The 12 Principles of a Designer

Today we have a bit of a non-standard blog entry. It’s not the interview but rather a lecture of a man working in the design sphere for over a decade. There will be no questions, just answers and there will be no real names. 

Our guest, a “storyteller”, started from scratch, working as a designer for individual clients and is currently the owner of a big agency, having contracts with world-known companies (under NDA, so NO NAMES). Let’s hear about some of his principles and advice for designers.

Decide who you are

Workers covering their faces with question mark plates

This is my first question to designers: who are you – an artist or a designer? Here’s the way the artists earn money: they paint a piece of art, place it in a gallery, and wait. They can wait for a day or two, a year, ten years… many works become worth millions only when the author is already dead. For example, someone asks: “Oh, great picture. How much is it? $10,000? Well, too much. I will buy it for $500”. So, the artist draws a creative piece, puts it on the wall and waits for a buyer. Thousands pass by this work until someone likes it and buys it. It’s the way of the artist.

If you are a designer – well, sorry, but you work for a client. You have an order, and it is not abstract at all, it is specific, based on insights. If you have chosen a designer’s path but start with the phrase “That’s the way I see it”, you will immediately receive your first dismissal warning. You have no right to see it “your way” because it the thing that only artists can do. You are a designer, you serve the business interests of a client, you make their business run, you make products that the client’s client would like, and so on. Regarding the phrase “But I’m a creative person and work with creative people?” – sorry, the design is not about personal creativity. Design is the most aesthetic way to solve a client’s business problem. This is how the design industry works. But if you are an artist, you draw and wait for someone to like your paintings. If you are an artist, who turned out to draw a website design, you may as well present it like: “Here’s a cool design, anybody wanna buy it? The price is $ 2,000”. Then you sit and wait for a buyer for a day or two, a year, ten years… In such a case, you are an artist, you follow a different model. You draw not for a specific customer but for a specific task.

There is an artist in every designer. I give my guys a place to let their artists out, for example, page 404 – “it is yours to create whatever you like!” Or we can launch our own special projects without a brief, for example: “Listen, show your work to me. – And if it is rubbish? – That’s ok if you like it.” There are projects where we give designers absolute freedom – you know when you let the dog off the leash. Let’s say, there is a client case, we give it to a designer, and that’s it, all design decisions are his, – dream, create, spread the wings and fly. We also send some of these projects to Behance, they are really cool and are always popular. The Artist lives in every designer, but it is important not to make the “That’s the way I see it” argument when working with a client. If this lesson is learned, then you can move on, but if your ego is on your way – sorry then, change your profession, it is not really for you.

Learn about the clients and communication

Two people having problem with communication

Some customers want a designer, some customers want a consultant. Most often, the designer is hired as a consultant, but in the process … “move it two pixels to the right, well, lift up a little – yes, like this, and now dark green, play with fonts, make the logo bigger …” You know what I mean. So, if you were invited to the project as a simple “executor” or a consultant, there is one step you need to take. You come to the client, take an A4 sheet, and write down several lines: “Disclaimer. “AcmeCorp” design studio is not responsible for the end product. It (studio) follows every wish of our client and takes duty to release the best result possible under the client’s supervision. At the same time, “AcmeCorp” Studio is not responsible for the final result”. That’s all. And we give this document to the customer, asking to sign it. “You want to tell us how to do it? No problem, sign it”. 90% of the clients will say “No-no-no…I don’t want to”. But what will happen if this paper is not signed? “We hired you as experts in the market”, and then they say, “add more green and purple, and here is a chandelier in the bedroom, my child really likes the color, add here …” And then you hand over the project and they ask you:

  • What the hell is this?
  • Well, that’s what you’ve told us to do, it’s you …
  • And what did I hire you for?

A familiar story? So, a client hires you as a consultant but lays the responsibility for their actions on you. And as soon as we give this piece of paper to the client, it works as a cold shower: “Oh, no, let’s do it in some other way.”

We had cases when this “document” was signed by a customer, and the project was immediately delegated to our juniors.

Well, I think every specialist needs to go through a story like this, this is the experience you need to have. You know, when I was in the army, we had daily running trainings that I hated in the training camp. Later I was grateful for these trainings, they helped me a lot. The same goes for projects “with limited responsibility” this is an important professional experience that everyone should have.

