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Industrial Design

How you can help design succeed

February 17, 2020

Over the years, there have been designers still young in their careers that have come to me looking for advice and ideas of what to do next. They’ve all told me their tales of woe about how design is just not respected or understood where they work. And this, of course, coincides with their (and design’s) struggle to find a solid footing within the organization.

Within those conversations I’ve heard much of the same language…why don’t they understand design? Why do they have me doing their PowerPoints? How do I tell them that’s not what I do?! If you’re reading this, then there’s a chance you’ve experienced or even said something similar. And while it’s true, some organizations really are clueless when it comes to hiring and utilizing designers to their potential and they are easy to blame. But I’d bet that it’s more than likely that you — the designer — is the one that needs to change, not them.

The truth hurts. But what hurts more is not taking a different approach and then finding yourself making the same complaints years later, perhaps even at a different job. I did that for a while until after enough beatings, I figured it out.

So, what can a designer do?

Like every other role in a company, getting things done means knowing the politics of the place and knowing how to build relationships with the people who can help propel your cause. It means learning how to sell yourself and the value of your profession. And it means simply being good to work with. This is no different from an accountant to a designer — it’s just a little easier for the accountant to show their value since they directly handle the money.

Moving forward, I’ll be speaking rather specifically to industrial design, however the parallels across all the creative crafts and disciplines are pretty much the same.

During a recent coffee conversation on the topic, I broke it all down to three key points. To put into click-bait terms: Just do these three things and design will succeed at your company!

Celebrate your technical counterparts – the engineers

I’ve given a few talks to students and professionals alike that illustrate the importance of a symbiotic engineer/designer relationship. A designer’s true value is in defining the product to meet unmet user needs, and therefore advocating for the user. Along with cost considerations and getting it out the door on time, your technical partner wants to make that thing work and work well for a long time, which also fits into that user needs equation. 

Where the designer plants their flag in the future vision of the product, the engineer has to deal with the now of solving the problems it will take to get it to the finish line. This creates a lot of creative tension and misunderstanding that can get in the way, but when you keep their goals in mind and find ways meet them in the middle, that creative tension can be harnessed for a better solution in the end.

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Remember that design is not about you. At all. Ever. Get over it.

The best projects I’ve been involved in were built on a tight relationship with my engineering partners. They’ve one-upped me and the project (and my design skills) got better for it. We’ve made compromises together, we’ve supported each other’s ideas and fought for them, and we’ve built respect for one another, which means now were an army of two (or more) instead of the lone designer thinking they have to do it all.

Get to know the business

Design drives business as much as business drives design. Every decision you make affects the timeline, the cost of goods, or both, and these decisions can be the difference in making $1 million that quarter or losing it. Having that in mind and some empathy for your counterparts who are responsible for the product will help you build a relationship with the people that speak directly to the executive team. I am talking about the product (or portfolio) managers. Yes, they are going to skirt around giving you clear answers on the product spec, or they might add in a little “scope creep” late in the game. It’s human nature — and you’ll have to accept it. As a designer, you can decide to be a supportive partner and find solutions, be a perpetual contrarian, or worse, a bottleneck to progress.

Help your product manager win with design. Help them tell the story in your words. Give them the ammunition they need in a presentation to get beyond talking about sales potential and ROI. Instead, they can talk about solving user needs, lasting market impact, and changing the game on your competitors. When they start seeing that some of their success is the direct result of design, they’ll start asking for more. Before you know it, momentum builds and they are talking about design higher up the chain, which can lead to both positive and negative outcomes. But that’s a tale for another time.

Know what battles to fight and how to sell the win

Another way to say this is: Don’t slow things down and don’t be a pain in the development team’s ass. That two millimeter difference in the surface that could save two months in tooling and testing? Maybe concede that detail. That’s not to say you shouldn’t push — I’m saying know when to push, how to push, and when it really doesn’t matter.

I realize it’s difficult to know what really matters, especially when you’re new to an organization, perhaps new to design beyond the classroom, and you are finding your design voice. I like to solve this by putting together a list of key design characteristics. I prioritize them by importance: Benefits to the user experience, benefits to the brand, and the stuff that’s just there because it adds a particular flavor or flare that a user may appreciate. I make sure there is strong justification for each those benefits, and a clear, logical explanation for each. That’s how you push.

But that’s not all of it. You have to be able to sell design, and I don’t mean schmooze the client. While there is no doubt that emotion is still a powerful decision influencer, facts, not feelings, can make the difference. “This curved, blue space gives more affordance to the interface” or “Users will just love it” versus showing the proof, perhaps a scientific survey that shows 49 out of 50 people immediately understood the designed interaction in question. Which is the stronger argument, and which would you have to work harder to sell?

If you can’t come up with a strong argument for a design characteristic, or perhaps you just don’t have the proof, then maybe it’s not worth getting all bent out of shape when it’s on the chopping block.

Wrap it up, I’ll take it

There is something I should say that’s related to all three of the points above. Remember that design is not about you. At all. Ever. Get over it. It’s about their business (whomever you work for), the product, and the user. You’re a designer and within that awesome package comes a lot of emotion and passion that can either help or harm you. Use it to build excitement and enthusiasm. Fight against it when you’re having a woe-is-me moment, and defer to emotionless pragmatism to get things done.

Achieving a balance and learning when to channel the right design energy at the right time is a career-long goal. It’s not easy, but considering the points outlined here and sticking to them will help design gain momentum and in due time that "designer’s woe" will fade completely.

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