Design and active listening
A while ago I posted several blogs dealing with the best ways I’ve found to keep all design-meeting attendees focused so that they listen carefully in order to confirm continually that you—the designer—have understood their comments and requests, both before the meeting and during it. Some pointers include:
- repeat back what the client describes, and ask if my interpretation is correct;
- compile a design memo (summation of our discussion, statement of client’s goal, and steps I plan to take to reach that goal);
- show the client a series of rough sketches throughout the process rather than present a finished sample-page design all at once;
- review the design memo with the client prior to presenting the sample design; and
- ask frequently whether the proposed design resolves the issues, answers questions asked, and meets the stated goal.
All of these are crucial—particularly when working with a client team—to keep everyone focused on and in agreement with the preeminent issue: Is the design process moving in the right direction? If you keep this on track, design revisions become a simple retooling of individual parts in order to strengthen the overall design concept.
A frequently encountered and always tricky stumbling block crops up when a client has a fixed preliminary picture—literally or metaphorically—of what the design must convey. Usually this is expressed through excited descriptions in industry-specific terms, often accompanied by the flopping about of examples that “almost get it,” but need to have elements A, B, and Z added, while D, F, and X must be omitted. Even the most innovative interpretation of a client’s early-stage vision can backfire if it is a bad fit—i.e., if it distracts from what the material and publication need to communicate.
The case I’ve chosen to illustrate how this sort of thing can send the dominos skittering is a museum book I designed several years ago. My clients’ goal was to end up with “an exhibition catalog that projects the look and feel of a fashion magazine.” They bubbled enthusiastically about how this idea would work, and as copies of Vogue and WWD and Elle flopped about, their strong commitment to this notion made it clear that I had to turn something vague into a solid concept.
Being asked to apply a “magazine design aesthetic” to an illustrated book generally raises a bevy of red flags in my head. By design, a periodical [noun; a magazine or newspaper published at regular intervals] needs to present many distinct, unrelated, short-form articles, while an illustrated book requires an overarching design that holds readers’ attention from beginning to end and assists them in connecting related essays and references throughout the story.
The clients were excited by the liveliness of fashion magazine layouts as we leafed through recent issues of their favorites, but from what they said, I got the mistaken impression that they understood that the piece we were producing was a museum catalog that included scholarly essays, so an un-magazinelike restraint also was needed.
I worked out several sketches and proceeded to pare down the “fashion magazine aesthetic” to what I considered an appropriately sedate level, employing a brighter color palette and stronger display typography than many such catalogs normally would. I presented the design samples with some trepidation, which was well-founded as it turned out.
The presentation did not go well. The concept they had requested was ill-suited to this particular catalog not to mention unsuitable for projecting the museum’s carefully honed brand. My clients were unpleasantly surprised, perhaps even a bit offended. The circle of opinion givers was widened by the marketing and development offices, and that just fanned the flames firing up the core group’s anxiety. Confidence in my abilities—even taste—plummeted.
Another meeting was hastily arranged, and the looks of dismay on my client’s faces (not to mention sotto voce comments) suggested that I was to be replaced by another designer.
I very quickly opened this second meeting by stating that, while the project was a museum catalog for an intriguing, unusual exhibition, the material demanded to be presented in an equally engaging manner, but one that would still be recognizable immediately as an exhibition catalog. There was no room for a catalog-magazine hybrid. Suggesting we scrap the previous concept altogether and start again, I asked for 10 days to do this.
A week later I presented a brand new sample design that received a unanimously favorable response as well a collective sigh of relief. All the dominos stood back up before too many could tumble.
Photograph: David Benbennick
Peter Blaiwas on Wed, Sep 25, 2013