However, it’s not always the client’s fault. You know, during the mockup presentation a designer starts to ask questions like “Do you like it? Do you want to change something? Do you like that color?” These are all incorrect questions. We are talking for some time now (addressing Taras), now let me ask you, is your chair comfortable enough? You didn’t even think about it a second ago, you were sitting and listening to me, and now you think – “Well, it’s not soft enough, I cannot lean back, and there are no wheels – yes, it sucks!” But when did you start thinking about the chair? When I asked you about it! The same is with the presentation – when did you start thinking about whether you like the gradient of violet and pink? Only when I asked you. When will you start thinking about whether you like the font? “Oh, yes, the font. I heard something about new Helvetica fonts. Yes, let’s go play with those!” In fact, in a design presentation, you cannot ask whether the client likes color or anything else. It is necessary to show the work, to defend it – explaining your decisions (but that is a separate topic). And only then ask: “Have we fulfilled all the wishes? Has the mockup managed to complete the brief’s business objectives?” And the client starts thinking but in a completely different way.

When I hear designers or project managers saying “Damn, a client is mad – decided to do so many stupid edits”. I just listen to the meeting recording and say: “Well, what did you expect? You took the shovel yourself and said – dig a grave for me”. You say your client is mad, but it’s not the client who is the problem here. You asked – the client answered. Don’t do this.

Also, we have something for you that might just improve your communication with your clients. Interested?

Use function language

People in a form of a gear get along with each other

Translate everything into function language. Always remember that the final result of your work is targeted at the client’s client. What is a function language? Customer says “Add more green”. We ask: “OK, more green…why? Because this layout does not fulfill its function?” The client says: “Look, we are an eco-brand and we want people to associate us with eco”. Okay, the client wants the layout to be more associated with eco – and this is the task we assign to the designer. Moreover, maybe it is not about adding “more green” but about removing blue. The designer, from the point of view of the aesthetics of the palette, should know better how to solve this business problem. If the client directly insists on the green, we will add the green, but we will say: “We have a better idea. We will show how to solve this business problem”. Or they say: “The promotional offer is a locomotive of our sales, it makes 70% of it, but it is not accented here”. They want to do it this way. So, we have to focus on this problem, and now it’s the designer’s task to solve it. The “how to” remains a designer’s responsibility and the client gives us “what to do”. That’s how we speak the language of functions. In fact, this is the task of the project manager to ask such questions. You, dear customers, if you are caught by those who ask “How do you find this red color?” – do not follow this provocation, respond to it at the level of a business task. Then the communication will be successful.

Love your client!

My next moto is – it is impossible to make a great product with a customer you hate. It’s like getting married to a person you are not in love with. You can try it, but you will always be angry, irritated with something, nervous. I do not know what will annoy you exactly – it does not have to be something physical, physiological or mental. You can’t expect anything good here.

If you feel that there is no chemistry between you and the customer, you should let the client go, give yourself some time, and better find the client that you will not irritate you from the first look. 2 people that hate each other cannot deliver a product that the whole world would love. As a result, you will have an ugly product and 2 unhappy people.  Abandon it. This is better than creating a product with a client you do not like, and making 2 people on Earth unhappy… do not bring this evil to the world.

Warn the client about the weak points before you take the money

If you foresee difficulties with the project, tell the client about them in advance. For example, “In the reference that you showed, it would be very cool to use the 3D texture. Most likely, if we use the photo you gave us, it will be ugly, but if we do everything in 3D the price would be plus $10,000.” Say it at the very beginning, while the client has not even given you the money. It’s ok, if the client says that the other agency has promised to do it easily and leave. The client might also agree to the new price or offer another approach. Anyways, you should air this information before you take the money. At that point, before you take the money, you are a consultant, you are a good fellow giving an advice. But if you take the money, show the shitty result you knew about a long time ago, and tell the client “Sorry bro, but you need to spend 10 more grands for it to look ok” after you hear “What the hell is this?”. Sorry, at this moment you are an asshole. Do you feel the difference? Consultant and asshole? That’s how much everything changes depending on the moment when you tell them about this issue.

Find a client’s driver

You should understand the client’s perspective. If you receive some stupid feedback from the client, try to understand the reason why he sent it. Of course, the version that the client is an idiot is always on the plate, but that option should be considered only after you reject all other 99 versions. The client owns a plane, few yachts, mansions, etc. He totally rejected your mockup of a desktop website design, and his feedback is kind of stupid. You understand, that he’s been reviewing the desktop version on his phone and has never seen it on the computer. After talking to the client, you understand that he has not approached a laptop or computer for years. Even more, his environment and target audience have the same lifestyle. So, all your UX decisions are not interesting to him. The guy just needs to open the site on his smartphone and have a perfect experience there. Now, you know what drives your customer – that he lives in a world without computers – and so create the design for the world with no computers. The client’s feedbacks no longer seem stupid, you understand his words and world, you start to love your customer. This is the path to a successful project. So to love your client, you should understand his world and his driver.

