Designers Who Don’t Talk Like Designers Get Hired

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When I was young and eager to make use of my newly acquired design skills, I searched for freelance gigs online. I thought highly of my skills, and got annoyed by the low prices some companies were offering for design work.

One particular low-ball offer offended me so much that, in an act of vigilance, I sent the company an email to teach them a lesson. Among other things, I ridiculed them for thinking they could get an “aesthetically pleasing website” design for so little money.

Their response surprised me. My young and wishful mind expected them to admit that yes, they are being unfair, and they did not realize how much work was involved in designing a site, and they are sorry. Instead, they said:

“I don’t give a shit about my site being ‘aesthetically pleasing’… I have a business to run.”

A social psychologist would say the younger me lacked a skill called perspective taking. It’s the ability to understand another person’s goals and frame of mind during social interactions, especially in negotiations and business communication.

Many designers talk to businesses from a designer’s perspective. This results in lost contracts, poor communication, and feeling as though design is unappreciated by the client. It turns out that by learning to take a business perspective, designers can win more contracts, earn more from their work, and be more valued.

Between two equally skilled designers, the one who doesn’t speak like a designer will get the contract.

The Business Perspective

Most business decisions revolve around value. Options are considered based on the value they detract and the value they add. When value can be calculated with basic arithmetic, such as choosing a credit card processor, life is easy.

However, things aren’t always so simple. Not everything is tied to a known cost or income. Running a business involves the challenge of judging the value of things that don’t immediately translate to cost or revenue. There also isn’t enough time to evaluate every possibility.

For a business evaluating potential design projects, the challenge is to understand the potential value of each option. This is especially difficult when candidate designers describe themselves with words that are far-removed from actual business value.

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What is the value of “beautiful,” or “clean,” or “delightful”? These are difficult questions, and yet this is what designers expect businesses to figure out when they send proposals and portfolios laden with such words.

Decisions are made in favor of the candidate whose value is obvious, not necessarily greater.

Avoiding the Design Perspective

It may perplex designers that the language they use to describe their highest values, their biggest dreams, their lifelong interests, may hold no value whatsoever to another person. It even enrages some designers so much that they write about how clueless and short-sighted companies. Other designers feel the need to educate the company; to help them understand the designers’ perspective.

The savvy designer doesn’t loathe the client’s perspective–they take it.

The designer’s perspective can be avoided by limiting use of words such as:

  • Flat
  • Delightful
  • Responsive
  • Modern
  • Clean
  • Simple

(While these terms carry a lot of meaning among designers, they do not translate to value for a business. In many cases, this language is complete nonsense and fluff in the eyes of the company’s decision maker..)

Instead, they can be replaced with words that carry clear and concise meaning to businesses:

  • Conversions
  • Revenue
  • Value proposition
  • Engagement
  • Retention
  • Costs
  • Users

These words make any CEO’s eyes light up. Conversions have value. Retention affects monthly revenue. Value propositions help with sales. Engagement results in income from ads…

For example, instead of proposing to make a website delightful and intuitive, a designer can take the business perspective by rephrasing that proposal to make a website convert more users and increase return visits.

Both proposals may involve the exact same work and approach, but only one makes its value clear.

A Case Study: Two designers, two perspectives.

I recently helped a startup evaluate two designers. The tale of these two designers serves as an example of why it’s easier for a business to hire the designer that doesn’t speak like one.

The first thing I did was look at the portfolio of each designer.

The first designer, whom I will call Doug, used flowery descriptions of his work throughout his site. There were words like “great,” “sharp”, “ideal,” “progressive,” and “responsive.”

The site of the second designer, whom I’ll call Peter, took the perspective of his target audience: startups. He used words like “convert,” “customers,” and “engagement” throughout the portfolio.

Both portfolios looked good, but good-looking design isn’t a business objective. I came away with the feeling that Peter would understand our challenge, and that he would be capable of solving it using design. On the other hand, Doug’s website did nothing to signal whether or not his skills would add any value.

