AB Thinks  →  17th October 2018

How great design happens

Looking back at the different roles I’ve had as a designer, I’ve come to realise what it is that separates a good designer from a great one.

So often a client will tell me what they need me to create. In the past my knee-jerk reaction would be to create it on command, immediately, to make sure I hit the deadline.

But with  eight years’ experience now under my belt, I’ve realised that building on command never ends well. People usually ask for things they want, not necessarily what they need. I always think back to one awkward moment that helped me understand this.

My first job was a mid-weight at a major design firm that had a programme where art directors mentored new designers when they joined.

My mentor had a meeting with a big client and invited me to come along, shake some hands and observe the kick-off session. I had been there only a few weeks so I had no idea what to expect.

As soon as they all sat down, the client immediately whipped out a presentation that outlined exactly what they wanted, down to the colours and fonts. They had essentially predesigned the entire project.

My mentor looked away from the presentation and simply asked: “What are your goals for your business?” The client looked a little confused and taken aback. After about five seconds they responded with something along the lines of “Um… that’s a whole other conversation. This is what we want you to create.”

Later, I admitted to my mentor that the sudden turn in the conversation made me squirm because of the awkward silence (five seconds feels like a long time in a room full of people!) and the client’s initial response – they were visibly very uncomfortable. My mentor just grinned and said: “I had to do it. I was making sure that I clearly understood the problems they need to solve.”

Good designers take orders and hand over exactly what a client wants. Great designers go deep to uncover what a client actually needs. I wasn’t aware at the time how that awkward moment would affect me. It has pushed me to focus on becoming a great designer and, today, I’m much more comfortable with those five second silences.