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July 24th, 2018

Trust the Designer That Tells You “No”

Scenario: The client was ready to take the plunge. Armed with third-party market research, sales projections, and quarterly targets, the company chose to engage with a design partner, and presented them with a precise mission. A mission not open for debate. They wanted technical excellence with timely execution. The design partner rose to the challenge, and labored with skill and passion to deliver on the mission. But the mission parameters were flawed, and the design team ultimately unveiled the world’s most beautiful, best engineered, and highly innovative product that nobody wanted.

The end. Literally.

I’ve watched this scenario play itself out many times. Design agencies are known and lauded for their ability to tackle any challenge and produce exciting results. It’s usually a good thing. It’s thrilling to partner with a talented team that says “yes” in a world that resonates with “no.” The creative energy that a good agency infuses can be wonderfully contagious.

However, this can produce an unintended consequence. When design teams default to “yes,” for fear that they’ll be dismissed, an expensive project can become an exercise in forcing a square peg into a round hole. That is not true innovation.

That’s how experience has taught us to question a “no” answer from our business partners. It’s easy and understandable to associate that with evasion, risk aversion, cowardice, or even laziness. In reality, a designer has little to gain by saying no. When designers are not seen as trusted advisors, “no” removes you from the playing field. “No” threatens to close the pipeline.

When your design team is given a seat at the table, that dynamic changes. Through your welcoming immersion and trusting openness, a design resource can become your strategic partner as opposed to a hired vendor. When designers are free to question your information and assumptions from the start, you can potentially avoid having projects run aground from a faulty compass setting. Sometimes, the most helpful thing your development resource can do for you is to be honest about the viability of your mission. Occasionally, a response of, “No, you shouldn’t do that,” is as much or more valuable to your business than saying, “We’ll make it happen.”

Consider carefully the most effective role of your creative resources, rather than merely what you are asking them to do. Recognize that it can be stomach churning to be the hired gun asked to create the next world-class vegetable peeler, when the future is in juice machines.

The best designers are motivated by immersion and empathy. When they’re robbed of the opportunity to know and understand your customer, they lose the ability to advocate for that customer. If your company is struggling to innovate, dominate, or disrupt, a focused design solution can be a great strategy. But take note, strategy is the key word. A polite “no” said in support of the cause can be an act of rescue. When designers are employed as need-finders and not just problem-solvers, your business wins.

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