GC for a Fortune 500 company and was participating in a Martindale/Lexis Nexis Counsel to Counsel forum that I was facilitating. When talking to the 20+ lawyers around the table, the lawyer said (about judging the quality of one firm and lawyer over another), "I can't tell the difference in quality between A- work product and C+ work product." The other participants looked aghast at his transparency, but they all reluctantly shook their heads, agreeing that it's virtually impossible to tell. Quality is how you feel about the work that you see, and feel about the people who are delivering it.
"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. They do, however, recognize when design fails.
"Product reviews demonstrate this fact very well, which is why most of them are either best-in-the-world or worst-in-the-world >:(. The majority of reactions to products and services fall in between those extremes, and they can be summarized as expressing satisfaction, or—perhaps more cynically—"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."
Anyone who knows me well knows that I don't like the word, "fine." To me it's an indictment - a slap in the face that my work, the dinner I've cooked or whatever, isn't great. And I strive to be not just great, but memorable (in a good way). Butler says there is a respectable place for "fine," however - perhaps I should relax about it.
The next part is a great lesson for young designers, lawyers, marketers . . .
"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 energy and gently guide the process. 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 "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 clients, 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."
Now that I re-read that, this is a great lesson for professionals of all ages.