Recently, Dave Benton was asked to present at the Fifteen Seconds Conference in Austria. He shaped the presentation around a question someone asked at a workshop he attended.
“How do designers get a seat at the table?” Referring to the board room table, we all want to be included in the conversation. There is a fundamental disconnect between designers and businesspeople, because we speak two entirely different languages. This is an issue that has become increasingly more apparent to me since I started metajive over a decade ago. I believe the number one reason both parties are unsuccessful is language and how conversations are framed. Together, we share a common goal and the potential of making a tremendous impact, but we won’t recognize the incredible opportunity as a culture if we can’t communicate what we are trying to achieve.
TLDR: We need to speak the same language as our clients.
The scale of this issue became clear to me a few years ago when our agency started to lose more work than we were bringing in. Potential clients were going to firms charging more for work we considered “crap”. After examination of why we were not getting these opportunities, we realized we needed a change to how we thought and spoke to our partners. We were experts in our craft, but we didn’t communicate our understanding of the business. We did what we were asked, but we were speaking of deliverables instead of goals. At this point in time we did not have a seat at our clients table and quite frankly, didn’t deserve one.
We learned to ask the right questions so that we could speak to the real needs of our clients. When we finally saw the whole picture and started to align business expectations with design expectations and with a “why” in place, we bounced back from the brink to our biggest year ever and these are the biggest lessons we learned in the process.
Design and business are all about people and building relationships, and good relationships start with trust. If there is distrust from either party, the relationship won’t produce value. If you don’t feel like your clients trust you, this will not work itself into a good relationship. If you don’t trust your agency partners, fire them. Find a better partnership to create incredible value as a team. I have never met a client who is not willing to pay for great work if it is getting real tangible business results.
#2 Ask better questions
First question, let’s start at the top. Why the f*ck are we doing this? Why is this project happening now? & How will we know if we were successful? Asking these questions can help you gain a greater understanding of what each stakeholder wants to get out of the project.
Everyone should start talking about more than deliverables, everything should go to why we are doing this and how we are going to help the company. When you know what success looks like and what the end goal is, you make sure everyone is aligned and understands the real value of the project. Having context and understanding more about business goals can help everyone, especially designers, make better decisions so they can make better design that works. Business goals need to be communicated to everyone on the project so no decisions are made without context about how the goal is effected.
#3 Take responsibility
Everyone has a responsibility to make sure that projects are successful and understand what success looks like. Everyone! This means designers need to take every job seriously and understand the business behind it. Clients and client employees depend on us doing our job.
On the flip side, clients need to make sure you are setting up agencies for success. If you don’t have clear information and criteria, you’re setting up the agency (and yourselves) to fail.
#4 Speak the language of growth
Being able to speak the language of business isn’t just about numbers, it’s about processes and tools. Understanding things like S.Q.L.’s, M.Q.L.’s, K.P.I.’s, O.K.R’s and E.B.I.T.D.A. will be the way to your client's heart. Once they trust that you understand their business, you can start making some bad ass work. Clients need to trust that the business needs are taken care of before they will be comfortable taking your lead with the design craft so designers can make better work.
*If you don’t understand these abbreviations do yourself a favor and look them up.
#5 Present with goals first
Designers and agencies should be explaining design choices with context about their client’s business, not design. Clients need to hear how the design will affect their business. Clients: ask questions, poke holes and don’t accept anything less than great work. We should all be working together knowing a strategy that has been tested is a better strategy.
#6 Share risk. Share reward
In partnerships between clients and agencies, it is not just about grabbing the most money a client will pay, it’s about creating value for everyone. If projects are successful, agencies will gain greater reward too. There are many new business frameworks for shared risk and reward becoming more common today. My favorite new model is, “Creative Capital.” This not just a fee for work, it is sharing the reward between the client and agencies for creating an amazing project together. Everyone is invested in this, so everyone is willing to go above and beyond where this will pay off. This works because shared success means everyone will be compensated for their efforts.
#7 Don't be prescriptive
This one is for managers and clients, you are hiring experts, trust designers to be experts. Trust your team to do their best work by giving goal oriented feedback. Try to avoid nit picking feedback like, “this is too blue, use this exact font” and put more attention on the overall goal and whether or not the project is achieving that.
Designers need to realize that this feedback normally comes when a business need is not being taken care of, it’s always ok to ask questions and ladder up your feedback to “why does this need to change”?
#8 Art is subjective, design is not
The Wikipedia definition of design is “a construction or activity specification or plan, or the result of that plan in the form of a prototype, finished product, or process.” It is not subjective, it has a right answer — whatever achieves the goal. Design is not just there to be pretty, it includes strategy, planning, and strong communication. A watered down idea won’t get you to your goals, be specific and know what you want to achieve and how you’re going to get there.
#9 Making things beautiful matters
Design is not just there to make things pretty, but making beautiful things does matter. A great design can have great implications, but if that power is misguided it can do more harm than good. Business is ultimately about connecting with people, and people are attracted to beautiful and well organized things. Creating a truly beautiful design takes time and attention to be able to achieve its goal.
. . .
Too often, designers and agencies are getting hired off of bad briefs and some employ bad processes to maximize profit that skip proper alignment and goal setting. Everyone needs to be investing deeply when picking a partner and make sure it is a good fit. Many times projects have no chance to be successful because they have a bad brief, lack of vision or no clear way to measure success. If you are a designer that sees these projects, walk away from them, ask your client to refine the brief and take the time to align (you are doing everyone a favor). Due diligence sets up both teams for success, These tips should help everyone form better relationships and achieve better results.
TLDR #2: When you get clients results, you get a seat at the table because you are providing value.