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The Politics of Moving Minds

Innovation is not a science. Much of it has the elusive qualities of art, dressed up as useful things. But business leaders continue to try and invest in innovation as if it were a science. And too often, the designers they employ as consultants engage with these leaders not only as if it were an art but also as if their clients understood how to speak in “creative” terms. So we find these two parties speaking different languages, in need of a translator. And as often happens in translation, important context or nuance can be lost.

My experience leading Frog, a 1,000-person global creative organization, for 18 years, has left me with a few key insights about how the creative industry needs to improve its communication with its corporate clients. If we do, the result will be a win-win situation for companies, innovation consultancies, and, most important, consumers. We will all see more innovation come to market.

Here are five reasons why creatives need to improve how we interface with executives.

Seeing the Problem Through the Client’s Eyes

A group of young designers in a workshop recently came to me and complained that their clients were treating them as vendors. They expected more respect from the relationship. My answer was to ask them about the opposite situation: Were they treating their customers as “merely” clients? It turns out that’s too frequently the case. All basic qualities of customer service aside, the primary fault lies in designers’ failure to take the time to understand the full scope of a client’s specific challenge.

Our design role is often only a small part of the overall strategy one of our clients--or perhaps it’s better to call them customers--must put in place, especially in the world of product development. In this complex context, finance, planning, marketing, engineering, legal, business, manufacturing, service, retail, and distribution are all players in bringing a product to market. If we fail to see the big picture and do not effectively offer the corresponding empathies and context to our work, we can’t well expect much in return. My colleague Tim Morey, an experienced business-strategy consultant, frames the problem this way: Designers are looking at the world in terms of innovation, style, usefulness, quality, and other humanistic terms, while business leaders are looking at the world in terms of revenue and cost. Designers, unfortunately, have little experience to frame their arguments against these concerns. The question is how to frame our thinking in compatible language.

Finding the Lens Your Client Is Looking Through

Executives, or anyone else in a client role, are not a single breed of people. They come to the discussion with a particular lens on the work they hire designers to accomplish. Knowing this and directing your creative work to their context is key. Here is a diagram of a basic framework I use for this way of thinking.

Lately in design, it’s been very popular to speak of our work in terms of storytelling, but I believe that the story we tell is really made of (at least) three core lenses: narrative, parametric, and experiential. Through the narrative lens we describe our work through the sequential action of the user’s experience--often a day-in-the-life scenario for our target consumer. It’s the most basic form of storytelling. In our narrative, we illustrate how the proposed design will change something about the end user’s experience, or how they will behave. Second, the parametric lens is the physical description of your design. “It’s this big and has these features.” Lastly, the experiential lens is less about how we as designers describe the design but how we allow the artifact(s) of the design to tell their own story. It’s about how our customer, the client, takes in the qualities, the details, the story, through their own eyes at their own pace. As I often say, hand the model to your customers and then shut up.

It’s been my experience that our clients are typically looking though one of these lenses, and it is critical to figure out which one. With this you can tell a much better story. For example, I’ve seen my team deliver a world-class Narrative (with a capital “N”) of a new product design to a client only to learn later that what they really wanted was a parametric view on the same innovation. They needed to go back to their boss and tell him they had invented X new features. But our narrative did not frame that. Certainly those features were there, but our story did not make them stand out. In other words, they wanted the "new features" and the "improved metrics" to come through. If we would have set the narrative aside, or at least downplayed it and instead offered a breakdown of these key features and improvements, we would have secured their confidence more easily.

Another good example is the long-standing wisdom around a good interactive demo or model. If you are confident of the design, it’s sometimes wise to let the customers experience it for themselves. Let them play with it, use it, touch it. Don’t over-explain things. In this sense, it’s the heart that works best. In summary, it’s a strategic, artful mix of these three lenses that makes good interactions and presentations of our work with customers.

Staying at the Negotiating Table

There are two basic rules of thumb in effectively showing how you will make an idea real. The first is that progressively disclosing the evolution of your ideas and the corresponding design artifacts will help to bring the customer along for the ride, thereby developing deeper faith and understanding of the work. It serves to limit the distance the client can reasonably ask you to backtrack, since, arguably, they have been part of the development process.

The second rule of thumb is to simply be extremely sensitive to how sophisticated a client is about deliverable fidelity. We’re too often delivering low-fidelity work to a client who cannot understand what they are looking at. And even if they cognitively “get it,” they may still be emotionally unable to imagine what they can’t yet see or experience. These two rules are needed to interplay with each other.

Winning the war, not just the battles. This is a political tactic. Dealing with executives usually means dealing with people who got to their post by being determined and smart. When negotiating a complex set of decisions in a design, it’s therefore strategically wise to pick what fights you must win to make the product a success and which fights you can lose and still win overall.

I’ve seen designers lose the war because they could not gracefully give on a minor issue such as the placement of a button or choice of a color. Going further than this, there are many techniques to appear to give a client what they want while still retaining the qualities that you find critical for success. Central to this is the art of dissecting the issue in question into a set of properties. This may expose where the client’s intransigence lies. Then, the designer can build the argument back up, keeping in mind the client’s point of view.

I often say to my teams when they face a difficult situation, "If you want to win, the first rule is to be at the table. If you get kicked out of the discussion, then you can’t participate. So whatever happens, ensure that you stay at the table." In this case, it’s the negotiation table.

Talking In The Abstract

This is a pet peeve of mine about the modern design industry as a whole. We’ve built a huge industry around the rules, practices, and norms that surround the definition and creation of abstracts--tools to define and speak to what will later be turned into an actual product. The problem for us is that these things take on a life of their own and tell their own stories. The medium of CAD (computer-assisted design) and 3-D rendering makes an industrial designer think differently. The ease of making curvy forms in 3-D versus on the factory floor is an example. Wireframes, Photoshop, and Flash make a software designer think a certain way. But as these are not often the final form of the product, we need more time with the real materials.

What’s most profound about this issue is that many of our clients have little or zero experience with our abstracts and understand only the final medium. It’s often a tacit knowledge of the technology that got them there in the first place. The opposite can also be true: The client, coming from a marketing or finance background, knows absolutely nothing of the product. In either case, it’s important we do anything and everything we can to work in the most authentic medium we have. As technology matures, we will have more opportunities to develop our ideas and our designs within the final medium of the product itself--which, ideally, might usher in a new age of industrial-scale product design with the qualities of classical craftsmanship.

Be Your Own Mick Jagger

Lastly, all of these five ideas point to a simple truth: Design alone can produce wondrous beauty and innovation--but only on paper. Design must interface with the business world to get anywhere, and that interface requires deft and informed political skill. This brings to light an interesting philosophical point about what "good" design is in the first place. We often think of quality as an absolute measurement, as if there were some universal notion of quality. The simple truth is that many of our notions of quality need to be sold to our constituents as such.
Take Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. So this guy is an amazing singer and a beautiful man. But it’s because he acts the part. He chooses to be that persona. He wasn’t given it through some universal measure of talent and beauty. In the design world, this concept translates as, "It’s right because we say it’s right." This may sound arrogant, but until our work gets out into the world to be judged by users, this kind of bold faith is what creates great design. The formula for successful innovation is the combination of inspired design, solid execution, and political savvy. And it’s this last part of the equation where we designers too often fall short. My call to designers is to embrace the politics of moving minds with the passion you bring to the design itself.

This article was originally published in FastCo.