Everybody has a different idea of what design is - and that's most of the problem. When you're trying to wrangle the conflicting opinions and priorities of your creative team, your sales people, your product managers and your customer support staff, it's only natural that consensus is going to be hard to find. We all agree that good design works. What we disagree on is how to make it work.
Most of us tend to notice design only when it fails, or when it suddenly meets all of our needs at once. Unfortunately, most projects have to aim for somewhere in the vast territory that exists between catastrophe and catharsis, and as a project manager your job will be to arrive at that destination safely and securely.
So how can you make design work in your project? What steps can you take today to synthesize conflicting priorities, ideas, opinions and prejudices among your team to arrive at the best design solution possible?
- Focus on the interaction. At the heart of your project - whether you're designing a trade show brochure or building next year's must-have sports car - is the interaction. At some point, an actual human being (who had nothing to do with your design process) is going to come into contact with your creation and come away changed. That change will reflect itself in the marketplace, and will inform the next generation of design choices.
Good design isn't about trends, or politics, or even personal preferences. It's about that interaction. Focus on that point of contact and let the rest go.
- Remember that design is a verb. Design isn't a noun. It's not a thing. It's not a layer of paint, or a curve of steel, or the right kind of paper. Design is a process, an ongoing movement towards simpler, more elegant, more effective states of being - essentially, a prioritization process wherein more is removed than added. Design is something you do. Don't make it something you own.
- Navigate the mental models. Each member of your team is approaching your design mission with a different set of assumptions and mental frameworks, and in a way, they're all correct. They simply are focusing on different aspects of the larger picture. What one team member finds intuitively obvious, others will find obtuse and difficult to relate to. An effective design process is very similar to therapy, where the success of your project will also rest heavily on your ability to psychologically navigate the inner needs of your team. They're your first round of customers.
- Work hard to keep your workflow smooth. Organization and realistic scheduling are crucial to a successful project, because any hiccups or delays can quickly snowball into major project crises as priorities and interests shift. The more smoothly your project runs, the better you will be able to keep your team focused on the design decisions that matter most. Where practical, consider outsourcing tasks that can benefit from outside, objective attention to detail.
- Aim for clarity. Bad design is built on distraction. We've all seen examples: logos that are too loud or large, elements that just don't seem to fit together, graphics designed to draw the eye but that don't accomplish much after that. Bad design happens when you lose sight of the underlying, bottom line goals that kicked off the design process to start with - making lives easier, easing workloads, reducing risk and cutting costs. Instead, those values are replaced with gut reactions and bad decisions.
The alternative? Clarity. We live in a world of information overload, obtuse messaging and pointless distraction. Don't be more of the same: simplify, clarify, and engineer your design process to eliminate waste and strip out the mental clutter.
Design isn't easy. It's not supposed to be. However, with the right focus and attention to process, it doesn't have to be its own worst enemy. In the end, quality design is supposed to be an enjoyable experience - fun, even - and is all about contributing meaningfully to the human experience. Keep the joy in the work.
Your company's bottom line will appreciate it. And you'll be more inspired by the design process yourself - a pleasure that ultimately results in great products and happy customers.