5 Disciplines of Successful Design

I recently read a good article about “raising up your design I the way it should go”. It drew parallels between raising children and producing good mature products/designs. One of the things in the article that struck me was the concept of discipline.

The article really didn’t go in depth into discipline but provided some good talking points about discipline and design. The more I unpacked these concepts, the more I saw their value in my everyday approach to design and or development.

In an effort to communicate the value I found in them, I have broken them down into five bite sized pieces… yum!

Know who you are designing for, and what they need

This may sound simple, but it can become so easy to rely on what we know (or think we know) about design, marketing, development, and related fields. The truth of the matter is

“What worked on another project (or in the past), will not work for this one”

Even if they are very similar, each project, each client has individual needs, and though they may be similar to past projects or clients, they are not past projects or clients. They will need individual solutions that are right for their project, and relevant to its needs today. This is where research comes in as a key component.

Knowing your client and what they need isn’t giving them the best design; it is giving them the perfect solution.  Yes visual appeal is very instrumental, but not at the cost of functionality, or even more importantly conversion. Our clients are counting on us to help them achieve a very distinct part of their vision.

“The ability to approach each client with fresh eyes will open up opportunities for fresh insight, which then increases the chances of successfully delivering the perfectly tailored solution.”

Yes our past experiences should shape our ability to understand, adding to our knowledge base and valuable lessons learned, but they should not be the end all. A fresh approach, research, listening to clients, and thinking outside of the box are all steps on the road to successful solution driven designs and or products.

Set Boundaries

I am sure that most of us have dealt with scope creep, complete 180’s, non-paying clients, etc. All of these situations can be frustrating, but more times than not they are the result of not setting boundaries, I often have to remind myself that If I don’t value my design, then no one else will. Yes we should pursue making clients happy, and I am all for going the extra mile for them, happy clients usually lead to more clients. By setting boundaries we are setting up a foundation of communication that will help us with project time frames, revision processes, and the payment process.

Besides setting client boundaries it is just as important that we set up personal boundaries. Knowing our limits when taking on projects is huge, we all need to make a living but overwhelming ourselves so that we are not delivering projects on time, or are not putting the right amount of time and effort into them is so detrimental to client relations, or reputation, and our own moral. Working under constant pressure and frustration is not very conducive to a creative environment, nor does constantly felling like you are not accomplishing tasks at the level you want to.

Set boundaries for clients, use contracts, get things in writing, and communicate. Set boundaries for yourself, know your abilities, and know that amount of work you can handle, if need be outsource, refer, and do whatever it takes to stay refreshed.

Know How and When to Say No

Working with clients as a freelancer, or different departments/ management at an in-house job can prove to be frustrating at times, especially when the requests are outside of the project specifications, or due to some one else’s lack of planning and or discipline.

The key here is to understand project needs in relation to your workload. What are the priorities on your list of projects? This is where having a project management set up is so helpful. So now that you see the request in comparison to workload, time lines, budgets, and company/client focus, how to communicate those two simple letters… NO.

The key is to not actually say “NO” even though it may be the correct answer for the situation. The term “NO” is perceived, and received in a negative way the majority of the time it is received as a response to a request. What I have found useful is to ask more questions, find out what the real need is, openly compare it with the person asking, and make proposals for a new solution i.e.

“So if I do this new request, then it looks like this time line will not be met, or we will start to move outside of your current budget. What would you advise?”

The ball is now in their court with a bit of a better understanding of your situation, and ability to meet their needs. It always pays to educate the client, to ask leading questions to help find ways for them to understand the situation. Paul Boag gave a great lecture on this topic last year at FOWD New York, I highly suggest watching his session.

It is ok to not do something for the good of a project, to say no (without actually saying it). The key is knowing when and how.

Understanding that design/product development is a marathon, not a dash

This is such a crucial discipline, deadlines, desire to get things out, client and financial pressures, and management goals can hinder our ability to create quality user experiences. Yes some designs and or projects will move pretty quickly, but more times than not it is imperative to take your time pace yourself, revisit, rethink, and retool the design, so that it can reach it’s full potential.

Ask anyone who runs, sprinting and marathons are two different worlds, and require to completely different approaches, and training methods to insure success. As much as we have control we should be pushing for a steady well-paced approach to our projects, breaking them out in phases, and making sure that we are helping them solve the right problems and answer the right questions.

Though it may not apply to every situation I have really taken a liking to the phrase “Slow and steady wins the race”.

Know that not every “improvement” is a good “improvement”

Features, features, features, more product enhancements, and slicker features means more revenue right? Not so much, this can be a very tricky area as designers and developers.

A client may see some shiny animated gif, or person walking out onto the page introducing themselves (slightly extreme examples) and they are sure that they must have that, and why shouldn’t they, they are willing to pay for the revisions.

Here’s why they shouldn’t… all that glitters isn’t gold, though some enhancements may seem shiny or the next big thing, we need to be asking ourselves if they will help the site or product further accomplish their purpose, what design problems or questions do these pieces of “flair” help solve.

This is another place where educating the client is so crucial, and the best way to be prepared for that, is to educate yourself. I have found that my explanations and points are driven home and or validated when I have a reference point on the topic, a place where I can point them to why I am suggesting that poorly illustrated flash banners that introduce themselves in a robotic voice (another extreme example) are probably not going to increase conversions on their site (but then again who knows ☺).

I am sure we can all think of situations similar in working freelance, or in-house where clients, managers or the powers that be have suggested enhancements or features, or maybe there is a new sexy app, or plug-in that we find, and are just dying to implement. Time to compare, to see what value it can add to the current design, functionality, and overall experience. This raises the question about choosing not to implement something good to wait for something great (this is why phased approaches to design/dev are key), a decision that is definitely relative to project needs and goals.