The 12 principles of a Designer

Don’t be afraid to contradict your client and…

Very often I’ve seen the situations when the client is wrong in his judgments, but the designers or project managers working for him just nod, instead of explaining why the chosen path is a mistake. Guys, the client came to you because you are the professionals in the sphere, and if you see a mistake, you should point it out, explain it, find a better solution together. This is why the client came to you in the first place, and not to have someone to agree with his every word. It could be that he has dozens of such nodding employees in his office, and what he’s really searching for is a co-captain to help him, not another crew to follow him. Don’t be afraid to say no. One of the clients was offered a cup of coffee, but he didn’t like it and asked for another cup done in a different way. He didn’t like it either and asked for another portion done better. One of the managers politely refused, claiming that the reason they wanted to meet was a design project and none of the guys was a barista. He promised that the next meeting will be held in some place with good coffee, but this time they need to get to business. The client smiled and said: “This is the guy I want to work with.” Remember, you are a designer, you are a hired gun to work on a specific problem that cannot be solved without your experience. You should respect your client, but your client should respect you as well. Otherwise, he will not listen to you when he needs to.

… learn when not to contradict your client

This is the second side of the coin. You should not contradict the client all the time. Your job is to explain to the client where he or she is wrong, explain the consequences, suggest another approach, but the final word is not yours. It shouldn’t be “yes-no-yes-no” conversation. “Do you understand that without a link on the main page a site visitor will not able to get to the designed page? – Yes. – This page will not be shown to anyone and no one would know it’s in there. Is that what you want? – Yes.” That’s it. Your job is to warn and explain, not fight the client till he fires you. You will not earn the client’s respect if you “call white” to every his “black”. Therefore, you must protect your layout, your design. But don’t be stubborn. You must be firm but flexible. This is an art. However, if you learn how to protect the layout without fighting, and make it better, the client will feel it and will respect you. One time I said “no” to one lady 76 times. When I left the negotiation room, I was told that “Nobody spoke to her like that! Where are your manners? She’s 63 years old!” and so on… She called me the next day and said: “Guys, we are working with you. Tomorrow we’ll send a prepayment”. Because I convinced her that if her people want to do crap, my team will not let them do it. The clients respect that, so don’t act like a servant but be a partner – they love it. Moreover, the client will not behave like “Hey, listen, I have money, I rule the world!”

Make sure you understand the task

Do not start the work if you do not understand it. This is the pain in the neck for my studio that will never end. “Okay, I’m on it. – Why did you make the window here?” – Well, you said that we could make an opening here. – But I meant arch. – Ohhhh …”

I have been working with a partner for 13 years and another 4 years we spent studying at the university. So, we have known each other for 17 years. This winter he suddenly said: “Open the window”. I was surprised by this request, It was chilly outside, but I decided to do it anyway, so I opened the window. “Are you sick? I meant open the drapes!” We have been sharing the same room for 17 years, and still, we do have our misunderstandings. Therefore, communicating with a client, I turn on the idiot mode and ask: “Do we have to do this and that?”. They tell me: “Not really”. I ask: “What do we do, then? – This”. I always double-check my understanding. I ask until I understand what needs to be done. After that, we can count on mutual understanding. Therefore, if you double check your understanding – yes, you may look a little strange, but no one will be upset, and you will only win.

Keep your files in order!

Literally files in order

Use asset management systems, it’s the 21st century after all. Stop creating folders with folders and name them “Aurora_design”, “Aurora_design9”, “Aurora_design_9final”. At some point, you will add some more changes and you will have 10th, 11th folder and so on. With every iteration, you keep on improving your design and you need to make sure that you are not lost in all the versions, and your client is not lost in all those thousands of folders you share with him. There are cases when the client insists on some changes, we consider to be a mistake. In this case, we create an alternative design without charging a client for it and show both versions to the client – ours and his to choose the best. After all, we don’t want to have a bad design in our portfolio, that’s why we create alternative versions at our own cost. Anyways, it’s easy to get lost in folders and versions when you need to review Aurora_design_9_alternativ_2 and Aurora_design_9_green. I repeat, it’s the 21st century, there are easy ways to keep everything in one place without creating a folder dumpster. Asset management systems, like your Approval Studio, allow to store all the designs in one place and navigate easily through all the versions and keep track of every iteration.  Plus, you look more professional using these systems than making clients navigate through dozens of folders. By the way, remember I was talking that you should protect the client and defend your design? Creating the right design for free is one of the options, it’s kind of your last chance to convince the client that he is wrong: “Here’s the new version, and here are the changes you insisted on. But also take a look at another variant that we think is better in terms of… Whatever you choose, there’s no extra cost, we just wanted to show you what we think should work better… ” However, if the client rejects your design, you don’t need to keep on arguing. That will do no good.

