Stand and Deliver
Issue № 237

Stand and Deliver

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.

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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#section1

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#section2

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.

No, really.

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#section3

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.

Succinctly#section4

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.

25 Reader Comments

  1. I totally agree with your intuitive viewpoints. May be the beginners like me shall concentrate on these basic fundamentals as described by you Sir.
    It’s really nice reading it.

  2. Webdesign is an interdisciplinary art. We do design, we write code, we know about legal issues and so on. After all, websites are part of a companys communication efforts. So we must also know how to communicate. And that includes knowing how to sell. And that includes knowing how to sell ones own ideas.

    I second what is being said in the article. Stay focused on what you have to say. Take it as a chance, not as an arduousness.

  3. Was there anything specific to webdesign in this article? Not that anything was wrong, all the points are important. They are important for webdesigners and everyone else. But I’m used to more in-depth articles on ALA than this one.

  4. I totally agree with your intuitive viewpoints. Brilliant idea. Thanks for very interesting article. btw. I really enjoyed reading all of your articles David. It’s interesting to read ideas, and observations from someone else’s point of view”¦ makes you think more. Greetings

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed the article and it brought out a point that I always wrestle with when showing my work.. subjectivity. I liked the advice given for dealing with the somewhat subjective nature of design. I have always tried to approach this problem with cohesive reasons and answers, not always successfully. There is always the stopper when a client says “I just don’t like it”… unfortunately reason doesn’t work in that situation!!!

  6. Eugen: To be honest, you’re right—there isn’t a lot about the article that’s super specific to web design. That’s intentional. Ultimately I wanted to have something that I’d feel comfortable handing to a new staffer in memo form, so a lot of what’s discussed is fairly universal and easy to digest. That said, what I mentioned in the intro still stands: the techniques discussed function best when used iteratively, which is a notion that web designers should be particularly adept at. That’s true for design in general, but there’s so much of our craft to which that notion is core.

    Jeffrey: The question, “What does this do?” actually sprang up as a reply to “I just don’t like it.” A way to shift the tone of the conversation away from “feelings” and over to “facts”. It won’t always work, but the conversation that results is almost always far more constructive.

    Oliver: Thanks for the kind words.

  7. bq. There is always the stopper when a client says “I just don’t like it”?… unfortunately reason doesn’t work in that situation!!!

    “¦ Except to point out that it’s not about the client, it’s about the end customer. You are delivering a site for the customer to use. The proper defense is to test it against real users and if the response if favorable, you can explain that it’s good for business.

  8. I’m often guilty of going way beyond the 30-second rule, and this may require mastery to claim Zeldman-level professionalism (Nice article, Jeffrey -Thanks!). Every designer/producer feels something welling up inside when a client rejects that brilliant idea. Explaining with examples from experience, and belief (based on facts) seems like it would take much longer than half a minute.

    Isn’t it gratifying when a client sees your point after concise explanation and agrees? One bit of advice (from experience) is to control your body language when a client explains their opinions, whether affirming or negative. And be ever so careful with email correspondence!

    BTW, did some colors change on the site? I don’t really like #E6412F in the header and titles 🙂

  9. “Ha! I heard that.” Jeffrey Your not the only one who heard that:)
    btw. I really want to thank to author of this great article, David it was a really good time reading Your article.
    Kevin I like colors on the site so maybe only You don’t like them:)
    btw. I like Your words “Every designer/producer feels something welling up inside when a client rejects that brilliant idea.” I also don’t like to feel it.

  10. Kevin: I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit to breaking all these rules on occasion—and with gusto at that. But it’s important when that happens to seriously think about what mistakes were made and what other outcomes could’ve been reached using different tactics. Then you can chalk it up as a useful learning experience.

  11. “Ha! I heard that.” Jeffrey Your not the only one who heard that:)
    btw. I really want to thank to author of this great article, David it was a really good time reading Your article.
    Kevin I like colors on the site so maybe only You don’t like them:)
    btw. I like Your words “Every designer/producer feels something welling up inside when a client rejects that brilliant idea.” I also don’t like to feel it.

  12. “Ha! I heard that.” Jeffrey Your not the only one who heard that:)
    btw. I really want to thank to author of this great article, David it was a really good time reading Your article.
    Kevin I like colors on the site so maybe only You don’t like them:)
    btw. I like Your words “Every designer/producer feels something welling up inside when a client rejects that brilliant idea.” I also don’t like to feel it.

  13. “Ha! I heard that.” Jeffrey Your not the only one who heard that:)
    btw. I really want to thank to author of this great article, David it was a really good time reading Your article.
    Kevin I like colors on the site so maybe only You don’t like them:)
    btw. I like Your words “Every designer/producer feels something welling up inside when a client rejects that brilliant idea.” I also don’t like to feel it.

  14. Thanks for the article, I’m new to designing for people besides myself so it really helped.

  15. bq. BTW, did some colors change on the site? I don’t really like #E6412F in the header and titles 🙂

    bq. The colors change with every issue”¦browse our article archive to taste the rainbow.

    I believe that was meant tongue-in-cheek per the subject matter. Thus the emoticon.

  16. Great article, good to see a generalist design article.

    The peer review is so true, but always allow time to be able to make the tweaks from the outcome of the peer review.

    On thing that does nag me however. You suggest someone you know will have had dealings with the client’s board etc, being the inside source. But what if you are going in totally cold with just the design based on a client brief. This can happen with smaller firms working for say Govt. What to do then, the only people that may have inside knowledge maybe your opposition.

  17. Gary: Like most multi-pronged approaches, when one prong is missing (or absent altogether) you need to make sure the others are that much stronger. You really can’t go wrong arming yourself with tight, succinct reasoning couched in matter of fact language. It’s all-purpose. Works with tough (not unreasonable) audiences, and serves as a great jumping off point with the more collegial, conversational ones.

  18. @john: I still can’t figure out how to do a blockquote with Textile.

    Dealing with clients is always difficult in this business, where everybody has an opinion and an emotional investment. I appreciate seeing articles like this one on ALA. Thanks.

  19. There was no mention of web design in this article and I think sometimes that’s beneficial to us all. I know I sometimes get stuck in my own little world of code and style and sometimes forget that I need to sell to stay afloat. A website is in a lot of cases just a communication medium for the company. One point that has stuck with me form this article is to inform myself about the client – I admit to not doing this enough.

  20. Anthony: Glad you found it useful. Every now and again it’s healthy to step back from the daily routines of the job and remind yourself of first principles.

  21. It’s really difficult to communicate something abstract such as the design of a Website. One thing that I always do is interview the client about what is the goal of their design, what do they want to communicate? How will it affect and reflect their business. By collecting all of this information up front, it often times saves a lot of pain and back and forth in the long run.

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