Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Powerless

Cartoon drawing shows an employer kicking an employee to the curbI have been working as a professional designer for nearly 30 years. I’ve had the good fortune to work with dozens of clients on thousands of projects. And today, for the first time ever, I was fired from a job.

Believe me, I have made a multitude of mistakes over the years. Who hasn’t? It’s just that in the end, every other time, I have been able to overcome those shortcomings to solve the problem.

Well, that is not entirely true – I didn’t solve those problems alone. Without willing and generous collaborators, a designer has little ability to make a meaningful contribution to an organization’s success.

Unique skill sets
Designers require a diverse collection of strengths. The most obvious is a talent for managing the formal elements of visual communication – color, contrast, composition, and typography, to name a few. Others include:

Empathy – A designer must understand the needs of both the audience and client they are entrusted to serve. This requires an insatiable curiosity and taking the time to ask insightful questions.

Communication – When working with others, two ears and one mouth represents an ideal ratio of listening and speaking. One’s ability to write clearly and participate in constructive dialog is key to moving from many options to the best solution.

Synthesis – The design process looks sort of like a funnel – an initial, broad immersion distilled into a few essential messages and compelling visuals presented in new and relevant ways.

Project Management – Being organized is good, but leading a project is better. A designer must identify who needs to be involved and when to seek input, while adapting to changing conditions as an assignment unfolds.

But most importantly, a designer requires a client or employer who values the utilization of these skills to solve problems creatively. It takes two – or more – to tango.

Building trust
Trust is hard won and easily lost. Some relationships blossom over time. Others are doomed from the beginning.

Some clients grudgingly engage designers, with little planning, budget or time, always at the tail end of projects, and only because they possess the ability to manipulate graphics software.

Some designers mistakenly believe they are artists, not problem solvers, and bemoan their fate while doing nothing to offset the belief that their value lies in superior visual skills.

In most every designer/client relationship, the burden is on the designer to build the trust needed to do the job effectively. Some ways to build more productive relationships include:

Learn from Experience – Good designers have the self-awareness to recognize why some projects turn out better than others. Regularly review and document your process so that future clients benefit from prior experience. It shouldn’t appear you are making this up as you go. The most valuable thing a designer provides is not a new website or logo design, it is giving clients the confidence to move forward.

Small Victories – If you can only succeed under perfect working conditions, you might want to consider a career change. Demonstrate how even a little research paid big dividends, and how your insights saved money or expanded possibilities. Referrals from satisfied customers are the best currency to buy a little credibility in a new relationship.

Diplomacy – Listen carefully and remain patient in all communications. The only way to succeed is by assuming that both the designer and client want the same thing. Mutually defining success and working towards it – together – works better than griping, blaming, or passive aggressive behavior.

Trade Money for Time (or Vice Versa) – When project parameters are stacked against you, or change midstream, be honest in assessing how they impact your chance for success. It’s better to offer reasonable alternatives than to over-promise and under-deliver.

Define Roles – It’s vital to know who will be affected by the work you are doing, who is expected to provide feedback, and when that feedback is most helpful. Many a project has been derailed by late objections from people who weren’t involved from the beginning. Set goals and roles before starting a project, then continue to monitor and confirm those decisions as you proceed.

Honesty is the best policy
Without trust, a client rarely gets a good return on the investment, and a designer is stuck making the best of a bad situation. That combination isn’t good for anyone.

Both the client and designer must be willing to maintain open communication throughout the life of a project. That includes tactfully asking questions that may be difficult, and honestly answering them in a timely manner.

As for the client who fired me? I won’t point fingers. I can only control my behavior. For my part, I could have handled communications more diplomatically in the last week. And, I didn’t press hard enough to identify and account for new players that emerged to influence the project’s direction. Ultimately, I’m not convinced anything could have been done to save the relationship.

The best organizations recognize design as a powerful process and a tool to solve challenging problems. Without developing that trust, designers remain powerless to make an impact.