Navigating the emotional design process

I want to address a certain elephant in the room: the design process can be emotional. But I have good news: there are ways to navigate it so that it doesn’t get in the way of great results.

Design is emotional for a variety of reasons, whether that’s positioning a company, launching a new product, or creating a new experience. But design isn’t always easy, in fact, it can be downright emotional. First, it’s subjective. Clients and designers are people first and foremost, and with that comes varying opinions and preferences. Second, design is more art than science (although as our name suggests, good design should be both). Art isn’t always easily explainable, especially for people who do it day in and day out. For instance, abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock divided critics with his extreme form of abstraction, yet his paintings have sold for upwards of $200 million some 60 years after his death. Last, but certainly not least, design is highly visible and important to a company.

This mix of subjectivity, uncertainty, and anxiety is a perfect breeding ground for friction. I know, because I’ve seen it firsthand. But after nearly three years at Studio Science, I’ve also seen a number of ways to nearly eliminate that friction.

As the Director of Creative Operations at Studio Science, I was often a liaison between our clients and our designers. While I’m not a designer, I do have an eye for it (even if I can’t physically do it) as I studied it in school. I had also spent many years prior to joining Studio Science working in various customer service roles in retail and fashion. I think my knowledge of design without being an actual practitioner, combined with my customer service background, gives me an edge when it comes to navigating this emotional process.

When it comes down to it, it’s about creating a connection and smoothing a path for creativity to happen that works in the real world. It starts by having a clear understanding of the client’s goals, their likes (and dislikes), and having a clear definition of what success looks like for each project. It’s about avoiding assumptions. Just as clients can’t assume they know what their customers need and want without a lot of discussion and homework (which is something we can help with as well), we can’t assume we know what our client’s need and want without doing the same.

Once you know what success looks like, it comes down to building the relationship and finding common ground in the design process. Here are three areas I focus on the most to achieve this:

  • Expectations: Like any good, healthy relationship, clear expectations upfront are key to success, which is why it’s a big part of our onboarding. For starters, make sure prospective clients know who their team will be and that there is no bait and switch with an A team and a B team. On any new project or with any new client, be upfront from the onset on what is expected from them to ensure a smooth (and ultimately successful) project. This includes what stakeholders need to be involved in input, timelines for providing comprehensive and cohesive feedback, roles and responsibilities outside of their main stakeholder group, and how many revisions are required. By setting these clear expectations at the beginning of any project, you minimize the risk of disappointment, miscommunication, or frustration down the road.
  • Empathy: When ego and emotions are involved, it can be easy to take feedback or criticism personally. As a client advocate, I always attempt to put myself in their shoes (and even their customer’s shoes) and have learned that oftentimes clients are under extreme pressure. When you can recognize this and approach these relationships from a place of empathy, focusing not just on the project goal but what their goal is, it helps reaffirm that we know our job is to make them look good. When clients can view us as an extension of their team by showing how invested we are, it alleviates client anxieties while instilling confidence and trust in our team.
  • Engagement: As the agency, we believe every interaction with a client is an opportunity to instill trust and confidence in the process, but also to build genuine relationships. This happens through the traditional channels of meetings, emails and phone calls, of course, but it also happens in the space in between. It happens when you take the time to stay on top of important news around their company, being active with them on LinkedIn (and even Instagram), and inquiring and learning about their families and hobbies. I don’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I could tell you the names of a former client’s dog and children from five years ago. So, engage, engage, engage. As I mentioned above, we are people first and foremost, after all.

At the end of the day, the client + agency relationship is like many others. It will inevitably have its ups and downs, but if you’re able to approach it with open communication, set expectations, and more empathy than ego, chances are you won’t just have a successful project in the end, but a healthy long-term relationship, too.

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