Things Design Can Not Fix

I say that Design is a service industry all of the time.  Unfortunately, most people hear that and think I said “subservient.”  Which could not be further from the truth.

As a designer, my job is not unlike a CPA or an attorney, in that I have a responsibility to show you what is in your best interest, and, more importantly, in what’s in the best interest of the people who will loan you their attention at your site or app.  As anyone who’s ever dealt with clients knows, most of the time, their best interests and what they want aren’t always the same thing, and it’s rare to find a client who comes in thinking about the best way for the project to go for the people that will use the site.

All of that is fine.  A designer who can not make a persuasive argument deserves to be skinny and broke.  But what’s more difficult is understanding when having a designer is not appropriate.  Here’s five things design can not fix:

1) If there’s a wide gulf of disagreement over what the project should do, designers can’t really help. We make a chain of decisions predicated on solving a problem.  Different problems require different and exclusive solutions. That should be obvious, but again, it’s something worth taking time to talk through.  It’s important because the more focused on what the purpose of a thing is, the better the design is likely to turn out.  Here’s a real life example of this — the A-10 and the F-35.  The A-10 is 40 years old, ugly, slow, huge on radar and has one role.  The F-35 is new, stealthy, fast, can (in theory) do lots of things.  The military wants to discontinue the A-10 and invest more heavily in the F-35. The problems of course are: the A-10 is the best at what it does, the cheapest plane to fly and fix, and beloved by troops. The F-35 by contrast is outrageously expensive all around, and no one is sure what if anything it does well because it’s design is compromised by conflicting missions.

TL:DR; Don’t buy design like the Pentagon.

2) If it is a business venture, and you don’t have a sound way to make money, then we can’t help you.  No amount of prettiness or coolness creates a viable business, especially online.  My first set of questions is about a potential client’s businesses viability – who are your customers, why do you care about serving them, how are you serving them, how do you make money off of it, and I want to hear from you how you think a site or an app will help your customers, help you serve them better, or help make you more money.  People with real businesses get obsessive about these questions, so it’s incredibly easy to tell who’s doing the work and who is just a wanna-be.

3) Speaking of Start-ups: Joys and curses abound.  Fortunately, especially here in St. Louis, more and more designers are starting their own companies, and get how to use design partners effectively.  However, that’s not always the case.  I know your idea is your baby. But your baby will bankrupt you and drive us crazy if we don’t properly test the thing.  We can’t just make it the way you want.  There are people who are straight production factories – you hand them a .psd and they turn around a web page or site or whatever – but I’m not that.   If you’re right, and we test it, you now have validated cases to pitch people with.  If you’re wrong, we just saved you embarrassment and money.  Sometimes the best design advice is “don’t do that.” I won’t know until I test it.

4) I’ve said it a bunch – design is not about making things pretty. It’s a nice thing design does, but it’s not the thing your people use your site or app for.  They use it because it serves them A) information they want or B) a simpler way to complete a task.  So, if your writing is bad,  or inconsistent, or spammy, you need to focus on what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. You can hire us for that too – I know a lot of amazing writers who can help.

5) You want to do something abusive, mean, spammy, or BS.  Here’s a short list of bad things:


*purposefully obscure information on your site – bury it somewhere or not provide breadcrumbs, etc.

*use one URL to unwittingly direct people to a different URL

*links that open in the same tab but are a different site

*auto play video (bonus bad points if auto-loop and auto sound)

*not including accessibility notation where needed, or considering different needs

*Misleading or not disclosing if you collect data from visitors and how you use the data.

*Needlessly complicated use flows

I could go on and on and on about this – but if you’re looking for my help with your design and you suggest any of these things to me, we are going to have a conversation about you.

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re not ready for a designer to disagree with what you want, or not ready to listen to their advice, you’re not ready for a designer.

PS I’ve used examples from my own life, but if you want the Authoritative Guide to all things Client-Designer relationship, please buy Mike Monteiro’s You’re My Favorite Client.  You can find it here.

The Two Things You Must Do To Be Successful (and not lose your soul)

I heard this great one-liner recently and it struck such a chord I had to write about it.  My wife and I went through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, and, whatever any issues one may have with Dave’s religious beliefs aside, the program he laid out works and is sound.  One additional product line of Ramsey’s we were introduced to was Entreleadership, which is their playbook for how they run their business.  Since they’ve grown 100 fold (just in employees) in 25 years, there’s a lot about that playbook that is probably helpful. So, I do what any good millennial does – I subscribe to the free podcast they produce.

On one of the episodes, I believe the conversation he has with Seth Godin, they dropped two one liners that just hit me where I live:

  1. If you’re not in the trust business, you’ll be out of business
  2. You can out work 80% of your field, and if you’re honest all of the time you’ll surpass the next 15% too.

