I was given a project by the president of a company at which I worked. She was known for being difficult as well as vindictive and I swear I almost fainted when her secretary called me into the president’s office. The assignment was simple: come up with new stationery for the company that would rebrand everything. She said, “I want something sophisticated!”
I looked up sophisticated in the dictionary and started by designing three choices for her. When I showed it to the president, she was a bit upset. “I said I want something sophisticated!” she scolded.
I designed three more, all corporate with a European fashion flair. When I showed them to her, she grew angrier and demanded to know why I couldn’t get something “sophisticated.”
I tried again and again with no luck. After the twelfth design attempt, I looked around her office, which was decorated with 1970’s kitsch, toys and retro furniture. The word “sophisticated” suddenly took on a different meaning to me. “Would you show me an example of some sophisticated designs that inspire you?” I asked her.
She pulled out a letterhead she had received and shoved it at me, probably trying to paper cut my throat. I looked at it and said, “Oh, you want something whimsical!”
The next design hit it on the head. It wasn’t that I couldn’t design “sophisticated” — she just couldn’t communicate the visual she wanted by using the right words and wasn’t pleased I embarrassed her by showing she was an illiterate moron. Why couldn’t she pick the correct words? Because non-creatives can’t put a visual in their mind together with the right descriptor. They’re not morons, mind you — they just can’t communicate a look with words. By the same token, they don’t understand creatives who describe a design direction and get the picture in their heads.
If you were talking to another designer and said “sophisticated,” chances are the other designer would picture the same look, feel and even fonts that would create a “sophisticated” design. Non-creatives don’t picture things in their head the way we do.
I took a big hit on my year-end review for not being able to finish the project in under twelve designs, which wasn’t fair, but I learned a valuable lesson that has helped me throughout my career. Design is seldom fair and although subjective, the designer is supposed to be a mind reader.
How Do You Prevent the Guessing Game?
The solution, when starting a project with a boss or client and you are discussing the design strategy or writing a creative brief, learn to read their mind or ask what designs inspire them.
They will be more than happy to show you examples of things they like. It makes them feel like they are an important part of the design process and will make your job so much easier.
Now, you might say you don’t want to copy someone else’s design. Well, you won’t. The design challenge for you is to take the inspiration and make it your own while keeping the feel the boss/client wants for their business. If they like retro design, then give them retro but make it your own. If they tweak it too much and it leans more to the designs they showed you, well, don’t put it in your portfolio. Design is a service industry and sometimes we have to shrug our shoulders, do the job and move on, but if it’s handled correctly, the client should be pleased if you get the layout, feel and colors of their desires.
When You Have to Read Minds
Sometimes the answer to your question of what the boss/client likes in design will be answered with the dreaded, “I know what I like when I see it!”
You have two choices: Run like crazy or look around their office at art, decorations and desk/shelf items and pick up on their personal style. It’s still a shot in the dark, but it’s a strong starting point and will put you closer than trying something out of your own mind, which is your personal style.
The logical step is to show him or her some inspiration you collect, rather than spending days designing in the dark. Some refer to this as creating “style boards.” You don’t have to get that involved. Just print out a few pages you feel solve the design solution and talk about them with the maniac for whom you are working.
Yes, design is subjective and as a competent designer, you give the boss/client what they need, more than what they want but it’s not only about what is right. Sometimes it’s about pleasing the person with the money and walking away happy that you’ll pay some bills and live to design again, hopefully something you love, that will perk up your portfolio.
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Speider has created designs for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson and Viacom among other notable companies and is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild and co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee. He writes for global blogs on design ethics and business practices and has contributed to several books on the subject of business for designers.
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