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

Make Me Care

April 10, 2007

Among the obligatory pressures we designers face on a regular basis is knowledge of the fact that everyone who sees our work has one thought in common: why should I care about this? Our clients want to know why they should like and trust our work, and their customers (the consumers of the marketing we create) want to know why they should care about the company or product or idea we’re promoting in our design work.

* This article first appeared in .net Magazine no. 155. It has been slightly edited for publication here. *

This fact is why designers have to be good communicators. Here, I’m not merely referring to the communication that our designs facilitate. If we cannot communicate the value of our work to clients we’ll seldom get the chance to put our work, or at least our best work, in front of their customers. Design that does not compel is worthless. Designers who cannot compel won’t accomplish much either.

Know, however, that we cannot use the same mechanisms to appeal to both audiences (clients and consumers). I notice that quite a few designers are not entirely acquainted with this idea and work to explain design to their clients, even though doing so is unprofessional and generally fruitless. Our mantra should be this: don’t explain, just make people care so you don’t have to. Easier said than done, I know. In order to be successful at it you’ve got to know what people care about and understand their needs and their motivations.

Make Consumers Care

For consumers, these needs and motivations can be characterized as general, demographic, and contextual, and they directly affect your choices in design. General ones are things that most people have in common, like the desire for convenience. Demographic needs and motivations include things like a teen’s desire to stay in constant touch with her peer group. A contextual example would be something like the fact that people are more receptive to food product advertisements when they’re walking the aisles at the grocery store or when they’re hungry.

As for some simple examples, you can appeal to the desire for convenience on a website by designing forms that are simple, intuitive and that have auto–complete functions. When designing a site that will typically be used by teenagers, highlighting integrated messaging and file–sharing applications can help address teens’ core desires and could compel them to stay longer on the site.

There are certainly other ways to make people care. Consumers generally enjoy surprises found in websites or marketing pieces. Something that offers more or something different than expected often produces a more positive impression. People also enjoy it when they are required to exercise their intellect in order to understand the fullness of a marketing message (up to a point). The underlying message then is “you’re smart enough to figure this out.” Indirect compliments like this are usually good things.

Make Your Clients Care

For clients the same categories apply, sort of. However, most clients’ primary motivations revolve around the care and handling of their brand and/or business, and getting masses of people to walk into their stores or spend lots of money on their product or service. They’ve entrusted you to be a careful and effective steward of the things that matter greatly to them. Making them care must result from things beyond the product of your work and is more concerned with trust.

Getting to know your client well enough to gauge their comfort level on this point is part of a designer’s job.

If you’ve not gained a client’s confidence and buy-in before you even begin the design work, you’ve already lost. In such cases it is likely that your best work will never be allowed out of the mockup stage. So before starting the project you’ll have to appeal to their fundamental motivations. You’ve got to quickly learn what’s most important to them and work to gain their absolute trust that you can deliver on that point. You have to do this because people trust their own misgivings more than they trust someone they hardly know.

So work to eliminate misgivings first. When you’ve done that and have demonstrated that you care about their enterprise, they’re usually happy to invest trust in you and your work. Of course you do actually have to care about their enterprise. Otherwise, choose a different client to work with.

Unlike consumers, however, clients rarely like surprises. Design work that is too daring often elicits either a guarded or flatly negative response from most clients – unless they trust you implicitly. Getting to know your client well enough to gauge their comfort level on this point is part of a designer’s job.

These are just simple examples of complex relationships that designers have to be ever conscious of and capable of managing. “Why should someone care about this?” is a good question to have on your mind during every step of a project’s timeline. Ask yourself often and be prepared to know the answer.