The second statement (and it’s corollary) is so spot on to my experience in everything I’ve done.  Those two things are the ball game.  Just about every single mistake I’ve made has been about trying to find a shortcut or not being 100% rigorously honest.  I know that sounds like  Boy Scout stuff, but for me, that’s been true.  I can point to no less than 100 times since I graduated that prove that maxim to me.  But I’d rather help you by making the case.

We lionize hard work in this country, but we also venerate shortcuts too.  We talk out of both sides of our mouth – on the one hand we’re sharing videos about getting up at 430 am to eat tree bark and work so hard we shame a silverback gorilla in to submission.  And on the other we discretely buy something like the 4 hour work week or bookmark an insipid life hack listicle on thought catalog. That’s just another version of “Get Rich Quick.”

Like most things, I think there’s a healthy definition of hard work and smart work.

To me, you need to work backwards from a vision to a mission to a set of goals to a small set of tasks that will take you there, and then you need to bust them out.  A vision is that classic interview question, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” A mission is about giving a purpose to that vision – why did you end up there? Goals are objectives you need to hit in order to get where you want to be. and then tasks are the processes, methods, measures, etc as to how achieve those goals. For example – I want to be known as a trusted designer who makes great sites and apps. That’s a vision.  I want to be that because making things is really fun for me, it’s a good living, and I do care if someone can enjoy using them.  It’s my own little way to make this big thing (the web) a little bit better. That’s a mission (not a very clear one, but you follow). Then we can set goals. So forth and so on.

This isn’t new or groundbreaking stuff, but no one ever put it in terms I could understand so I’m breaking it down in the hope that one of you understands.  If you have your vision, and you have an idea of why you want that thing, and you can guess at the mile markers between here and there (not all of them, just a few to get you started), and what you need to do to hit those markers,  you’ve got the smart part of work done.

Seriously, stop looking for life hacks at that point. Stop looking to improve efficiency.  You’re just taking away from what you need to do.  Going out a ways also has the benefit of keeping you from burn out, if you do it right.  Mules have a reputation of being stubborn, but they simply will not move if the next step is not safe.  They will however, get you from the top of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado.  Little steps add up.  You’ve heard it before, Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Instead of focusing on how to be faster or better, you should be focused on doing what you’ve already decided you should be doing and pouring the rest of your energy into the boring things your mother probably told you to do like, get a good night’s sleep, eat a balanced diet, read a good book, and put some money away. Sounds easy but this is the hardest part – keeping the goal the goal and doing the things that actually put you closer to it.

This is where all that BS marketing about passion and sacrifice get to you.  Passion comes from the Latin word for suffering.  If you tell me you’re passionate about something, I think you’re full of it unless you’ve got the scars to prove it. Can’t you just enjoy something instead? Or be enthusiastic? How about simply interested? These are ok things to be.  You don’t have to be on fire all of the time to get better at something or to do it for a living. Most research indicates you shouldn’t be. My rule is that if you say you’re passionate about a work thing and aren’t on fire about the business of that thing, then you’re an impostor.  Because very few people actually enjoy profit and loss statements or the semi-degrading act of meeting new people in order to give you a better shot at more work or contract negotiations or the million hassles of what being a pro actually mean in a vacuum.

If the honesty part of that equation is the hardest thing for you, I suggest you get professional help immediately. Honesty isn’t 100% accuracy (no one can perfectly predict everything) and it it’s not about brutality.  Honesty, again, to me and in my experience is about the struggle to see things accurately (just checking your assumptions, bias, and privilege goes a long way) and the willingness to make others uncomfortable with it.  And it will make them uncomfortable.

If you’re a designer, your job is not to make people happy.  If you want to make people happy, make sandwiches. People like sandwiches. (h/t Mike Monterio for that bon mot)

Designers’ job is about problem solving. The degree to which we solve problems and get paid for them results from an ability to persuade. Persuasion and honesty aren’t opposed, they are aligned. Persuasion is how you you present information and arguments, not the information and arguments themselves.  Only you will really know if you’re being honest or not and if you aren’t well, I suggest getting help for that.  Which leads to a good point – the best way to stay honest all of the time is to surround yourself with people you trust and who care about you. They will help keep you accountable.

Last, the Corollary to this was “The last 5% is a dogfight.”  Yup.  it is.  Talent and success is not distributed fairly, unfortunately.  But the good news is that the first 95% of most things take absolutely zero talent. Two things just about anyone can do.  Being honest takes work, and working hard takes some work, but it’s not complicated.  You can be really damn good on very little if effort and honesty are there.  And until they are there, you have no business worrying about that top 5%.

Wow, have I had too much coffee this morning? I hope you enjoyed and I hope your year is off to a great start.

Writing around the Web

Occasionally I’m asked to or feel compelled to write somewhere else.  If you were looking for my writing, here’s a short list, in no particular order: