Co.Design

Fab Founder On 5 Ways To Navigate Design Politics

Designers, it's time for some real talk, from Fab cofounder Bradford Shellhammer.

Once upon a time I worked with a design team. Actually, that’s not true. I’ve worked with a myriad of design teams during my career. Over and over. And merchant teams. And editorial teams. And there is this thing that always exists. Contempt. Contempt for others who don’t understand design. Or trend. Or editorial voice. (I have a design degree. I feel your pain. But get over yourself. Really.)

Here’s a big secret. All humans understand design. Trend. Editorial voice. This is not rocket science. It’s art. Art is for everyone. Design, too.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I respect designers. And merchants. And writers. And artists. And photographers. And most of my life has been rooted in championing the talents of designers, artists, writers, and photographers. It’s why I created Fab.com. It’s why Shellhammer & Company exists. But let’s not pretend that design is as complex as rocket science. Or engineering. Or heart surgery. It’s just not. Yeah, I said it.

And because of this designers have to deal with the fact that others will have opinions. And that’s okay. Opinions of people who have never studied color theory or creative writing or know what kerning is are invaluable to designers (and writers and creatives and artists). Why? Because they force us to face our work and defend it and fight for it.

And sometimes change it. Yes, sometimes we change our work. Outside opinion is good. Designers don’t know everything. And dialogue is the key to results. With that said I give you five ways to maneuver design politics:

IN DESIGN NO ONE IS RIGHT (WELL, USUALLY NO ONE IS RIGHT)

Yes, you. Yes, YOU! Designer. You. You don’t know everything. Design (which includes writing, art, creative work, etc. for this essay) is subjective. And everyone deserves a right to an opinion. Especially the CEO. Colors? Fonts? Images? Layouts? Yes, even your CFO should be welcome to share his or her opinion.

Your job as a designer is to solve a problem. It’s to articulate visually. It’s to SUPPORT the business. You’re support staff just like the receptionist and the general counsel and the facilities manager. Making peace with that, that you’re a support function, will allow you to focus on what you should be worrying about and getting energized about and fretting about: DESIGNING. That’s your job.

IN DESIGN WE HAVE TO BRING PEOPLE ALONG WITH US

Too often creative professionals listen to business professionals, take it all in, and then spit out what they want. Not what the business stakeholders wanted. I see it all the time.

Designers like to pop their headphones on and escape into work. Writers too. And artists. Designers can be solitary people who emerge from their work with the answers that will fix everything.

Wrong.

Working in a solitary silo is just as bad as team silos. Part of the job of a designer is to bring people with you. Listen to everyone. Engage everyone. Meet with them and show them your iterations. Your mood boards. Your ideas in rough, ugly, unpolished form. This may make more work for you. But it will make better work, and it will make others want to work with you.

Trust. Trust is a designer’s best friend. And you earn it. You don’t just get it.

IN DESIGN SMILES MATTER. A LOT.

D'oh! Designers get to make things! Making things is fun. Grouchy designers, GO AWAY! The world does not need you. If you’re a curmudgeon designer seriously think of a new career. We designers have the best jobs in the world. If you’re walking around with a look on your face suggesting otherwise I suggest you get a new job. Or a new face. I know just the person in Beverly Hills who can assist.

Milton Glaser is happy. Yves Behar is happy. Donatella Versace looks happy (but that might be a result of surgery not eternal sunshine).

Seriously though. Designers, you get to make the world a better, more beautiful, and more functional place. How could you not be smiling? Finance, eh, I get their frowns. Excel can do that! But design? Really? Just stop. And if you cannot control your inner Grinch, may I suggest a new career? Accounts Payable is hiring I hear. (JK AP!)

IN DESIGN TORTOISES BEAT HARES

Sometimes we have to design fast. That’s okay. But the best design is not rushed. It’s thoughtful. It’s calculated. It’s not design for the sake of design. It’s slowly and surely addressing a need and a desire and delivering on it, learning from it, altering because of feedback and usage, and then starting the process all over again.

Cut off your ears! Learn to love your shell!

You won’t fix things overnight. But you might help in fixing things and solving problems over months. Quarters. Seasons. Dare I say, years?

Your shell is your friend. Retreat into it to design. Emerge from it to present and listen. Never rush though. A blustering, out-of-breath designer has no fans, no friends. And you need people on your side, Turtle-butt.

IN DESIGN POLITICS IS NOT A DIRTY WORD

The design of human relationships and teams is not something taught at RISD. Parsons does not have a class on how to make your boss look good (they should though, Joel Towers, and I am available, hello!). Pratt will not have a symposium on what not to say and what to say to the people you meet on the way up your career ladder. But trust me, politics is something all designers should study.

Politics is not a dirty word. It’s really not at all. The best politicians listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. And then they inspire. And then they listen again. And they keep listening and taking everything their constituents say and they then champion those needs, wants, and desires. And they do it in a way that makes everyone feel their voice was heard.

The best politicians are not the ones who try to be everything to everyone. They’re the ones who take their skills and couple that with the needs of their constituents (your company) and then make hard, but thoughtful, and inclusive decisions.

