How to Communicate Effectively with Designers
Designers have an inherently difficult job.
Not only does it take years of study and practice to understand and master even the basics of good design, but the goals given to a designer are often unclear.
Imagine that as a marketer, writer, or product manager, you were tasked with doing your job but not given any idea as to what the ultimate goal was. Or you were given a list of tasks without context as to why you’re doing them. This is how designers are often treated because design is often seen as an “art” — not rooted in data or facts. The reality is that great design is about as much science as it is art.
Many companies struggle to create a design-first culture because they don’t know how to communicate design ideas effectively.
There are many things your company can do to transform the way you communicate with designers to achieve better results. Much like designers work within their own language of visual communication elements, there is also a language that us non-designers can use to communicate with the more design inclined.
Priorities, not laundry lists
We often kick off a design project by handing the designer a brief of the project — an overview of what we want, probably sourced from multiple stakeholders. The outcome is almost always a laundry list of must-haves, meant to give the designer “direction” on how to please everyone.
But these lists are rarely helpful or effective.
The reality is it’s often not possible to accomplish everything at once or it would be at the expense of good design.
This is why we need to prioritize. Which objectives are critical and which are less important? Undoubtedly, there are a few “requirements” that are just “nice-to-haves.”
Rather than throwing scattered notes or a checklist at your designer, you should give them a clear and prioritized list of what’s most important. For example:
- Make it simple to understand for a first-time visitor.
- Emphasize their step count for the day.
- Give the user a way to see their trend over time.
- Show their step count for the week.
- Show their step count for the month.
For designers, a prioritized list translates into a hierarchy. What are the most critical pieces in this design that should be emphasized, and what can be cut out if it can’t work? Without this kind of prioritization, everything is “important,” which really means nothing is important.
Not only will this provide for better design, it will also force you to consider your project more strategically and make decisions about the priorities of different objectives.
Examples, not instructions
If there’s one thing we all need to face, it’s that if we are not a designer, there is little chance that we are better at designing than the designers we hire. After all, that’s why we hire them in the place, right?
But many times, communication with designers comes in the form of instructions: “make the logo bigger,” “make it ‘pop’ more,” or “move that over there.” This is entirely the wrong approach.
Rather than dictating design and simply turning the designer into a production assistant, we should instead help the designer understand what we are trying to accomplish and then let them use their skills and expertise to help us accomplish the goal.
One way you can do this is to collect visual samples of other designs and then show them to the designer, explaining which elements you like and how it relates to what you want to accomplish.
If you like the fact that a website design has a strong and bold brand presence, that doesn’t necessarily mean your logo needs to be larger to achieve a similar effect. Depending on the context of the design, it might mean adjusting the colors or changing the spacing instead of altering the size. But they won’t be able to provide those solutions if we don’t give them the chance.
Your designer can help if you let them know what you want to accomplish rather than simply telling them what you want to see.
Avoid generic direction
What do the words “sexy,” “sleek,” “cool,” and “fun” all have in common? They are all completely subjective and entirely meaningless when trying to give someone directions.
But designers hear these terms every day.
“Could you make this seem a bit more ‘cool’ and ‘fun’?”
What does that mean, exactly? How is a designer supposed to know what your vision is for something that is “cool” and “fun”? Using these kinds of terms as a way to give your designer feedback is a recipe for disaster. Do this only if you want to spend entirely too many hours going back and forth with your designer and still probably never get where you want to go.
If you want to make progress and achieve what you’re actually hoping for, then you need to learn how to give feedback in a way that can be translated into meaningful changes.
Again, this is where communicating visually — through examples and notes — can push your design project in the right direction.
Your idea of what’s “cool” or “fun” is shaped by your own experience and is therefore different from what another person’s interpretations might be. The only way to break down this barrier is to show someone a visual example of something you think looks “cool.” And that’s what you should do here.
Collect some samples of other designed work that fits the feel you’re expecting, and then explain to the designer how it feels to you and why you like it. You’ll be amazed at how quickly a designer can understand the patterns and elements of a specific style if they’re given clear direction with concrete examples.
It may seem like you’re speaking a different language when trying to communicate with a designer. And that’s actually probably not too far from the truth.
Design is, in large part, subjective. So as we communicate with designers, the most important thing we can do is to provide an objective baseline that grounds the entire project and puts us both on the same plane in terms of vocabulary, expectations, and goals.
This can largely be accomplished by simply treating a designer as a skilled and insightful person who can help you solve problems, rather than just someone who is tasked with implementing your vision. In addition to that, using visual methods of communication — like collections of ideas, inspirations, or examples — provides context to what it is you’re trying to communicate and gives the designer a clear picture of the intended outcome.