How to Communicate with Designers

By July 7, 2015 August 4th, 2020 Visual Communication Strategies


The Issue
When people experience miscommunication, they’re sometimes said to be “not speaking the same language.” This can happen anywhere from our daily interactions with the people around us to the way we communicate with coworkers and clients in the workplace. With so many different skill sets and learning styles, breakdowns in communication are bound to happen — especially between designers and non-designers. In this post we’ll take a look at a few ways these common miscommunications can manifest and discover ways to resolve them.

Understand Differences in Notetaking
Say you’re in a kickoff or review meeting with your project team, including 1 or more designers. Project managers and content editors are diligently taking notes on tablets, computers, or by hand — mostly in the form of written language, with maybe 1–2 sketches or diagrams. But if you glance at a designer’s page, you’re likely to see less text and more of what you think of as distracted doodles: sketches of the room or some of the ideas being tossed around during the meeting.

Text-based note-taking is usually seen as an acceptable part of listening, but visual note-taking might be dismissed as spacing out or not paying attention — when in fact it’s a creative form of active listening. In a 2009 study where participants listened to a telephone message of a list of names, half the participants were asked to shade in shapes (effectively, doodle) while listening. On a pop quiz later, the doodlers remembered 29% more information than the non-doodlers.

So don’t get livid if you see designers — or for that matter, anyone — doodling. It’s now encouraged as a way to process and retain more information for designers and non-designers alike, and the images are often either directly related to the conversation or metaphorically linked, to serve as memory cues later on.

Use Visual Examples
Since designers communicate primarily by visual means, it makes sense that they respond better to visual examples than verbal or written descriptions. Showing examples and explaining specifically what you like about them (colors, fonts, illustration style, layout) upfront and/or during the edits stage is extremely helpful. It isn’t the same as being prescriptive (which is something that should be avoided, and will be covered in more detail in the next section) — it’s giving inspiration and guidance to help the designer decide what the best solutions are for the project.

Conversely, designers commonly show examples of their illustration styles and previous work that utilizes those styles, which can help clients more clearly understand how those styles might play out in their project.

Whenever possible, it’s best if the designer and client can exchange this guidance directly. This is not at all to say your project shouldn’t have a project manager! Project managers are critical to success, and should be involved in all communications to help facilitate and guide the project — they may even be the ones providing visual examples for designers to approve and clients to react to. It simply means that there are some steps in a project process where it doesn’t make sense to keep a wall between designers and clients, because this direct communication reduces the risk of sentiments being lost in translation. We’ve found that ideation and feedback are 2 of those stages.

For example, “This text needs to pop a little more” may sound helpful on the surface, but that can actually mean brighter colors to 1 person, increased font size to another, and a shadow effect to someone else. “I love the way the text pops in the header of this design” shows that direction implemented in a specific way, so that neither the project manager nor the client has to figure out that it’s the layered gradients or the Knockout font that defines the “pop” for them.

Avoid Being Too Prescriptive With Creative Direction
This is where the project manager comes back in. The client is fairly free to give feedback however makes the most sense to them. Sometimes that means they’ll say, “I need this color 6 shades lighter, and this apple changed to a duck.” Designers have heard this before, and even though these requests can be frustrating at best, insulting at worst, if they’re used to interacting with clients they’ll be happy to consult with their project team and deliver some options. But with a project manager in the mix, there’s an opportunity to use framework like “The client suggested … but they’re totally open to your suggestions to make this successful” and “You’re definitely going to know best on this, but what about…” When it’s possible to do so, this will always be much better received than a directive to turn apples into ducks.

If you’re a client looking to improve your communications with designers you hire, consider going back to the second tip in this post: using examples to convey the types of designs and treatments you like, instead of saying exactly what you want to see and how you want to see it.

If you’re a project manager, do your best to filter client feedback through a lens that inspires the designer to generate solutions, rather than putting them into a box. Remember that explaining any “why” information you receive is critical. So, not “The client wants this section bigger” but “We’ve learned that this stat is the most important focal point for the client — it’s the 1 point they want the viewer to walk away with at the end. They suggested making it bigger, but anything you can add to make it clear that this stat is the most important takeaway for the viewer will really help with their goals.”

Again, exceptional designers will be able to process feedback in any form it comes to them, but non-designers can definitely play a role by trying to see the project through a designer’s eyes instead of approaching them the same way they would approach an analyst or marketer.

Final Notes
In general, the guidance for non-designers communicating with designers is similar to that for any 2 groups from different backgrounds — remember that your life experiences are different, your daily work lives are different, and therefore your vocabularies and ways of communicating are different. When you remain open to that understanding, you’re already progressing toward improved communications and professional relationships.

Lucy Todd

Author Lucy Todd

Lucy Todd is the Chief Process Officer at Killer Visual Strategies. She is a Seattle native and Western Washington University graduate. Her degree in Creative Writing and her customer service background both inform her work daily. A Killer employee since 2011 and executive since 2014, Lucy has researched for, written, and/or project-managed over 4,000 projects for the company, affording her key insight into our processes and projects. This experience is invaluable in allowing her to lead and empower Killer’s content and project management teams to success. Lucy enjoys managing the day-to-day at the office, offering a unique perspective when a team or colleague feels stuck, and learning from her peers and clients each day.

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