Communicating Design

Design is becoming fairly mainstream, a part of many projects, and frequently discussed in the business press. But still many people think it is all about making an interface look better. Why is this still happening?

Donna believes that there are many reasons this happens. One of the biggest contributors is the way designers use jargon. We also try to sell the idea of design instead of focusing on how it can be used to solve problems. And design really isn’t one thing – it’s a broad concept with a range of techniques and approaches.

She’s in a new role where she has to teach her organisation what designers do, what problems they can help with and how they do it. And the organisation has to teach this to clients. So she’s spent a lot of time working on how to make design concepts more concrete, less jargon-filled and ultimately more understandable.

Readify knew they needed design but people didn’t really know what that meant in the consultancy context. Donna had to figure out how to communicate what design does, so people could bring in the right work.

“Design” has certainly hit the mainstream business press, there are plenty of articles talking about the business impact of design. Articles like “what every executive needs to know about design”. These articles are trying to unpack the top line items out of design; the business impact they have; and how to lead designers.

A particularly good read: John Maeda | Design in Tech Report 2019

So business is getting into design, but people still don’t really understand it. Even we here don’t speak of it consistently, we mix the aesthetic and the problem solving and so on.

“Design” also has an existing meaning both as noun and verb. We can’t just throw those away or pretend they don’t exist, but they don’t help our version of design.

So how can we help people understand?

A tangent on cognitive linguistics. We have levels of thinking around language (animal → dog → dalmation)… we don’t look at a dog and think “animal”, we go to the level of detail of “dog” or “dalmation”. Plus we have lots of existing notions of what a dog is, how it will behave, what we might do with the dog.

If you are working with someone whose experience of design is mostly visual, in their mind that’s the way they’ll wrap up everything around design. That applies to everyone, however experienced – design leaders will show their own mental framing in the pieces they write about design.

The pieces of design
  • User-centred. It is all about understanding the people who will use the things we build. Not just thinking about them but working directly with them, building real empathy and understanding their world.
  • Creative problem solving (Donna doesn’t use the term ‘design thinking’, which is too jargony). We don’t take the straight path, we explore many ideas and experiment.
  • Shared experiences. Going off into a corner and making a design, alone, means people have no idea how you arrived at the result. If you don’t bring people on that journey they have no way to understand the process or why its outputs are valid. Alone and isolated within a company, design is a microworld of aesthetic high-fives. – John Maeda
  • Deciding with not for. Designing with people is more effective than doing design to them.
  • Experimental and iterative. (“This is the only wanky diagram…”) The diagram isn’t great but the point is that design does not take the linear path, there are lots of feedback loops and iterations.
  • Implemented. Design without delivery is just hand-waving.
  • Designers aren’t homogenous. Designers aren’t one thing. It’s a mistake to treat all designers as being the same or interchangeable. People generally understand this with developers (or they at least know there are different types of devs), but they still do it to designers. We have a huge range of skills; and different mindsets. Role titles are for HR. We have skills, knowledge and mindsets – and that’s how we should thinkg about putting people on projects. The people involved don’t even need to be a designer. Lots of people have the skills we associate with design, but don’t have that role nor would they think of themselves that way.

Communicating design

While recruiting for design roles Donna has interviewed a lot of people who can’t express what their skills are, what makes them special and valuable on a project.

What is your special sauce? Can you explain what it is that you will bring to a project? Also, what are your gaps? Many designers have a profound lack of business understanding. They don’t get into thoughts like business risks, markets and opportunities.

Think about who is asking questions. What do they know and what is their experience with design? Are they expecting you to smash out a bunch of wireframes and visuals? Will they understand the process and realise the question is what the business should do next – not how that looks.

Think about what they are asking. Do they need to know what to do next? Do they simply need visuals? Do they need user research? …and so on.

So think back to the levels of language cognition. Go down through the levels of design.

  • Design is not one thing – break up the chunks and communicate them separately
  • Designers are not one thing – get the right people involved
  • Who is asking, what do they know and what do they need to know


Book recommendation that came up during Q&A: