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Why You Should Never Say, “You’re a Designer, Go Design!” (The Danger of “Blank Check” Guidance)

Joel Waggener

UX Designer, 15+ Years of Print and Web Design Expertise

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Why You Should Never Say, “You’re a Designer, Go Design!” (The Danger of “Blank Check” Guidance) Blog Feature

Published on March 4th, 2019

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Several months ago, I had a meeting with the architect I just hired for a home addition project. I saw some of her work online and I was very confident she would do a great job on my project.

The first thing she asked me was, “What are you hoping to accomplish with your addition?” I quickly stopped her and said, “Look, I know you’re a great Architect. I totally trust you. Just do what you want.” I was putting myself in my very own HGTV show.

The other day I had my Fixer Upper reveal and got to see what this amazing Architect accomplished.
The doors were in the wrong place. The paint color was hideous. The layout was completely wrong for my family. There was a strange, terrifying doll sculpture in the middle of the room. This was not an addition to my house - it was a subtraction.

This didn’t actually happen.

Sorry, that was an extreme example to make a point.

Why would you hire a professional for design work and not do everything in your power to set them (and yourself) up for success?

You shouldn’t. We won’t let you.

When you give a designer a "blank check" when it comes to a project, whether it be a website redesign, branding, print design, etc, you and the creative agency will inevitably loose time and money.

In this article, I will share tips to avoid massive miscommunications by giving the designer clear and concise direction; not just saying “Go design!”

It’s Not You, It’s Them

One of the biggest struggles for many brands is been removing their personal attachment, opinions, and emotion from designs/direction.

We need to design for the audience, not the employees (or spouses) of the brand. Your cousin, Jensen, might have an “eye for design,” but that eye needs to stick to handcrafting beer in the basement.

The audience is THE reason a website is created.

Without the audience and their needs, a website is just a bunch of code that’s floating through the never-ending abyss of the internet, even with a great designer.

That being said...

Having a Great Designer Alone Does Not Equal Project Success

Before we continue, let’s get one thing straight: You can have an all-star designer, but if you don’t provide proper direction, they will likely be lost in the weeds.

What does your website need to do? Does your website just need to impress people with all its splendor or does it have a specific function it needs to accomplish?

As IMPACT design extraordinaire, Marcella Jalbert, puts it:

“Ultimately, if you have a page that looks beautiful, but it confuses your users and they leave after 10 seconds without filling out a form or buying something (whatever your goal may be), that page is a failure.”

And it’s not just websites.

This is across the board for any creative project—branding, landing pages, digital ads, videos, strategies, and more.

A great designer is made even better by a clear goal.

Things You Should Never Say to a Designer

How these goals are communicated is usually where a lot of clients can come up short.

“I’ll know it when I see it” is something designers hear too often, and it’s not the right way to start off a project.

It’s critical to effectively translate what’s in your mind to your designer to help set realistic expectations of what you want and need.

If you don’t, and you hear yourself saying this statement, prepare to need extra rounds of revisions and understand what that could do to the project timeline, scope, and budget.

There are certain phrases from a client that usually indicate they don’t really know what they want. It’s our job as an agency to dig a little further to understand what the client needs.

Some other classics designers often hear:

“Make it POP!”

This is not a direction. This is a dangerous directive that could hurt someone. What the client is trying to say is “I want this to have more emphasis in the design.” It would also help the designer know why something should have more emphasis.

“This shouldn’t take long” or “This should be easy”

This is diminishing not only the project and its time frame but the work the designer does. A lot of non-designers have no realistic concept of how long a project will take. Once a designer learns about what needs to be done, an accurate time estimate can be made.

I’d like a really clean-looking design

No one wants a messy looking website. Every website produced at IMPACT is clean-looking. We need more insight than that. A better way to say it would be “I don’t want this page to feel crowded with too many elements” or “I want the elements on this page to feel precise and consistent.”

“While I may have an art degree and I’ve studied the classic mediums, etc. I don’t consider myself an artist, I’m a designer. That’s a much different approach. It means I am a visual problem solver. If you don’t provide a problem to solve, what are you expecting in return?”

- Jessie-Lee Nichols, IMPACT Design Supervisor

At IMPACT, we use certain tools to avoid vague direction benefiting no one. One of the most important tools is the creative brief.

A Well-Communicated Creative Brief Will Free a Designer, Not Handcuff Them

It’s important to spend some time developing a detailed creative brief that helps the designer understand exactly what you are trying to achieve with the design — including information like intended audience, preferred tone or aesthetic, budget, etc.

Simply put, a creative brief puts everyone on the same page. A well laid-out creative brief will:

Shorten the timeframe of a project
It sets the pace and expectations for everything that follows. The fewer questions a designer has, the less back and forth there is.

Shorten the approval process
When creative is produced with the proper goals in mind, explaining design choices becomes easier, which makes approving the creative easier.

Hold everyone involved accountable
There’s less room for guessing or second-guessing the designs that result from a good creative brief. Everyone is using the same playbook.

All in all, it helps give you exactly what you truly want. This can’t be overstated. You and your team essentially has ownership of the creative brief, just as much as the designer. When all parties are on the same page, it’s a beautiful thing.

What Do Designers Really Want To Know in a Creative Brief?

Here is what our information craved designers would like to have in an ideal world.

Jessie-Lee Nichols:

  1. How would you consider this project a success? This helps identify their goals, even if they haven’t formed them yet. Plus, it lets you know what’s most important, stats or how it makes them feel. You justify decisions very differently depending on this answer.
  2. What are your three least favorite websites? (I typically get more insight into how far I can push boundaries if I know what they hate, and they are usually passionate about what they don’t like!)
  3. Do you have a style guide and how closely should I adhere to it? If there are parameters I want to stay within them before designing my butt off, and if they are looking to improve what exists, it’s good to know that from the start.

Marcella Jalbert

  1. What do you want your website to subliminally tell your audience?
  2. What tone do we need to set?
  3. Any strong personal feelings? Because if you hate orange it will simply be hard for your client to see past that.

Joe Rinaldi

  1. What problem are we trying to solve? Understanding the problem we are trying to solve for on each design helps us validate the design decisions we are making throughout a project. It serves as your north star.
  2. Are there any specific limitations or specifications I should be aware of for the project? This could be anything from the dimensions of a design to the specific colors or imagery being used. Discussing the specifics of a project help reduce the number of revisions and keep things moving along smoothly.
  3. Do you have buyer personas built out or any documentation that would give me an idea of who I’m designing for?

Bottom line: Good Communication Will Bridge the Gap Between Designer and Client

The not-so-secret element of every creative project—everyone involved wants to be happy with the finished product.

By setting a concise well-communicated course at the beginning of a project through a well-thought-out creative brief and effective language, you allow a designer to move through a project with a clear focus.

That focus will result in a better design, quicker turnaround and fewer surprises in the end and you will get exactly what you want and need.

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