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.

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