How to get a designer's best work for a logo, website, ad - anything

WrenchAlso posted at O'Reilly BroadcastA long time ago, I had to learn from scratch how to manage visual designers, after having started out as a composer and audio producer, with no training in graphic arts -- back then I thought of it as "the blind leading the deaf."

Luckily, I found that most of the skills I'd developed while working with sound carried over to other disciplines, too. There's one skill above all that I believe managers need to master in order to get the best work from a designer or any creative professional:

Talk about why, not how.

Tell your designer why you want the new design, not how it should be done.

For example, let's say you need a new logo. The why of that logo is probably that you want to express what you stand for to the people you want to reach. Tell your designer about that, using simple, emotional language.

Then let the designer design. That means allowing him or her to come up with solutions to the challenge you've posed, using the language of design -- a language you probably have not mastered to anything like the same extent.

Because if you have, why do you need a designer?

Unfortunately for many design projects, though, it's very common for managers to succumb to the urge to talk about how, not why -- in other words, to try to take over some or all of the designer's role.

Here's an example that shows the difference.

Talking about why:

"We want to reach adolescents and young adults who care about making a difference in the world. We want our logo to express energy, action, hope and fun."

Talking about how:

"I see that a lot people are using a vibrant green these days, so let's try that. But there are some greens I can't stand, so make sure you show me before you use one. And arrows express progress, so how about if we make the letter T into an arrow?"

With the "why" guidance, a good designer will quickly start to get a feel for solutions, drawing on a world of possibilities to explore-- a great many of which would probably never occur to a non-designer.

But with the "how" guidance, possibilities have been collapsed into the tiny corral just described by the manager. The designer's imagination has been fettered, the job has become harder, and the odds of a great result have grown longer. Note that this is true even if the manager's ideas are good ones. And often, the manager's ideas are, well, the kind of ideas non-designers tend to come up with, such as in the example above, where our imaginary manager is:

  • Chasing a trend (the vibrant green), without considering whether that trend matches the strategic objectives
  • Expressing a personal preference (about shades of green) when what matters is how the target audience will respond
  • Using a visual cliche (the arrow of progress), which will not help the design stand out.

None of this means that a manager should never suggest an idea. Good ideas come from all over, not least from managers. Good designers watch for them with an open mind. But it does mean that it works a lot better to make a good hire and then give the expert scope to do good work. If it turns out you haven't made a good hire, that's the problem you need to solve.

Telling your designer how to design is like hiring a plumber and then grabbing a wrench, pushing the plumber aside and starting on the pipes yourself. Design may look like more fun, but it's a craft, like plumbing is -- and in unskilled hands, the results can be nearly as messy.