You are really bad at evaluating design, and we’re to blame

I sometimes hear this phrase when clients evaluate design options:

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

Actually, no, you won’t.

Sure, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, but if you do not clearly define the design’s purpose, audience, expected results, and how it supports business strategy and brand, then your ability to effectively evaluate any design will be short sighted and unhinged from business reality. But all that defining and linking design to purpose and business isn’t really your job, it’s your designer’s job.

Designers are to blame for leading you into thinking that design is a magical, mystifying process that involves emotion and intuition alone. Designers often do the hard, rational, grinding creative work behind a curtain and then reveal a finished product to you. This protects the designer’s creative process (good for you and them!), but also obscures from you the rational, objective choices a they make throughout the design process (bad for you both!).

Designers also tend to describe design in terms that are not business focused and instead are more “touchy-feely” and emotional. That’s good, to an extent, because design that doesn’t connect at an emotional and psychological level with the viewer isn’t that effective. You naturally want to speak our “creative” language back to us during an evaluation to show you understand our world, so you say things like, “I’m not sure about that color…” or “that type choice just feels wrong to me” or “I don’t like the look of xyz”. Gut feelings are a reasonable starting point for questioning design but not a good methodology for evaluating design. The designer-client conversation must go further forward linking design to desired results (business and brand) and backward to strategy and audience.

You as the client can be a great evaluator of design by employing the language of what you are good at–your business–and force designers to express their creative process and decisions in terms of purpose, strategy and results. There isn’t always a direct correlation between creative choices and business purpose, but your designer should be able to articulate how their design moves the viewer/user in the direction of your strategy.

If you are old enough and you are a tennis player, you will likely remember the day someone you played against had a “metal” tennis racquet. Intriguing, I thought, but I’ll stick to my wooden racquet. And then cam the Head racquet–outsized and cartoonish on the court. Head based his new design on strategy and results. You can read more about his design story here.

When you see design clearly linked to business strategy, through creative and to results then you will actually know you are hitting the sweet spot.

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