One of the greatest challenges any designer faces is articulating the intuitive. Clearly explaining the hows and whys of the craft—putting words to things you may take for granted—can be a thorny business. Now try doing it under pressure, toe to toe with a steely-eyed boss or client who simply doesn’t have the time to engage, and you’ve entered another league entirely.
The good news is that designers already have what it takes to deliver gracefully under fire. It’s baked right into the job. Good design is iterative, the result of removing the unnecessary until only real value remains. A good presentation, even on the business end of a firing squad, is no different. All that’s needed are a few best practices to keep your focus sharp and the meeting repartee humming.
The buddy system
As the old saw goes, practice makes perfect. And when it comes to practice, the bargains don’t get much better than peer review. No risk to life, limb or project needed. No formal meetings required. Simply turning around and asking, “What do you think?” is enough to get the ball rolling.
You don’t have to agree with everything you hear—that’s the point. Use your colleagues’ questions to get outside your own head, thinking about the work from other perspectives. Getting beaned by a fellow designer’s wild-card critique might smart, but it’s the kindest sort of cruelty there is. Better you hear it now than in the meeting room.
Try to discuss every criticism rationally. Explain your decisions. And no, “It just works” doesn’t fly here. Think more like, “This layout leads the eye across the most important sections of the page.” Getting to the heart of the “why” as succinctly as possible is key.
Remember, just because design can be subjective doesn’t mean it’s baseless. Somewhere deep down you’re making decisions while you’re designing, whether you’re conscious of them or not. The trick is hauling those decisions up to the surface where you can throw some light on them.
As you begin to assemble your talking points, focus on utility as a way to clearly define those decisions and explain them to your audience. (And don’t forget that aesthetics can have utility too!) Pick discrete elements in your design and ask yourself, “What does this do?” Better yet, “What does this do for the user?” If you’ve made an earnest effort to answer these questions and keep finding yourself at a loss for words, it’s probably time to head back to the proverbial drawing board.
Gone in 30 seconds
Now that you’ve fielded some constructive input, it’s time to get acclimated to being under the gun. Got a clock handy? Good. Now watch that second hand and keep the following guideline in mind: once you’ve finished your initial pitch in a tough client meeting you’ll only have about 30 seconds to answer any individual question.
Harsh? More like realistic. (Actually you may find 30 seconds is a lot more conversation than you thought!) Sometimes you’ll be a little over. Other times under. What it boils down to is there isn’t a lot of room for going “off message,” as the wonks like to say.
Here’s where that peer feedback is truly worth its weight in gold. Chances are, you heard some of your client’s questions coming out of your co-workers’ mouths already. By taking the best nuggets of those earlier conversations and distilling them down to a few sentences apiece, you’ll be ready to deal with a hefty chunk of the most common remarks. Again, think of the clock when planning things out and you’ll do fine.
If there’s a real gem in your design that you’re simply bursting to wax poetic about, you can always have more in reserve, but understand that extended conversation is typically invite-only. It’s nothing personal—we’re all busy people. Even in the rare case when your project is the most important thing going on in the client’s world, it will never be the only thing going on. If they’re blessed with the extraordinary luxury of extra time, they’ll let you know on their own terms.
The lay of the land
This next bit of advice isn’t revolutionary by any stretch, but it gets skipped far too often: take the time to research your audience, even if only a little.
You shouldn’t climb into the cockpit of a fully armed fighter jet without knowing which buttons can cause an international incident, and you certainly shouldn’t walk into an important meeting without knowing something about your audience. It’s to your benefit to find out as much as possible about the people you’re about to share a conference table with. It’s as much about determining what’s audience appropriate as it is about preparing for the unforeseen.
The odds are pretty darn good someone other than you has met with these folks before (approaching statistical certainty if the client is internal). Try tapping into institutional memory by starting with a supervisor or co-worker. Have they ever heard of them? Maybe dealt with them before? If they haven’t they can probably point you in the direction of someone who has. If you happen to be the boss (lucky you!), or an independent contractor, you’re likely already dealing with a project manager or company contact who can clue you into references.
Once you’ve located your source, find out about things like individual meeting styles, previous dealings, company history. Just to be clear, don’t be invasive. There’s no need for grainy surveillance photos or a Tom Clancy–style dossier. Just enough to give you a sense of tact.
Now that you know something about the client, don’t go to extremes trying to anticipate their every move. Just keep yourself tuned into the broad themes. Strong reputation for a conservative approach? Might want to dial back on the dancing logos. Best toga parties in town? Okay, shoot for a little more panache. This preview of coming attractions also keeps you from being blindsided by a client’s infamous hatred of orange logos or penchant for conducting meetings from the office treadmill. (Go ahead, laugh—it sounds funny until it actually happens.) A little insight up front can keep you unflappable in the face of the otherwise unexpected.
Ultimately, the goal of all this preparation is to make you a better designer all the time, not just when you’re being put on the spot. Developing a clear, concise communication style is probably one of the most important things you’ll ever do for your career.
Through constant practice and execution, you’ll become ever more adept at fine-tuning your approach on the fly, but the fundamental building blocks will always be there. Find the message, then deliver it to the audience with clarity and speed.