Part of what designers are really good at, what makes them valuable, is their proficiency with examining many options. By understanding a range of possibilities, one is better equipped to choose the best option available. So, it seems counter-intuitive to say that we’re just going to show you one conceptual direction for the thing you’re paying us to design. Of all the choices out there – you’ll only see one. And it will address the goals for the project. Or not.
I just finished my second year of instruction at the University of Washington, teaching mobile experience design to Juniors in the Visual Communications program and the process continues to teach me about what good design asks of those involved with its process
Your work is not self-evident. Explain what you’ve done and how it addresses the project goals.Students have an inclination to present work by describing the visible elements of the project, something Mike Monteiro calls “the real estate tour.” It’s boring to have someone prattle on about things you can easily see. What’s less clear is why something was designed the way it was. The process for making design decisions can be a very internal one, but it’s important to communicate that process to your teacher – or your client. Make sure they understand the thought process behind the real estate.
Set clear goals and make sure they are communicatedAs a practicing professional I’m used to making assumptions about what my team knows – they’ve got years of experience in the field so it’s logical they have informed perspectives about requirements and process. That’s not the case with students, or with the designers you’ve hired. When you are engaging in a process it’s important to be clear about what you’re hoping to achieve and why it’s important to your business.
Make Shit UpDesigners get hired to solve intangible problems. It’s our job to bring clarity and form to abstract and ill-defined problems. In order to do this, we often have to make assumptions in order to validate our solution. This is a skill that takes a long time to cultivate and those who are new to the design world struggle with this. There’s a lack of confidence in just making shit up and going with it. A robust design process will help everyone understand why it’s important to do this and how to keep things moving.
Designers want work they can show in their portfolioThe the end of the day what design students want, is work they can include in their portfolio – work that impresses potential employers. This is true most designers – they want to do work for their clients that is renowned and admired. By giving them freedom to explore and create you’ll all end up being happier with the finished work.
Iterative work is difficult to wrap your head aroundIteration produces the best results. It’s proven time and time again. But iterative work is difficult to evaluate in structured environments. It’s important for both clients and designers to understand what part of the problem you’re addressing with the current effort and when you’ll be addressing the other parts.
Designers, like everyone else, are motivated by deadlinesThe quality of work I see from students before the final weeks of the class is typically unimpressive. But, what happens between then and the due date for the final work to be turned in is magical. This is true for your design team as well. It’s not to say that it’s unreasonable to expect to see progress throughout an engagement, but it’s important to have confidence in your team to come through for you in the end. If it’s not something you feel confident about, it’s time to have a conversation with your designer.
Knowing when to hire a design team is one of those things that can appear to be a simple decision, made during a meeting (“Well, we need to get on that – let’s put a team together, STAT!”) but in reality it can be a complex decision process that has very real consequences on your business. This process becomes even more complex as more and more companies begin to build their own internal design team. With a team in place there’s an inclination to say that they can handle whatever design needs might arise. Maybe this is true – but not likely. There are just a few key rules to keep in mind that will help guide you in the decision to pick up the phone or not. Generally speaking, you should hire an outside firm when:
You need more capacity.Having a team of in-house designers in place is a valuable resource. Often, in-house teams can execute on ideas and projects quickly because they have the background and context needed to design whatever is comes up. But in-house designers are bound to the same twenty-four hour days as the rest of us and can only tackle so much at one time. This applies doubly so for teams who don’t have a strong producer or PM trafficking work to them. When it’s a free-for-all with the whole company, designers can easily get bombarded and fall behind – just like the rest of us. If you are finding that your in-house team doesn’t have the time to take on the work in a timely way, it might be time to call in the reserves. Design studios are particularly good at picking-up in times of need and can often throw more resources at a problem than in-house teams because they are used to working on a variety of project sizes and team structures. Be sure you’re communicating with your in-house team about this – what’s being requested, who’s going to be helping out, and what expectations are being placed on the in-house team as a result of this. Most design groups play well with others so it’s reasonable to expect that that the teams can collaborate with one another. The most important thing is to be sure you’re communicating about roles and responsibilities. Nobody likes to redo work and it gets costly so if your in-house creative director has specific views on exactly which shade of aqua-blue should be used for headlines, the whole team should be made aware of that.
You need specializationIn house design teams are often very skilled generalists. Especially when design isn’t the core business activity (e.g. you don’t sell products because of their design) it’s often the case that a design group needs to be able to work on the website, layout a brochure, and design a booth for the upcoming tradeshow. This works fine until you need someone who can design the a highly-optimized checkout system for your website, or who can design a native iOS app to feature your products. When your in-house team is not focused on an area of specialization, it’s smart to bring in an expert. This will often result in a more efficient and higher quality outcome. Studios and agencies often have these specialists on-hand, or have resources to bring them in when it makes sense. Again, the same rules listed above apply – make sure everyone know what their roles and responsibilities are and what the review chain looks like.
You need outside perspective.Finally (and probably the design firm’s favorite one) – there are times when your in-house team is just too close to the problem. Maybe they are drinking the Kool-Aide too much, maybe they feel their internal culture won’t let them think broadly enough – but whatever the reason, sometimes an outsiders perspective can help jar something loose and make for better work. I’ve seen this first hand where simply coming in as an outsider gave me permission to ask some questions that if I were an in-house designer, I wouldn’t be allowed to ask. They might have seemed too stupid, or challenged the current thinking too blatantly, but as a vendor it was easy to say, “Why are you doing it that way? It seems like it’s a lot of work for both you and your customer…” Getting outside perspective on a problem does require that you, as the client, are willing to hear the designer out. Good designers are very skilled at gathering inputs, forming a conclusion and stating that conclusion. Good clients are skilled at providing those inputs and hearing those conclusions. If you’re hiring an outside firm for this purpose, be sure you’re ready to get what you’re asking for. Obviously, there are any number of special circumstances that necessitate hiring an outside firm to help your company out, but these rough-guidelines should help you identify if your situation qualifies at a basic level. The role of design in business is in a state of great change and defining how it fits into your business is something that every company is struggling with these days. Look to your designers to help identify when it’s time to call on a design partner – sometimes, but not always, it’s the best call you can make.
First off, we’re excited about your involvement in writing the copy for your website. To help you be as successful as you can, we thought we’d share a few key things that we’ve observed over the years–some general guidelines for writing and editing copy that should help you create better content for your site.