Demystifying Design
Issue № 335

Demystifying Design

Designers are makers who craft solutions to problems that plague customers, clients, and at times, society as a whole. The specialized tools and jargon (leading? kerning? cognitive load?) often understood only by other practitioners are a designer’s hallmarks. How we actually design and arrive at viable solutions is a mystery to most.

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Some believe this mystery helps us maintain the perceived value of design in our organizations. In today’s world—a world craving more and better design—however, this mystery is actually holding us back as a profession.

Mystery is empowering#section1

Mystery is powerful stuff. It feeds the ego and creates a perception of control over a product’s end state. Mystery places invisible barriers between designers and the team that only those versed in “Design” can traverse. Non-designers often feel unqualified to enter our world and many won’t attempt to participate in the design process. The mystery makes designers heroes! A problem-statement enters in one end of the process and a solved problem emerges on the other, polished and gorgeous.

Opening the kimono#section2

As designers, we must demystify the way we work. We must make our tools accessible, our jargon more mainstream, and our processes transparent to our teams. We must educate our colleagues and welcome them into our world. We must become transparent—for transparency will build cross-functional trust and erode the pervasive “us and them” attitude, dramatically increasing the value we bring to our customers and clients.

Inevitably, designers will resist such a movement. The first counter-argument is that non-designers simply won’t understand everything that goes into a solution. Concepts such as white space, information hierarchy, and color theory (to name just three) cannot be fully explained during a design review meeting. Others will say that it diminishes the unique value a designer brings to a project. If everyone can offer an opinion on how to design a solution then everyone, in essence, is a designer, no? The designer is no longer the hero. The inevitable revelation that at times designers rely solely on gut instinct will further erode their perceived value. No complex design theory calculations coupled with behavioral psychology truisms yielded the end product. It simply looked right.

Demystification is powerful#section3

We must work more closely and collaboratively with our teammates, colleagues, and clients. Collaborative teams have trust. Trust stems from transparency between roles. As designers, we need to bring this transparency to our processes. Sharing the way we work and inviting others to participate is the first step. A colleague who may have originally thought that designers simply “made things pretty” starts to realize the rigor and experience that goes into each design decision. When the entire team understands the challenges of balancing brand, business, and consumer needs in a solution, the true depth of design is revealed. Not only is design’s value clarified, but the designer’s skill and expertise become evident.

By revealing our process, with its twists, turns, and challenges and inviting others into our world we begin to break down divisions. The input non-designers provide during the design phase will ultimately show up in the work—or at the very least they will perceive that you heard them. Feelings of ownership in the project increase, creating a team that is more invested in the success of the work which translates to improved product quality. Let’s look at some steps we can take.

Where to begin#section4

  1. Draw together

    Invite your teammates and colleagues to join you in the ideation process: sketch together. It’s a powerful way to begin the demystification process. Show your teammates that sketching is something that everyone can do. Level the playing field: reveal the secrets of your sketching techniques. One empowering fact that works well when sketching collaboratively is that any UI can be drawn with basic geometric shapes. If your teammates can draw circles, squares, and triangles, they can sketch almost any user interface. By revealing these “trade secrets,” you empower the non-designer to participate in the design.

  2. Show raw work (frequently)

    The pace at which we’ve trained our colleagues to expect to see output from us is a major cause of the trust issues we face as designers. To combat this, show raw work to your team. As soon as you have a cohesive idea formed around layout or workflow, jot down a quick sketch and pass it around. Show your colleagues how you work. These early ideas reveal the scope of the challenges the designer is taking on and will help form the ultimate solution. Yet their true power, at least internally, is to keep the project’s forward momentum going by demonstrating progress. Instead of waiting a week for a first draft, show something in four hours. The raw nature of the work makes the design malleable by all and the fact that you, the designer, have spent so little time creating it reduces your own resistance to tweaking it or even fully rethinking the UI. Design tweaks, input, and general critique that would’ve generated a tension-filled room are now opportunities to weigh in on the direction of a much-faster moving project.

  3. Teach the discipline

    Within the context of the work you create and the design review rubric you use, there will be opportunities to educate your team. As common design tactics arise in the work, take a moment to explain why you chose that tactic and how it benefits the product. Pull people over to your desk and show them a recent update you made to the work. Engage them in conversation around how you believe you’ve solved one of the problems. In addition, this is a phenomenal opportunity to translate design jargon. If you’re going to use words like leading and kerning, at least take a few minutes to define those terms for your colleagues. Start building that common language.