Wrapping Up

In an effort to avoid being to long winded I will wrap it up here. Hopefully these disciplines can be nice reminders, or new practices to help us excel in our design efforts.

I leave you with the question “What disciplines have you implemented in your routine?” I would love to hear your thoughts on discipline and design.

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06. May 2009 by Aaron Irizarry
Categories: Design/Development | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 33 comments

Comments (33)

  1. Good post. Setting boundaries is huge, and is also one that I believe has happened to all of us at one time or another. I have had many wasted unpaid hours and headaches in the past due to the ever so famous “scope crepe.” These are all very good reminders and should be thought about often.

    I enjoy reading your posts, I find them very useful.

  2. I agree with you on the marathon approach to design/development. Oftentimes we have to bounce back-’n-forth on projects, and rush to get them done to meet deadlines.

    If we focused on completing one project at a time, and took the time to research and plan the project out properly, I think we could meet the deadlines on all projects and produce higher quality designs that function properly (on the first try even).

    Good article.

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  6. Your blog really hits home with me. Non-paying client situations can be frustrating, but more times than not they are the result of not setting boundaries I really encourage people to get cash in advance and to take credit cards. That 2 to 3% is insurance. If you do work for a non-paying client you are not only causing yourself future problems and stress, but you are doing the same to them. If they are not paying, they are not your client they are your dependent and are using the money that they owe you to pay their other expenses and to grow their business.

    • @iris,
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
      Nice insights. Sometimes drawing up agreements, and setting boundaries can be time consuming, or maybe we don’t set boundaries because we don’t want to scare the client off.
      I say that if we don’t set boundaries a lot of the times we are going to get clients that we don’t want.
      We have to value our design, or others won’t.

      ~Aaron I

  7. Great article. Every young freelancer/budding entrepreneur should read this before setting out on their own.

    We’ve revised our business practices multiple times over the years to deal with these types of situations.

  8. It’s difficult to turn away clients but I think you expressed it correctly here, if the project is too big to take on or time is of the essence – “NO” works best for both parties.

    Nice article!

    • @Kristine
      It is hard to turn away clients… especially when money, is tight, or you really want the project. It really comes down to realizing that it isn’t a win/win when you don’t have the time to give that project the proper love.

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  10. Aaron,

    I like what you have to say about boundaries, but one thing you touched on that is a big passion of mine in the design process is communication. I find that in the client/designer relationship, the client really needs to be guided through the expectations and requirements of the process. This is best done through descriptive and mindful communication. I find that even if everything is written up in a contact, there can still be a lot of confusion and/or assumptions about the project. Assuring that the client knows all details (even if you think it is common knowledge), is essential in creating healthy client relationships and producing functional design.

    Joel Beukelman’s last blog post..Steve + Stephanie + Steve Jr.

    • @Joel Beukelman
      I couldn’t agree more, we can’t communicate enough. I have often said that even when we feel like we are going overboard, we are only beginning to communicate in a productive way. Assumptions are the beginning of failed projects.

  11. Aaron, Great article! Thanks for reminding us of some things that we often look over while grinding away at these projects. Its good to keep our minds focused on the true Disciplines :)

    Andy Sowards’s last blog post..Daily Links

  12. great tips, i think the marathon discipline is a step a lot of people fudge over, they want results now and don’t want to wait for quality.

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  14. I am a user experience design student. Your post was enlightening. Some questions I had regarding the post. Firstly if I am not working as a freelancer, how important are these above points? I was assuming myself working for some organization under a mentor or a lead designer. I guess then only some of the points from the above mentioned would be valid. Secondly how many of these points did you learn from your Experience as a freelancer?

    Thanks again for such a wonderful post.

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  18. Aaron,
    I found this article through Digg and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It definitely made me think about my design process. In the past I have been way to timid about setting boundaries for my clients and in more than one occasion, I got walked on. I just recently took on a new client and without realizing I did it (until I read this article), set boundaries for him. From the get-go I was upfront about costs, terms, and timeframes, which are areas of my timidness in the past (especially cost). I was speaking with my wife and told her I need to be more confident in myself and my abilities. I know what I’m worth and my clients need to too (you mentioned this point as well).

    Thank you for the post. It was an eye-opener.

    Mark Stoecker’s last blog post..Twitter has lost its novelty!

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  21. Found you via Charles Williams and the Magnt team – excited about Chat Creative. Good disciplines here – great article. Keep up the good work. Also… neck ink = impressive level of commitment. =]
    .-= Scott S.´s last blog ..3 Things Learned about Being a Freelancer =-.

  22. This is great thanks for posting it. Your words are always really helpful for designers, like me, just starting out. I really focuses in on “know how and when to say no.” I was recently in a situation with a local client who wanted much more from me than I could possibly provide. It was a difficult for me to say no because I am only a student and finding work doesn’t always come easy. Also, the work was primary to build my portfolio therefore I wasn’t being compensated.

    I think the combination of not being paid and designing so much in a short time (most of the time without any direction) became very frustrating. I felt that there was more “value” to my work and because of the situation I don’t think I was designing to the best of my ability. I knew it was time to say no, but I just didn’t know “how” to say know. Now I wish I would have read up on it first :). Your quote about how to get a client to better understand your situation is insightful. It’s about meeting their needs…and that’s always important to them.

    Thanks for the vid too, enjoyed it.

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  27. Ahhh setting boundaries. The most important thing I have to constantly work on.

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