The next step was to assign a quick test project to both designers.

Doug designed a nice page, which very much followed the current trends of startup site designs. The subsequent review focused primarily around how the design conforms to current trends and best practices.

Pete didn’t finish his design, but instead produced a pencil sketch of the page, along with several rough sketches to show how the idea formed. The sketches included comments about why a particular section would be useful to visitors, how a certain element on the homepage would help instill trust, why another element would help convert more users, and so on.

At a superficial level, the design ideas of both candidates were of similar quality. However, since Doug was communicating like a designer, it wasn’t clear whether his work would bring any more valuable than the current design. As for Peter, it was obvious that his work will aim to add value to the company.

My suggestion, unsurprisingly, went in favor of Peter. And it had nothing to do with trends, jquery tricks, or philosophies about delighting users. All he had to do was not talk like a designer.

PS — I write a post like this about once per month, about customer acquisition, conversion optimization, and web analytics. Enter your email below and I'll keep you updated about future posts.

  • OJ

    On the other hand, I asked myself if I wanted to work with companies touting words around like “Conversions”, “Revenue”, “Value proposition”, among others. Yes, every business is about money, but from a designer’s (or developer’s) view, it seems that most of the time businesses like these are elitist corporate snobs that only care about their bottom line, and ignore the real users the designer is developing the product for.

    • Chris

      If you’re truly designing for the users of a product, then you are designing in a way that makes the value proposition clear. Doing that convinces the users that this is a product for them and leads to conversions. If you continue to make the most value for a user, then you can eventually ask them to pay for the service, leading to crucial revenue so that you can keep your job.

      Designing for the user is designing for all these things.

    • BC

      Most often as designers, we don’t get to pick and choose the company that pays our bills. In a perfect world, a perfect career, it’s possible to avoid working with a company that is misaligned with our values, but most of the time, we simply have to provide the work as requested.

      Learning to speak to the client in terms they appreciate and understand is as valuable as providing beautiful work, in my opinion. It shows respect for their business (their profitability is your bread and butter, after all), and understanding of their needs and expectations. Neither of these things mean you are kowtowing to a snobby, elitist corporation; it is possible to produce design that is profitable as well as beautiful, in fact, I think that’s the point. Good design IS good business.

      Besides which, designers frequently expect clients to understand and appreciate terms that only artists or developers would know- it’s okay, even worthwhile, to show your clients the same consideration!

  • Jacob Mesu

    I stopped reading at “Many designers talk to businesses from a designer’s perspective.” Don’t put a label on the designers community based on your own experiences. I think empathy is one of the skills that makes a designer a designer.

    • Kind of ironic, to talk about empathy and say “I stopped reading at”, disqualifying the author’s idea. Empathy is specially about respecting and understanding the opinion of another.

  • Tim Carrier

    Grigoriy said this eloquently.

    Think of this model within any other context like a teacher to a student or a lawyer to a client — the language they speak should have enough clarity and commonness so the audience understands and develops a working and budding relationship with the you. Gain their trust and respect by showing you understand how to speak with a common language; do not try to be impressive showering them with words they will not understand…this will not gain their respect.

    I like the phrase “speak to me like I am a three year old” because sometimes the words you will use in your everyday life are not the words i care or know about in mine. I once attended an art history course about Flux —an art form about process as far as i can understand— but the instructor threw out so many multi-syllable words originating from his artform that I could not relate. In fact I started to believe that he did not care if any of us could understand because of his language. I began to turn off his speech and lost interest. Unfortunately I just barely passed his class because I simply spoke in his language but because I did not understand it I would ramble in a non-speak that he marked as an error.

    Gain the trust and respect of your audience by speaking their language. And if they do not understand it, try to redefine what you are saying in other words or examples that remark their experience. This is the goal and intent of any good “design of everyday things”.

  • People who operates with words like flat, delightful, modern, clean etc. are not designers. They are artists. Design should serve its purpose.