  4. Be transparent

    No matter what design activity you’re participating in at the moment, share it with your team and the broader company. Let people see exactly what the design team is currently doing, why they’re doing it, and share the outcome of those activities. Create an internal newsletter, a wiki, or a simple email to inform higher-ups and stakeholders of what the UX team did last week, is doing this week, and has planned for the following week. Did you do some research? Publish the results and the design decisions driven from those results. This simple communication keeps your team front-of-mind in the organization and helps remove any ambiguity around what “those designers” are doing.

  5. Take credit for your wins

    Was a conversion metric met? Did a new feature deliver the lift you were looking for? Claim that as a victory for the design team. These ideas may seem antithetical to the team mantras promoted throughout this article, but, if done with proper inclusive decorum, these announcements begin to solidify the power that design has within the organization. The demystification process should not only show what it is that designers do but should prove the power of those practices through measurable business wins.

Conclusion#section5

Design is popularly being hailed as the savior of many businesses yet many people don’t really know what design involves. This continues a cycle of doubt, underfunding, and incredulity at its true power. By revealing the inner workings of our design practices, explaining our choices, reinforcing those choices with references to provable academic theories, and teaching our colleagues what goes into every pixel placement, workflow, and word choice, we increase the value of our practice and of ourselves as practitioners. It’s the realization that designers are much more than simple pixel-pushers that will continue to bring new clients and new levels of corporate reach and achievement.

About the Author

Jeff Gothelf

Jeff Gothelf is a user experience designer, blogger, speaker, and lean UX advocate based in metro NYC. He has spent his 13-year career defining and designing engaging experiences for clients big and small. He is currently the Director of User Experience at TheLadders.com where he helps executive jobseekers and recruiters make meaningful connections with each other. Previously he helped shape the designs at Publicis Modem, AOL, Webtrends, and Fidelity. Jeff publishes his thoughts on his blog and on Twitter @jboogie.

15 Reader Comments

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this post. If we can help colleagues and clients better understand our process and techniques, I do think good things will happen. Workflow will go smoother. Sign-offs will happen quicker. World peace will be achieved.

    Here’s the rub: In the past, I’ve often found myself spending more time trying to educate my client that actually working on the project. Yes, when they say “make the logo bigger” certainly ask “Why?”. But often times, even after a lengthy explanation of the principles behind the inordinately small placement of their logo, they still want it bigger.

    What’s a designer to do?

  2. Thanks for your article. The designer/non-designer separation isn’t something I’ve given too much direct thought, but in reading your article I can see how it could be very easy and beneficial to show the people I work with that they can help in the design process too. Thanks!

  3. Everyone’s designer inside but not everyone can reproduct their ideas. That’s why some people are called designers and the others are just dreamers. I am a dreamer as well…

  4. I enjoyed this article, but I have to admit that your statement about how sometimes things just look right to a designer rubs me the wrong way. This statement is full of truth, of course, but when we make decisions with our gut rather than based on some sort of collection of observational data, awareness of human cognition/perception, design patterns, etc. we absolutely MUST test out whether those decisions were the right ones. Now, I know how you work and I know you do that yourself, but I don’t want someone reading this article to come away from it thinking they can just stop when something feels right.

  5. There is certainly some merit to this article. I have found that by bringing in the client into the process early on, such as by asking them to suggest some good imagery or thinking about the relative importance of parts of their message, it increases the likelihood of producing an effective design.

    BUT: I really have to disagree with this statement:
    “Non-designers often feel unqualified to enter our world and many won’t attempt to participate in the design process.”

    That is so completely opposite of my many years of experience as to be laughable.

    Non-designers have no problem whatsoever inserting themselves into the design process and turning us into production monkeys. Most non-designers seem to work on the premise that what we do is just ALL FUN ALL THE TIME and we should be happy to do it for free! And the only reason they don’t have our jobs is that they don’t know how to use Photoshop.

    I do think it is of value to, as I said, bring the client into the process early on, but in a way that illuminates the design process as problem-solving and engages them to help you solve the problem in an effective way by sharing THEIR expertise of their market/audience.

    But to imagine that somehow our issue is that clients feel unqualified to take part in the process is just a head-scratcher. But perhaps that is the case in the world of UX/UI. It is certainly not the case, in my experience, in print and visual web design.

  6. Sort of like what Chris mentioned, it’s been my experience that non-designers feel more than qualified to handle the design work for no other reason than they have good taste.

    As an in-house designer dealing with a half dozen different departments on everything from presentations to convention displays, I have definitely had some great design process discussions with people whom everything just seemed to click. That being said, I’ve actually found that a lot of people don’t care to learn anything about design; they just want what they want. When I find someone that’s genuinely interested in design I am more than happy to help demystify things for them. That, at least for me has been pretty rare though.

  7. @cob – I would recommend including them in the design process more. As the article suggests, have them participate in the ideation phase and ask them to create with you. That simple act alone humanizes the design process. It shows the pains, twists and turns and ultimately the challenges of “getting it right.”