That’s what you need to do, designers.

A version of this article originally appeared here.

[Image: Mesembryanthemum daisy flowers via Shutterstock]

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21 Comments

  • Joe Szczepaniak

    All I can say to the author is that I could not work for him. Rocket Science is design. Every heart surgery involves tools that were designed. As the CEO of a company, you should trust the people that you have hired to do the job they have expertise and insight in. Any good business person should allow key stakeholders to weigh in on any design. Those key stakeholders need to stop seeing design as being subjective to them. Color theory doesn't make my opinion matter more. Because I don't use my personal opinion when I design. I use the end users opinion, which I collect with academic precision as often as I can. This isn't about what colors you or I like. It's about the fact that I have data and experience to tell me what the average person who encounters my design will think of it. Leave your own ego out of the equation, and it will be easier for your designer to, as well. Art is not for everyone. Coloring and finger painting are for everyone. Art is science.

  • Actually, this is a great article and very true. I own a design agency in NYC and have found, through many years of doing this, that these bits of advice are true virtues.

    Not all clients will push me into the best solutions—indeed, sometimes the money and time aren't there. But when I really listen to what the client wants, I can find other smart and beautiful ways to get there that both sides can be proud of. Thank you for a very smart article.

  • Luis Filipe Menezes

    well, you cant compare Milton Glaser, Yves Behar or Donatella Versace to the normal average designer who has to do what the client wants(even if he is "wrong") or else no paycheck.

    Then some design gurus say "f** the client, follow your passion", others say "listen to them". I guess the right path, as always, is somewhere in the middle (?)

  • Kevin Redman

    I think you're being a bit reductive about design. There are many different roles and flavors, and not all design benefits from lots of feedback. It can lead to mediocrity.

    A designer's job is also to save a client from themselves.

    “The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.” — Paul Rand

    This is true of C suite execs and entrepeneurs much as anybody else. The key is listening and hearing the real message about what is missing from your proposed solution.

    Business is a risk averse environment. You have to hold hands to get risk-taking work produced. I'm sure Paul Rand scared the crap out of IBM.

    Good ideas are scary.

  • The guy that wrote the article is an entrepreneur, he delegates, he does not design. If you type his name into google, there are no visual or physical designs by him.

    He does however self promote, ..delegate, and command. .....and self promote again.

    Its easier to talk about something when you don't do it, especially if you are getting self promotion out of it.

    ..When his 'design' shows up on google, work that he has created and collaborated on and compromised on, then i will listen, until then i will just add him on Instagram and look at the many selfies he has and his opinions on things.

    Then again, I could always just look for a designer, not a self important entrepreneur.

    To conclude this article is essentially the wrong person voicing his irrelevant opinion on something he does not do.

  • Industrial design actually IS akin to engineering, and sometimes involves rocket scientists and even brain surgeons when one is designing the various tools and machine interfaces that these highly specialized and skilled fields use. Heck, even designing something as deceptively simple as a running shoe requires all sorts of insights into human behavior, physiology, biometrics, materials science, static and dynamic loading, etc. Having clarified that, Brad makes some good points. Creatives are sometimes challenging to deal with because their egos are often tied to their creations. Ever criticize a kid to their Mom? Prepare for a defensive verbal backlash or, at the very least, soul burning stares of betrayal and silent contempt. Hey designers: get over it! Designers are NOT artists per se. We employ artistic skills, amongst others, in service of industry and commerce. Good designers are good listeners, observers, and collaborators.

  • Bradford Shane Shellhammer

    You're absolutely right. And I would lump ID into the engineering world. My essay was more on UX, graphic, editorial/writing, a lot of product design, fashion design, commercial art ...

    HOWEVER ... even the CEO of those companies deserve and demand the respect to talk about details of design, but, yes, have a less a say when it's less about aesthetics and more about function.

  • My business partners are not designers or engineers. They're generally ignorant of the technical aspects of product development. As such, they are an invaluable source of honest and unabashed feedback. Aside from not caring how many hours I spent laboring on a clever mechanism or perfecting a surface, they more closely represent the users. Designers are experts and experts can't be trusted to distance themselves from their work to see through the eyes of the layperson. I can't tell you how often my partners have help me see past my tree and revisit the forest. A diverse team of collaborators is key to healthy creative development. Any organization, small or large, invariably comes w/ unique group dynamics born of the various personalities, agendas, perspectives, and knowledge of its members. Learning not only how to navigate, but truly appreciate and even foster a little creative conflict can yield valuable insights.

  • I couldn't disagree more with this article. And coming from a "designer" is even more disappointing. A lot of good valid points but a lot of misinformation as well that will only empower people in positions of authority step even deeper on our faces.

  • Bradford Shane Shellhammer

    Curious: why is the assumption that people want to step on you? Why not change your perception to assume others will lift you, not trounce on you? That change in attitude often times makes it a lot easier, fun, and collaborative. Have you really been stepped on your entire career by people with power? If so, work somewhere where that does not happen!