Due Dates

Reserve time for proofing when setting the due dates. “I can have the design ready in 5 days.” The client agrees and you send it to him for proofing. “Ok, I will take a look!” and he’s gone for 3 days. When he comes back with the changes, it’s already 5 days of you drawing a design, 3 days of him reviewing it, and 1 more day for you to process and apply the change requests from the client. As a result, you hear: “Hey, friend, it the 9th day today, and you said it would take 5”. That’s why the due date should always include proofing time. “I can have the design ready in 5 days and will send it to you for review. Keep in mind I may need another day to process and apply the changes you might request. So let’s set the due date in 10 days”. Now your client understands that your work takes 5 days, and the rest is their responsibility, numbers 5 and 10 are to carve in the clients’ minds.

You should stick to the due dates. If you understand that you fail to deliver in time -it’s bad and you should inform your customer beforehand. When you say that the mockup will be ready on Wednesday, it means that when your client comes to the office on Wednesday at 9 AM and brews some coffee, he expects the design is ready to be checked. And Wednesday for you is 11:59 pm because … well, technically, it’s still Wednesday. Your Wednesdays should coincide, so make sure you will not send the design at 11-59PM when the client expects in at 10 AM.

If you tell you can’t meet the deadline a week before it – it’s bad. One day before is very bad. Telling about it right on the due date is terrible. If you tell on Thursday that you fail to deliver on Wednesday, it’s the very bottom. You can bury your reputation.  If you warn the client that you cannot meet the deadline in advance, it won’t change the situation but will save some of your client’s nerve cells.

Of course, there are cases when you can’t meet the deadlines because of the client, like that situation with long reviews or extra iterations that you did not agree on initially. That’s why you need to log every phase of the project somewhere so you could explain to the client that it was not your fault. But still, even in that situation, the client needs to know that you are behind the schedule.

Love yourself!

Work for the price that is expensive for you. If $1000 is expensive for you, work for $1000. Find a price you would work hard for. Or work for free. Any compromise always leads to a dead end. Have you ever drawn a site for an aunt or a logo for a sister? Your price is $1000, but you agree to less: “Well, $500 will do” you would say to your friend? And then you get clients who pay full price. You’ve switched the focus, then you took a vacation, got tired, and your aunt is constantly asking: “How much longer?”, and you’re like: “Can’t you just wait a bit?” You feel like you’re doing your friend a favor drawing it for half of the price. And he thinks: “What a dork, took money from his friend and is working on it for ages”. As a result, you would lose the friendship and will not earn any money. That’s why it’s better to do it for free if you have the opportunity. You better drink together a bottle of whiskey that was brought to you as gratitude for a job well done, than compromise your friendship for a few bucks. So, work either for free, avoiding the brain consummation part from the client’s side, or for the amount of money that is enough for you to pay attention. Any compromise with your conscience will mean rubbish work in your portfolio. You want your work to be expensive – strive to the best, develop yourself, do more than you are paid for. When you do more, you get recommendations, and recommendations create queues for your service. And if you have queues, you can raise the price. It’s as simple as that. And the most important thing: business karma is real. Make crap, and the attitude to you will reflect that; make art, and everything will be just fine. Help your clients to grow their businesses, and the world will help you to grow yours.

That was a really interesting conversation for us and, we hope, for you as well. Let us know in the comments if you liked it or not and contact the Approval Studio team if you have your own story to tell. Cheers!

Matthew Roberts

Matthew Roberts

A guy with wide spheres of interest — from project management to board games and to spicy guitar riffs. Has a solid experience in marketing, creative team management, translation, teaching, and occasional freelancing masochism. Big and bald.
Matthew Roberts

Matthew Roberts

A guy with wide spheres of interest — from project management to board games and to spicy guitar riffs. Has a solid experience in marketing, creative team management, translation, teaching, and occasional freelancing masochism. Big and bald.

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