Co.Design

5 Invaluable Tips Designers Can Learn From Waiting Tables

It’s useful to remember that design is a service. And few things can teach you the intricacies of service like catering to hungry, impatient, and occasionally intoxicated strangers.

I quit my desk job the moment I decided to become an industrial designer. I’d been in charge of a five-person department in a fast-growing company and suddenly found myself waiting tables, being barked at like I was the dumbest person on the planet. But a flexible schedule was the only thing that would permit me to hone the skills I needed to change careers. So I took a leap of faith.

It’s useful to remember that design is a service. And few things can teach you the intricacies of service like catering to hungry, impatient, and occasionally intoxicated strangers. The low end of the food-service totem pole offers lessons that apply directly, unforgivingly, to the business of design.

Experience is king

The owner of the restaurant where I worked was a total fanatic about every aspect of a customer’s experience--chairs pushed in exactly four inches from the tables, plate rims sparkling clean for entrée presentation, servers perfectly groomed no matter what the time of day or how hectic the room.

The focus on customer experience that I learned in food service also extends to design. All elements of client interaction, such as emails, phone calls, and presentations, provide a chance to heighten that experience. And while it’s obvious that good communication is standard in any industry, not just design, creatives should push it a step further.

2. Tailor communications to fit

A few years ago, Soulcake met with one of our clients--a golf company that does not sponsor Tiger Woods--to review concepts for future golf clubs. Each concept in the presentation deck had a woman’s name: Rachel, Mindy, Jamie. Finally, one of the engineers in the back of the room got the joke. “Hey! These are all Tiger Woods’s mistresses!”

The joke engaged everyone in the room and helped them buy into the ideas being presented. But it also worked on a deeper level. By creating an experience that showed that we could relate to them by capitalizing on events that were relevant to their industry, we set the table for an ongoing relationship that continues to this day.

There’s no one-size-fits-all secret to creating client interactions. (The irreverent humor in the example above definitely wouldn’t fly with more serious clients.) Creating positive experiences requires effort. You have to really understand your client before you can tailor your interactions to fit them. So be smart and curate your client’s entire experience, not just the deliverables.

3. Design your words

Choose your words carefully when you’re talking to your clients or presenting your work. (The “arrogant designer” stereotype isn’t entirely unfounded.) Being self-congratulatory about the amazing deliverables you’ve produced has absolutely no place in client interaction. Your client is paying you to distinguish their brand.

In restaurant speak, for example, you always ask, “Are you still enjoying your appetizer?” not “Can I take that plate?” The former tells customers that you’re confident about the quality of the food and that you’re concerned with their experience. The latter communicates that you’re rushing to turn the table.

Similarly, even the most insightful design solution won’t be appreciated if you deliver it in a way that’s not client-centric. Always tie your concepts to what your client has told you in the past. Show them how you’ve designed the product according to their needs and directive, and break the process into clear steps. And always focus on the client’s strengths, not their weaknesses.

4. Remember that tastes differ

Just as some people will never be happy with the food you bring them, some clients may simply be geared to say no. In the restaurant business, newbie servers get indignant over this. (“That guy at Table 7 is a total jackass.”) But food service veterans know that the customer’s personality isn’t always the problem. Even if the service is superb and the food delicious, it may just be a matter of taste.

The same holds true for design work. You’ve provided the client with excellent service. You’ve crafted quality deliverables. You’ve chosen your words with heartfelt sensitivity and concern for the client’s goals. You have that gut-level pride that we all feel when we’ve done great work.

Maybe your client is simply looking for something different.

Make sure you’re keenly aware of the tone, style, and suggestivity of your work. And do be upfront with clients about how you work--and be realistic about what you can provide. If you sense a disparity early enough, you may be able to avoid certain disagreements entirely.

If insurmountable differences arise (as they sometimes do), be graceful, thank the client, and move on. At best, you’ll earn their respect; at worst you’ll save yourself the headache of trying to please a client who is looking for something else. “Taste” is nothing to get upset about.

5. Play well with others

Anyone who has worked food service will tell you that the front-of-house (people who interact with customers) and back-of-house (kitchen staff) are often at each other’s throats. Cooks scream at servers for entering tickets incorrectly, while servers berate cooks for screwing up the food.

Designers beware. Pretentious bickering does no one any good.

One of my first contract design gigs came at a toy company in Los Angeles. As is sometimes the case, a gap existed between the engineers and designers in the office. I heard one designer describe the engineering department as “the place where great ideas go to die.”

I made it a point to bridge this gap. A few weeks into my time there, I received a challenging assignment--reduce the shipping footprint of an existing product without changing the dimensions of the final toy. I did a brainstorm at my desk and headed to the lead engineer’s office to discuss the project.

When my designs came to market several months later, they were largely unchanged from the prototypes I’d created during my time at the company. I suspect it was largely due to my conversation with the lead engineer. By crossing the front/back-of-house lines, I provided him with a sense of ownership over the project from the beginning.

In the context of design, disagreement is a part of the process. Every person has his or her own set of priorities, so opinions about what is best often differ greatly.

Respect leads to mutual respect. Act accordingly.

[Images: Food Service via Shutterstock

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5 Comments

  • swartz.jonathan

    Well said, Geoff. Your insights here are spot on. Service-industry experience teaches one so much more than those outside of it ever realize. I'll now get back to work, on the floor of my family's diner.

  • ChristineHawks

    Great advice, Geoff, that's not just limited to designers, but relevant to anyone in a service industry. I would also add to this article that hiring the right people for front-line customer interaction is invaluable. People never forget how they are treated and those employees that believe in the business and truly care about the customer will earn loyalty in the form of retention or repeat business.

  • Jeff Jones

    Word!
    This is good stuff, tasty. And true.
    "Creating positive experiences requires effort." is a worthwhile notion, not unlike Ashton Kutcher's "Opportunities look an awful lot like work."

    Let's go for it.

  • Cathy Cotter

    Excellent! Thanks.
    Everyone should work in food service and learn about “serving” the customer. I always thought waitressing would be a useful “back-up skill” if I couldnt make it as a designer. For more than 30 years I have worked as hard as I could because I never want to go back to waiting tables again! 

  • et2brute

    Great article. A waiter "Serves man, but is not a servant of man."  (quote from Life is Beautiful) and I think that applies to designers as well.