Archive for May 25th, 2004

"Trust me, I’m a designer!"

Tuesday, May 25th, 2004

Over the past couple of days I’ve been thinking about the web site I redesigned that the client wanted to look like the old one, and about the role of the designer.

Something that kept cropping up in my mind was a BBC TV programme called Changing Rooms, that has now been shown and remade around the world. In particular, one designer called Lawrence Llewlyn Bowen (who now presents the show over here). Invariably his designs would be greeted with horror by home owners to which he would respond “Trust me, I’m a designer!”. In fact it’s not just him. Virtually all the interior designers on the programme go through the ritual of opening a tin of paint to gasps of horror from their “clients” who, by the end of the show, usually end up liking it. I don’t think it’s a particularly British reaction, but it is typical that we tend to dislike ideas but like the application – we visit stately homes and marvel at the red or green walls, but insist on spreading magnolia (white/beige) all over ours.

Anyway, it got me wondering how the courtship ritual between designers and clients should go. Lawrence Llewlyn Bowen adopts the “trust me, I’m a designer” route, along with a faux arrogance and celebrity status that helps him pull it off. Most designers, though, don’t have the luxury of being “famous”, even though that’s what often draws people into the profession, and are often less trusted in decision making than your average plumber. I’ve often wondered why design is a profession that non-designers think they can do better than designers. (At a party on Sunday the hosts had, in their bathroom, a poster of Charles Rennie Mackintosh competition designs, many of which failed to win, and none of which survived untouched by the clients’ blue pencils. It happens to us all…)

At the end of the day, designers service clients, not their own egos, but if the ego isn’t served in some way the designer will soon find another profession. A design curriculum needs to recognise this, I think – currently most design courses inflate the ego of students and place the teacher as an expert in what’s good and bad. They don’t focus on the rationale of the design problem, or the selling of the concept, nor on the modifications that almost always take place after the client has had their say (they are paying after all).

My post on Saturday was ego-driven. “The client is a fool! I am a designer!” I still think he is wrong, and that I was wrong to take on a job without following basic procedures like getting a written brief, analysing the current site with the client and some users and so on. Who’s the fool? Answers on a postcard…

Coincidentally (as seems to be the way) I’m not the only person looking at home makeover programmes as a lesson in design skills. This morning I find an article at Boxes and Arrows entitled “The Confidence Game”. Extracts below, but check out the full article.

“The result a client wants � satisfied users � is not something the client can know has been achieved until well after the product is finished. Yet designers are selected with their designs unseen, and approval to begin building according to a design is usually given by someone who does not have the time or inclination to account for all its details. …

A designer who chose the colors and textures without consultation would stand out as arrogant and tyrannical; a designer who badgered the clients about where they think the sink should go would seem insecure, incompetent, and sycophantic.

A design does not sell itself, and the sales process is not entirely rational.

It surprises me that the design profession � while full of people who are knowledgeable about technology, technology cultures, and human motivation � complains so often (usually legitimately) about the lack of respect for our work. Turning to ROI and other seemingly logical or quantitative arguments to convince others of the importance of software design seems misdirected since we ought to have the skills and knowledge to make compelling arguments based on understanding what clients really want. Sales is about listening and solving a customer�s problems with available products and services. The same is true for design. As good listeners with a deep understanding of our audience and a range of skills to choose from, we designers should be good at selling our ideas, and unafraid to think of it that way.”