Don’t Be a Pansy: Great Design Is About Making Decisions

by on 28th March 2013 with 6 Comments

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What sets the great designers apart from the good ones? What goes wrong when a project with so much potential turns into something lackluster and subpar?

Decisions decisions decisions. Great designers recognize the key decisions that have the ability to make their projects special and have the courage to make those decisions. Read on to see how.

Don’t Be a Pansy

Some designers are on the edge of being truly great. They have amazing ideas rolling around in their head and even the ability to execute those ideas, but when that implementation moment comes, something goes wrong. What?

“When that implementation moment comes, something goes wrong. What?”

Often, good designs go south at those points when major decisions need to be made. Decision making can be crippling, especially when it puts your career, reputation or simply your client on the line. As a result, we take the easy way out and simply refuse to make a single distinct decision when it matters most.

Nine times out of ten, this tendency muddles the design process and produces work that gets by, but isn’t ever considered stellar or unique in any way.

Huh?

What the heck am I talking about? What decisions? Surely, you’re not guilty of this crime, right? Let’s take a look and see some ways that an inability to make decisions can cripple your designs.

Too Many Versions

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We’ve all been here before. You’re working up some designs for a client and you’re on fire, shooting out great ideas left and right. But wait, it’s time to deliver, which one should you pick? Shoot, why pick at all? Just send through all of these awesome ideas and let the client choose which they like best.

“I respect designers with the guts to kill good designs in favor of chasing great ones.”

There are pros and cons to this mindset. Clients often like choice, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing to provide it. However, you’re being hired for your creative expertise. You should, with conviction, have a choice that you believe is right for the client.

As your client, if I see that you’re just riffing and don’t have the ability or knowledge to whittle down your selection, then I’m going to lose confidence in you. Or, even worse, I’m going to abuse your tendency towards indecision and we’ll start incrementing the heck out of every option.

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I respect designers with the guts to kill good designs in favor of chasing great ones. Sometimes you have ten really solid ideas that you can present to the client, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Try scrapping indecision and pare that down to one or two options.

Will this be a little scary? Yep. Will it hurt to scrap all those good ideas? Absolutely. Do it anyway, it’s your job.

Making Everything Special

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This lesson always brings to mind a quote from a Pixar movie: The Incredibles. Syndrome, the villain in the film, has invented technology that gives him superhuman abilities and says the following about his long term intentions:

“I’ll sell my inventions so that everyone can have powers. Everyone can be super! And when everyone’s super… no one will be.”

I know this is super nerdy, but stick with me because there’s an important design lesson here. The idea is that someone is only “super” if they possess unique abilities. The second everyone has these abilities, they become the norm and then no one is special.

As designers are laying out a page, they often run into the Syndrome dilemma where they feel the need to make everything special. We saw this in last week’s design critique:

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The hierarchy of information here is lost because there’s so much going on. Everything gets a bright color, a bold font, a primary place on the page, etc. Designers spend so much time making everything on the page special that the ultimate result is that nothing is special.

Contrast the example above with an online store where the designers had the ability to make decisions on what is important and what can be secondary.

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See how much more effective Etsy’s header is? There are a few major elements that catch your attention: the logo, the banner and the big search bar. There are plenty of features there for those who need them, but they’re not all competing for your attention at once.

Typography

The previous point ties in heavily with the practice of choosing typefaces for a given project. Too often, designers approach a collection of cool fonts like a kid in a candy store, grabbing everything they can. This results in something like the following:

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This might look pretty neat at a glance, but really it’s just another case that highlights an inability to choose how to focus the user’s attention. We found two awesome typefaces, so we have to use them both, right? Wrong. The design is much more effective if we can limit ourselves to a single display typeface:

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Here, the simplicity of the second typeface helps to highlight the first whereas in the previous example, both typefaces where fairly ornate and therefore in direct competition visually.

Making decisions about which fonts you’re going to use is difficult, especially when there are so many awesome options available. Just remember, the freedom of choice is not a license for excess!

Pricing

The concept of being bold enough to make important decisions extends beyond design and into the business side of being a freelancer and marketing your skills. How many times have you waffled on pricing in the past few years?

“How many times have you waffled on pricing in the past few years?”

Pricing is tricky business, do it wrong and your business falls flat on its face. Just as dangerous though is a mindset that avoids making firm decisions in favor of drastically changing how your pricing structure on a per project basis.

Do your research, figure out what you should be charging and stick to it. Don’t let clients intimidate you into selling your skills for less than they’re worth.

Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

Becoming a decision maker is easier said than done. It requires you to stand firmly outside of your comfort zone with no going back. If you’re avoiding decisions, you can give the client your bold and crazy idea but cover your rear by backing it up with the boring old standard. The decision maker goes out on a limb and pushes what he/she knows to be best.

“Believe that you’re good enough to make the right decisions and you’ll find that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. “

Are you up for the challenge? Can you break free of indecision and embrace your instincts? It boils down to a matter of self confidence. Believe that you’re good enough to make the right decisions and you’ll find that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Watch Out for Decision Points

Going forward, it is now your duty to watch out for those key points in a project where you’re faced with an important decision. Remember: don’t be a pansy.

Step up and do what it takes to deliver the best work that you can. Fight the Syndrome dilemma and have the courage to be super!

Title sketch by So So Daydream Art.

Comments & Discussion

6 Comments

  • Francisco Campos

    This is very true; making important decisions is where we usually falter. And it happens to all of us. We need to regulate ourselves, maintain focus, and remember the advice in this article, I know I will!

  • http://eddybiel.deviantart.com Edd Biel

    This is quite a concise, yet thorough explanation of something which affects many designers i have met & worked with in the past.

    What is comes down to is the fact that design is often seen as “subjective”, therefore clients feel they should give their wholehearted opinion on what they feel looks good, usually involving terms such as “pop”, “pizazz” and “trendy”. The fact of the matter is this:

    You wouldn’t hire a plumber and then tell him how to plumb, so why hire a designer and tell them how they should design?

    I’m all for taking on another person’s opinion, but when it comes to design, i think if you can back up your work with objective explanations, the client should respect this and let you (the designer) instruct them on the best course of action for their new site, brand etc.

    Many designers are going to be simply scared stiff to confront a client, they know whats at stake: i.e Money. Some clients i have worked with get very defensive when you tell them what you feel as a professional designer looks best.

    Anyway, great article. Its really a shame to see good work that just degrades over time into a big mess, when originally it looked so good, i’m sure many designers have been in that situation. So let the message be clear, rather than “Dont be a pansy”, i’m going to be more crude and simply say “DONT BE A PUSSY!”

    Edd. :)

  • Katie

    My co-worker has this exact problem. You don’t know how frustrating it is to work with someone who has no confidence in their design abilities.

  • http://nomidesigns.com nomi

    I have the exact same problem. It’s a stellar design as long it is in my head. But upon implementation it doesn’t look anything close to what I had imagine.

    Thanks for the handy pointers. I’ll keep in mind.

  • http://bryyn.com rachel

    love reading your blog! one suggestion… link the featured images on the blogroll to the article. I click them first every time. :D.

    • Joshua Johnson

      Great idea! I’ll do that from now on.

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