Design Pro Journal Design Pro Journal


Dec 27, 2012

Take Back Your Profession in 2013

There’s a lot to being a design professional. It takes years of preparation and practice along with a dedicated effort to address inadequacies and learn new and essential things. For some, the sheer volume of what you need to learn could seem daunting and it might be hard to know where to start. So here’s some help. By Andy Rutledge


As the new year begins you may be making some resolutions. I suggest that you make some professional resolutions, too. In fact, if you haven’t already, I think you should resolve to take back your profession rather than continue to let it be stolen from you. Here are a few 2013 resolutions for agency designers, freelancers, and then some for any designer.

For Agency Designers:

“I resolve that in 2013 I will…

…learn about my agency’s process for finding/getting clients.”

If you’re like most agency designers, the things that happen before a project lands on your desk are either a partial or total mystery. One day you’re tidying up the files on a finished project and the next you’re told you’ll be redesigning the website for XYZ Corp. But how did that happen, exactly?

While a production artist can labor for years as a cog in the machine and in oblivious contentment, a design professional understands the whole project process, soup to nuts. Aside from it being an important part of your professional education and even as just a designer in the agency, you’ve got to understand how that initial process works because portions of it responsibly require your input. Moreover, in learning about how projects and clients are found and courted, you’ll learn much about the organization that employs you.

…see to it that I and my colleagues have consequential input into my agency’s bidding process.”

A project bid is based on several important factors. Among them are the effort and resources required for the design and development. And there are factors that affect the effort and resources, like the project’s complexity and process (unique to each project). Only the designer(s) and developer(s) involved in the project can accurately gauge these factors and properly inform those preparing the project proposal for the potential client.

If you’re not already doing so, make sure that in 2013 you and your colleagues begin having the proper input into the bidding process as part of an effort to see that your projects are better understood, better bid, and more successful.

…do what’s necessary to ensure I get copies of the contracts for my projects.”

Hopefully, you and your agency colleagues get copies of the contracts for the projects you work on. If not, it means that you’re all missing vital information that prevents you from properly understanding your projects, which of course affects your work and its results. Technical issues aside, to be a design professional you must understand how projects are put together on paper and what a project proposal entails and, well, looks like. Besides, the better you understand your agency’s mechanisms and documents, the better you can offer the proper and necessary input.

…start directly conducting and directing the discovery process for my projects.”

Done properly, a design project is led by one individual: the lead designer on the project. As the lead designer it is your responsibility to, among other things, work to ensure that your client will allow you to deliver your best work. This means that you must work hard to develop a good rapport with your clients and gain their trust and confidence. This is only possible by being the clear point person from day one.

Rapport issues aside, the only way for any designer to get a comprehensive and unfiltered assessment of the necessary information, constraints, considerations, requirements, expectations, …and everything else required for a competent design effort is to work directly with the client and other stakeholders. No go-betweens. Only the designer responsible can know what he or she needs to do his/her job properly. If you’re not the one directing the process and making the decisions on your projects, your effort is compromised and so are the results you deliver to your clients.

…eliminate all go-betweens in favor of direct communication with my clients. No more filtered communication.”

We’ve touched on it somewhat in the preceding items, but direct and unfiltered communication between the designer and client stakeholders is an imperative for success. Every person between you and your client is an obstacle and an object of misdirection, preventing you from delivering your best work…or even understanding the proper course of action. If you’re not engaged in direct communication from start to finish, your clients will neither trust your choices nor have confidence in your ability to conceive of or deliver the right solution.

…begin writing the markup and CSS for my design projects.”

Regarding products for the web, visual comp is not a design. It’s a crude picture of a design. The design is not how it looks, but how it works. If you are to design a website or app you must design the function…in all contexts (accounting for the appropriate array of screen sizes, devices, interaction modes (e.g. touch and mouse), and enhancements). Digital designers design experiences. You cannot design an experience in Photoshop, Fireworks, or Illustrator.

For Freelance Designers:

“I resolve that in 2013 I will…

…never again bid a project before conducting a thorough and effective pre-bid process.”

The most important and pivotal components of a project are not the technical details, but the people involved. You and your clients’ decision to commit to one another on a project cannot be based merely on the project scope, budget, and schedule details. You’ve got to get to know the person you’d be working closely with and they need to know you, too. Else you’re leaving the most important project factors to chance.

Is their personality compatible with yours? Are their expectations and pre-project understanding conducive to success? If not, can you appropriately shape these things before deciding on commitment? Will you be allowed to deliver your best work? Are they willing to meet your uncompromising standards? Are you prepared to meet theirs? You need to share and gather all of the things that will allow you both to answer these questions accurately and confidently. This takes a bit of time and some deliberate effort. This pre-bid process is likely the most important time in your project and more than any other factor determines success. Give it proper attention.

…ensure my potential clients are prepared to meet my uncompromising standards before I agree to bid the project.”

In order to best ensure success for your clients you’ve got to know that they’re prepared to meet your standards. And if they’re not, you need to know so that you can decline their projects.