    As they make the logo bigger in their sketch, ask them why they did that and how it helps achieve their business and customer goals. It’s not an exercise in humiliation of the client. It’s an exercise of education that can only happen through “doing design.”

  8. @fredbeecher – completely agree. Validation of our ideas — whether they are born of academic edification or innate intuition — is critical to the success of our work. This is a theme that runs throughout all of design and should not be minimized. Great point.

  9. @chris and @myquite — excellent point. I would counter that those clients insisting they know better you are not “entering the design process/world” but instead attempting to keep control in an unfamiliar environment. They don’t feel qualified to dictate design. They DO feel qualified to manage. The challenge for us is to illustrate the depth of thought and craft that went into our design decisions. By bringing them in to the process through the methods described in the article you make the unfamiliar, slightly more familiar. With that familiarity comes recognition of the designer’s expertise. You actually increase your value with that client! In time, they will trust that you are doing much more than “making things pretty.”

    Now, will this cure ALL clients? Hell,no! But for those willing to take a leap with you, a much stronger client relationship will follow.

  10. Non-designers have no problem whatsoever inserting themselves into the design process and turning us into production monkeys. Most non-designers seem to work on the premise that what we do is just ALL FUN ALL THE TIME and we should be happy to do it for free! And the only reason they don’t have our jobs is that they don’t know how to use Photoshop.

    I do think it is of value to, as I said, bring the client into the process early on, but in a way that illuminates the design process as problem-solving and engages them to help you solve the problem in an effective way by sharing THEIR expertise of their market/audience.

  11. I find that so often “we” are talking in design/tech geek talk that simply frustrates or confuses clients. What happens when a client is confused? They try to regain control of the scenario by making changes or without realising it intentionally become difficult. Remember what it was like when someone first explained hosting, wordpress or something now so simple but at the time……. Talk to them so they will understand and they will come along with you on your journey, not theirs.

  12. I agree with a lot of what the author has said, but not all of it. Clients already feel that they know more about design than we do and are not hesitant to tell us. I’m already at the mercy of non-designer colleagues who have appropriated the concept phase for themselves, who spend time developing layouts in PowerPoint without my involvement, and who get upset because the end result is not “…what we want.” Team involvement is often a one-way street–I the designer am expected to follow orders, period. To them, all I do is to move things around on the page, and I am supposed to do that to order. They are already versed in the design vernacular and are not shy about telling me to kern or to increase or decrease leading. They know about white space. Their attitude is that I am to do it their way. Whatever professional knowledge or ability I bring to the table is irrelevant to their belief that they are the designer and I am the layout drone. What I speak, they do not hear. What I write, they do not read. They do not care, and no amount of demystifying the trade is going to change that.

  13. @Jeff Gothelf:
    “By bringing them in to the process through the methods described in the article you make the unfamiliar, slightly more familiar. With that familiarity comes recognition of the designer’s expertise. You actually increase your value with that client! In time, they will trust that you are doing much more than “making things pretty.””

    YES! I perhaps overstated my view for sake of discussion, but what you said is what I have found in my current position. It did indeed involve effort on my part, but now co-workers actually bring projects to me where they have already identified the most important parts of the message and we talk productively about the best imagery and layout in terms of communication goals, not personal taste.

    But as you say, this will not work with everyone. Some know just enough design terms to be dangerous and essentially just want to dictate to you to carry out their esthetics.

    Glad I sparked further discussion!

  14. I vehemently disagree. Design is a craft. Practiced well, it demands focus and discipline and, counter-intuitively, creative leaps and risk. The designer has to think things through and figure shit out.

    The process laid out here — a delusion of happy collaboration between bean counters, stressed out clients and business minded account managers and, presumably, somewhere in the mix, designers — would be an unproductive clusterfick for any capable designer. Input is one thing — valuable, in its place.

    But clients want design to solve hard problems, and to solve them beautifully and brilliantly. Pandering to people on the team by earnestly seeking opinions and and then making sure those wayward, uninformed, and wrong opinions are manifest in the product dilutes quality.

  15. Thanks for a great article. As someone starting out in design I found your take on the designer/non-designer world as fairly accurate. It certainly seemed intimidating at first to feel confident in using the designer jargon, without feeling like an impostor.

    Using the strategies you outlined, not only from an internal stakeholder perspective, but also for clients I think will definitely help take them on the journey so that they have the time to understand the “Why” behind the design, rather than just the end product.

    Does anyone think that by including other parties in the design process it can actually lead to a different, and more innovative/creative result?
    As non-designers thinking patterns would be different and as such different solutions could come to them more naturally.

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