Friday, September 08, 2006

What Should Designers Know?

I recently received a letter from Catherine (cat) Morley, Design & Development Director of Katz-i International Web & Graphic Design,

She's also Project Manager at Creative Latitude. a worldwide community that unites various creative disciplines for collective promotion, education and ethical business practice, as well as Project Manager for the NO!SPEC crusade,

She was responding to posts on my writing blog, but I think my response ought to go here on my consulting blog, given that all designers are, in fact, consultants. She wrote:

Cat: No, I am not a writer, but I do have your book 'Weinberg on Writing' and will be using it in the near future. I love it and have suggested all my design friends who are serious about writing to buy a copy.

Jerry: Just so you know, I am not a writer, either. Well, I am a writer, but I was a designer (of computer systems) first, and my first books and many other have been on the subject of design.

Cat: Short explanation - I'm creating a series for designers called 'working with' (writers, programmers, photographers, marketers, printers, etc). Target market - those new to the business of design. Reason - to help those coming into the business of design avoid the costly mistakes of seasoned designers. Additional benefits - clients will (hopefully) avoid being on the receiving end of those very same costly mistakes. ... Which brings me to you ... we are interviewing the industries designers deal with in business. Two wee questions ...

Question 1: As a professional writer, what are the main points that you'd expect / want designers to know before contacting you about a project?

Jerry: I am both a designer and a writer, so I have high expectations of designers. Just last month, I worked with a young designer, Brandon Swann, on the cover design for my new novel, "The Aremac Project" (you can see his design on my website home page now). I expected him to know how to listen to my requirements and ideas, then take his own initiative to present me with at least three sketches of possible solutions to the design problem. I expected him to know something about the purposes of book covers in general--what they were supposed to accomplish--and to balance his creative urges with my needs as a client. I expected him to be prepared to go back and forth with me and my publisher as we refined the design, and to complete his assignments as agreed.

Brandon, by the way, did all of these things and produced a striking and effective cover.

Question 2: When working with designers, what do you see are the top
>problem areas?

Number one: Ego. A designer needs to have a rather large ego, but needs to keep it under control in service of her client. Many do not do this well. (My book, Becoming a Technical Leader, deals with this problem, as does my book (with my wife) General Principles of System Design.)

Number two: Maybe related to number one: Inability to listen and really hear. (My book on feedback (with Charlie and Edie Seashore) What Did You Say?: The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback deals with this problem.)

Number three: Inability to surface assumptions (his or the client's) and to do the work to clarify them. (My two books with Don Gause, Are Your Lights On?: How to Know What the Problem Really Is and "Exploring Requirements: Quality before Design, deal with this problem.)

And, of course, many designers are simply poor communicators, either in writing or face-to-face, and my writing book and my consulting books deal with this problem.

That's not all, but that's enough.

Visit Cat's designer blog. You'll be glad you did.

If It's Okay To Want Anything, But Not To Expect It

There's a humorous letter by Mike Morgan, If Architects Had To Work Like Programmers, that relates to today's topic of how designers/consultants work with their clients. One of the things a designer has to know is how to keep cool and handle potential clients like the one who wrote this letter.

In the article, the client keeps adding and changing vague requirements, so the architect will have to have the qualities listed above which would allow him to deal with them. If not, he will be trapped by his ego when he could just walk away. He won't hear the underlying message—that this client needs to be kept in check and reminded that each of these conversations will cost money.

And, particularly, he will be unable to see or surface the dozens of assumptions that pepper this outrageous letter. Of course, the first thing he will have to do—if he deals with this client at all—is to get face-to-face and start a feedback session to educate this client about the costs and chances of success in doing business this way. This client has to know that it's okay to want anything, but it's quite a different matter to expect anything—and, certainly, to expect everything, and for free at that.

As an exercise for all consultants, I recommend you read this fictitious but essentially true letter and note how you would deal with each of the issues it raises. It could save you a fortune in the near future.