A freelance designer who has no deal-breaker standards and who is willing to accept anyone as a client is not a professional, but a merchant. Such a designer does not have clients, they have customers. If you are to be a professional, you cannot be that sort of designer.

…design my contracts to be visually and experientially as well designed as my websites.”

While contracts should look like a happyfuntime flash application, there’s no reason that they should look like a boilerplate .txt document. You’re a designer. Your contracts should look good and should present an attractive and user-friendly reading experience. While all contractual content is important, there is dimension to the content and some things require emphasis. This is a design challenge and your contracts should show your potential clients that you can meet any design challenge.

…never again bid a project from an RFP.”

RFPs are appropriate for commodity goods and services only. Design professionals do not deal in commodity services, but rather professional services. Such things require more than a mere outline of a client’s requirements as the basis of an agreement to enter into a relationship.

…take steps to ensure my contracts account for all of my standards and requirements and otherwise account for every eventuality that might arise in a project; including describing course(s) of action after transgressions by either party.”

Good contracts make good projects. A good contract allows good people to enter into a secure and more-predictable agreement and serves to allay fears and obviate distracting concerns. Without a good contract, too much gets left to chance and the people involved will act accordingly, destroying many of the important requirements for success.

Your contracts should cover all likely and unlikely eventualities and at least most of the remotely possible ones. Once you’ve accounted for these things, be sure to have your contracts evaluated and set right by a lawyer who is licensed to practice your state or province. Otherwise, don’t conduct a project with any client.

…never again begin work on any project without a mutually executed contract and 50% (or some similar/suitable percentage) payment.”

Beginning a project without both a signed contract and a significant down payment is the clearest and most compelling way to tell people that you’re a rube and you’re begging them to take advantage of you. I read every week about designers who follow that foolish practice. I’ll admit to a bit of Schadenfreude at their laughable and inevitable tales of woe. Fools richly deserve the consequences of their foolishness.

For Any Designer:

“I resolve that in 2013 I will…

…begin ensuring that everything I design, no matter the user’s device, screen size, or context, just works and delivers an appropriate user experience.”

All of your design for the web will be seen and used on desktops and laptops (both mouse-controlled and touch screen), tablets of various sizes and capabilities, and phones and other handheld devices…and yet more devices besides. With very rare exceptions, what you design must work on any device, any screen size, and in every interaction mode. Anything not designed to work properly in every known context is obsolete. Don’t be an obsolete designer.

…stop using design as a noun.”

When a client works with you over a period of weeks or months and pay thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars for your expertise, the result should be something far more significant than “a design.” Design is a verb. It’s what you do. The result of applying your expertise and professional acumen is a strategy, not “a design.” You may have designed an interface or a user experience or a compelling argument for someone to purchase something, but calling it “a design” -- aside from being inaccurate -- diminishes the results of your work in unfortunate and dangerous ways.

Presented with “a design,” your client might feel perfectly entitled to introduce their own subjective changes or requests that will likely damage or destroy the integrity and effectiveness of the product. Present your work, referring to it as the strategy or the approach or the experience or the interface or the website, but never refer to it as “the design.”

…never again take a “scattershot” approach to design. I will present no more than two design strategies, and seldom more than one, to my clients.”

Designing is a process. Your design process might likely require many essays and different ideas before the right approach and substance is revealed. Even then there may be several good ways to approach certain challenges, requiring that you cull through your ideas. Ultimately, if you’ve done your job right, your effort will reveal a strategy or architecture or aesthetic (whichever is applicable) that is superior. This is the one you should present and suggest to your client.

Working through multiple trials is your business, not your client’s. They didn’t hire you to present them with options to pick from. They hired you to solve their problem based on deliberate expertise. Show them the solution, not a collection of inadequately considered options.

…never again miss a deadline.”

A deadline is a promise. No one appreciates a broken promise, especially someone who is paying large sums of money for something tied to that promise. Hitting deadlines is what a professional does. And it’s quite easy to do so, provided that you’ve established standards, conducted a competent pre-bid process, know yourself and your client, have done proper discovery, created an informed project process, …and have set intelligent and informed deadlines for yourself and your client (which is your job and no one else’s).

…dispense with unworkable and immoral codes of conduct and adopt, proclaim, and uncompromisingly adhere to the Academy of Design Professionals’ Code of Professional Conduct.”

Part of being a professional involves proclaiming your recognition of and adherence to a rational set of codified ethical standards. You are thereby measured according to the quality and substance of that code and, ultimately, by how your actions and choices compare to it.

The most common and recognizable feature of the non professional designer is the conspicuous lack of any such proclamation and recognition. A design professional should never be confused with a non professional designer; not by his or her peers and certainly not by potential clients.

…ignore all design competitions and ‘calls for entries’ and will never again participate in a pitch or any other kind of spec work.”

* * *

This is by no means a comprehensive list of things that make a design professional, but collectively they constitute a significant start! Having addressed these issues you’ll be exposed to a never-before-experienced level of quality and satisfaction in your projects. Your clients will likewise benefit. So here’s to a successful and productive 2013!


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