Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

The Designer Designs

May 26, 2011

This morning I was reading a post on the 37signals blog that began as a full-of-truth portrayal of one dimension of the journey toward design maturity, but then took a disappointing detour.

The author’s depiction of designers starting out with comparatively low confidence in their process and tending to “design in secret” rings true and is consistent with my observations and experience. I hold with his idea that maturity brings us more comfort with designing in the open. He lost me though when he began to describe that more open process:

“Is there anything we can do to speed the transition from designing in secret to designing in the open? My experience is yes, it can happen with a little help from the outside. Whoever is managing the project or directing it can ask for smaller, more frequent steps.”

Wait, what? If someone other than the designer is deciding what the steps are, something has gone bass-ackwards. Sure, there may be a project manager involved, but the designer had better damn well be telling the PM what the process will be…unless the “designer” is simply a production artist lackey. When the designer is rightly defining things, it’s called process. When anyone else is defining it, it’s just idiotic bureaucracy.

Reading on, things went from bad to worse when the author then described a hellish scenario:

“Instead of asking for 10 changes and waiting a week, you can ask for 1 change and wait 15 minutes. Evaluate the change, praise it or identify weaknesses, and suggest the next change. By asking for small changes, you take the pressure off the designer because you aren’t asking for miracles.”

No. You don’t ask for changes. I agree that smaller steps can sometimes be effective, but if you’re the client, you describe problems or concerns and the designer then shows you changes. If you’re asking for changes you’re the one doing the designing. In that case there’s no need for you to have hired a designer and you’re wasting money. In fact in this scenario, just as the author says, you’re definitely taking the pressure off the designer because he’s no longer designing. He’s just taking and filling your orders; like a waiter. Congratulations. You have a failed project.

The designer is the one who engages in design. If you’re the client and you’re spending good money on a competent professional, let them do the job you hired them to do. When you start requesting specific changes you’re shooting yourself in the foot and destroying the professional relationship that is crucial to your project’s success. If you’re the designer, it’s your job to run the project and define the process. It’s YOUR process. Moreover, it’s your responsibility to craft the best design for your client; something that cannot happen if you devolve into being an order taker.

I appreciate and agree with the author’s overarching message in the blog post—that more open design processes indicate maturity and often produce better results. Let’s just not give way to or become comfortable with unprofessional depictions of how that process should be directed or how a designer interacts with a client. These are important matters and deserve professional standards inside and our critical evaluation when viewed from the outside.

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