Effective communication strategies for designers: Part 1

The digital revolution has created a demand for a new form of design professional. Technological demands have forced designers to become multifaceted. In the current environment, it’s no longer acceptable to be talented at design aesthetics alone—these days, you are expected to also have a good working knowledge of digital strategy, customer journey mapping, and coding.

But there is one skill that will trump them all: good design communication.

How does being a better communicator help a designer?

Most designers are now armed with at least some coding knowledge. But many businesses also know that there is far more to being a stand-out designer than being able to code. As the 2017 Design in Tech Report explains, design is no longer just about aesthetics and output—it’s about holistic product design, market relevance and meaningful results. Design has a place at the head of the table.

As the Design in Tech Report notes, “According to LinkedIn, the highest echelon of the technology industry is vying for more design talent—Facebook, Google, and Amazon have collectively grown their headcount in design by 65 percent in the past year—with much headroom to hire more.”

Yet, in an age of infinite communication channels and inspirational conversations around design, designers still need to improve our ability to communicate design competently. What’s the value in being an extraordinary designer if you can’t communicate your ideas and processes, design concepts and principles effectively?

Communicating design

First, the ability to communicate design compellingly demonstrates intelligence. And while designers may be clever and reasoned, being able to articulate design decisions assures stakeholders we can be trusted and have the expertise necessary to complete the job. It also confirms that we have thought about our solutions and that there is logic to our approach. A clear explanation tells businesses that the outcome is a result of user research, product testing, and a well-thought-out design process.

Second, having good communication skills indicates that we are confident in our abilities. As designers, we possess the knowledge and experience to understand the user’s needs while also having the craftsmanship and expertise to interpret these needs into practical and aesthetically engaging solutions. To demonstrate our understanding, we must be able to articulate a considered design approach without reservation.

And finally, it demonstrates respect for others. Designers need contributions and ideas from others—they need to understand different perspectives. When designers are well-spoken and articulate, it shows they respect and value their stakeholders and users. It demonstrates that no ideas go unheard and that they are not so arrogant to believe they know best.

Why become a better design communicator?

To get support from the team. It’s not enough for you as a designer to solve problems or create solutions. Without support from your team, your ideas will go nowhere. There will always be others involved in the decision-making process, and it is crucial to have support from your colleagues if you want your ideas to move forward.

Communicating design concepts and principles, ideas and solutions in an empathetic and practical manner will help you get your message across, but being able to listen to others is of equal importance. Taking your team’s feedback into account goes a long way to making people feel they are being heard and appreciated, and they will be far more likely to support your design decisions down the road.

To convey design decisions to a non-designer. The industry is full of people with markedly different job titles and levels of design understanding: researchers, marketers, product managers and developers. Each of these professions will have a different motivation for a project and a different level of involvement—they also may have little or no idea about design.

Often, within a business structure, those who manage the design team lack a full understanding of the design process. As leaders, they are typically involved in all stages of a project, and for a project to run smoothly, designers must articulate their research and design solutions to them effectively.

Unfortunately, many of these managers want to be (or are only able to be) involved at a micro level, but they still want to participate in the process. They will often voice their opinion about how they think the product should look and work. Ever heard of “HiPPO syndrome”? This means allowing decisions to be made according to the opinion of the highest paid person in the room, rather than that of the expert and cold, hard data.

Unless you’re able to get buy-in and prove the value of your designs, i.e., defend your decisions intelligently at a level all stakeholders can understand, ultimately all you can do is disagree. Not a good option. In most cases, your opinion will be overridden, which, in most cases, will be detrimental to the product.

It’s never easy to defend your decisions, especially when the person questioning you is in a senior position. Take what you know about the people you work with and use it to your advantage. Based on what you know about your colleagues, you should be able to anticipate how they might react to your ideas.

By identifying their values and motivations, you may better understand their perspective and be able to make a good guess at how they might react to your designs. Also, use your insight into that perspective to prepare answers and reasoning in advance—this will make it a little easier to defend your decisions.

Good public speaking and communication skills also allow you to present new ideas and designs to key stakeholders and get them on your side early on in the game. By presenting your process to them in advance and showing that there’s thought behind every decision, you are giving them insight into how their project will progress while demonstrating the amount of work that is involved.

Most stakeholders and clients don’t fully understand the work involved in designing a site or an app. Explaining your approach to the design process and your proposed solution or any issues or challenges you foresee will go a long way to helping cure HiPPO syndrome. It requires a combination of educating, informing and evangelizing all at the same time.

To talk business. Design deserves a space at the head of the table; it deserves a chance to shine. It’s exhilarating to realize we are in an age where this is more common, but if this is where we want design to remain and grow from, as designers, we really need to be able to talk business.

If we truly want the opportunity to influence how organizations work, we need to go beyond the aesthetics and customer goals—we need to participate in conversations about business objectives, technical solutions, timelines, budgets, process, resourcing—the list goes on. We need to be politically aware and have exceptional interpersonal skills, including emotional awareness, and excellent communication skills.

For most designers, talking business does not come naturally. It can be hard to overcome your resistance to being up front, but from the moment you step into the room, be confident, pleasant and professional. Don’t take a back seat. Give a firm handshake and make eye contact. Throughout the meeting, participate in small talk and, without coming across as pushy or arrogant, make sure your voice is heard.

During discussions, speak up and use your body language to communicate confidence. Try not to over-communicate or take a bullying stance—pause regularly, listen attentively, and give time for questions. This may seem basic, but people often struggle to establish themselves when they are out of their comfort zone.

Next week, we’ll continue the discussion of best strategies for better remote communication for designers.

This article originally appeared here, and it reprinted with permission from the author.

Written by Bronwen Rees for CW Magazine.

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