Design Best Practices

How to Stop Pissing Off Your Designer

Andrew Littlefield By Andrew Littlefield October 6, 2016

How do you get a designer to talk at a cocktail party?

Ask them what non-designers do that drives them crazy.

It didn’t take much coaxing to get my coworkers and friends in the design field to offer up their beef for this article. To be honest, it’s hard to blame them — designers have to deal with a lot of crap in their line of work. We task them with taking a mess of information, organizing it, and creating a great user experience out of it.

That’s not easy.

Unfortunately, business stakeholders don’t make it any easier for our designer friends. On collaborative projects, designers often find themselves confronted with requests that are poorly communicated or suggestions that prevent them from doing what they do best.

Designers aren’t the only people on your team frustrated by a lack of collaboration. 86% of employees say collaboration issues play a role in workplace failures.

But if project stakeholders nixed these bad habits, the whole team could produce better work, faster.

To gain better insight, I sent a survey around to some talented designers and asked them to let their complaints fly. The results revealed some fantastic tips that will make any  creative team happier—and help you achieve better design results.

Trust Me, I’m a Designer

There’s a certain curse that comes with being highly skilled at your job: Outsiders can start to view what you do as “magic.”

This isn’t meant to be insulting; quite the opposite actually. Who among us doesn’t want people to be awestruck by our work?

The problem with this mindset is that it discounts the discipline, practice, and work that goes into being great at what you do.

It’s like watching Michael Jordan play and saying, “Wow, what a natural athlete!” Michael may have a lot of raw talent, but this comment ignores the fact that what made Jordan truly great were the obscene hours he put into practicing tiny details of his game.

And overlooking that work is a bit insulting.

It also leads to not trusting a designer’s experience and knowledge.

“It’s always frustrating when project collaborators think they know design better than an actual designer,” says Meredith Harding, graphic artworker at Ceros. “It doesn’t allow us to do our jobs well and create something aesthetically pleasing.”



Picture it like this: You don’t want to be the person who visits the doctor after reading a bit too much WebMD. Rather than explaining your symptoms and trusting the doctor’s extensive training and experience, you come in and tell the doctor what’s wrong and what she needs to prescribe to solve the problem.

In the end, no one is happy. Especially the patient.

“I’m trained for this. I’m not grabbing fonts blindly out of a hat,” echoes Melissa Wygant, Art Director at Ceros. “Respect that we’ve been trained in selecting these design elements, and try to keep personal tastes out of it.”

Try this instead: Design, like marketing, comes down to the audience and the message. Good marketers know how to keep their personal opinions out of their messaging and listen to the needs and wants of their audience. While designers certainly let their own style influence their work, they too must also put personal preferences aside to do what is best for the audience and message.

That’s where their training comes in.

“In an ideal world, we would get total creative freedom with a piece, but this isn’t an ideal world,” says Harding. “It’s great when clients show examples of the direction they want to take the piece and describe how we can improve on it to make it geared to what they are trying to accomplish.”

Damn It Jim, I’m a Designer, Not a Miracle Worker!

Ignorance of design processes can lead to another common headache: unrealistic expectations.

“When people ask for last minute changes, and then expect those changes immediately, it makes me cringe,” says animator Andrew Ahern, “If you want good work, you need to give it the proper amount of time.”

This headache oftentimes stems from a misunderstanding of how designers work. Most changes will affect other elements, resulting in multiple things that must be adjusted; hanging the size of one object can throw off the balance of another.

Among others, changes to copy can cause some of the biggest headaches.

“It’s so much more annoying for a designer to go into a design and change the copy than for it to be correct off the bat,” says another Ceros designer, “Copy changes often affect the design.”

Worse than copy changes is not having copy at all.

“I’ve had project collaborators who tell me ‘Design first, I’ll fill in content later,’” says Wygant, “The content is the design. Our job is to use layout, typography, etc. to best communicate the message of a piece.”

Face it: If your design could stand alone from the copy, you’re not using design resources properly. Design assets should work in harmony with copy to communicate a message, not just make that message look pretty.

Try this instead: Check and double check copy and other assets before handing them over to your design team. Make sure they go through editing before the design process begins. And if you have to make changes, make sure you schedule enough turnaround time to allow the designer to work and still ship the project on schedule.

What We Have Here is Failure to Communicate

While being overly prescriptive can hinder the design process, being vague and ambiguous doesn’t help matters either.

And there’s one ambiguous phrase that designers all over the country seem to hear constantly…

“Make it pop.”

“It’s so ambiguous,” says Wygant. “You have to be more specific than that.”

The problem with this term is that it has no real meaning. Are you looking to draw attention to one area? Make something more flashy and eye catching? If so, which part, and why?

“Open communication is key, but at the same time, you have to let the creative create,” says Tony Watts Jr., a digital designer with Compass Marketing & Consulting. “When each side is aware of the expectations of the other, the process is much smoother.”

Besides giving the designer nothing to work with, being ambiguous can stretch out the timeline for getting work done. If stakeholders are unsure of what they really want to achieve, projects can end up spinning their wheels waiting for some direction.



“Often times, project managers won’t admit they don’t know what exactly they want and end up floundering,” posits graphic designer Emilie Ahern.

Admittedly, there’s a thin line between being specific enough without being overly prescriptive. You don’t want to squash the creative freedom that allows designers to make great work, but you do need to give them some constraints to keep the work focused on the end goal.

Try this instead: Lean on the designer’s instinct and knowledge on how to best present information, but make sure the goals of the project are well defined. You don’t need to have all the answers, so long as you communicate that you could use some help with how to best present the main idea.

“Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know what you want, that’s why you went to a designer in the first place,” advises Ahern. “Give the designer ‘the Who and the What’ (audience and message), and let them have some input.”

Avoid “Us vs. Them” at All Costs

Remember, you’re all working towards the same goal. Designers want to make something that you’ll be happy with and meets your needs. But to successfully do that, you’ve got to set them up for success.

The danger in letting problems fester is that it can result in an “us vs. them” mentality, which can create a toxic environment.

To fight this, organizational experts recommend focusing on four “enabling conditions” when organizing teams — compelling direction, strong structure, supportive context, and a shared mindset.

Compelling direction comes down to goals. Does everyone know what the end goal of a project is, and is there some sort of underlying motivation in achieving that goal (either an external reward, or intrinsic motivation)?

Strong structure is an area in which you should embrace diverse skills and backgrounds. Your content marketers can be the go-to wordsmiths, and your designers can make the calls on visual components. Teams should be no bigger than necessary, however.

A supportive context gives your team the tools they need to be successful—funding, training, access to data, and rewards for achieving goals.

Finally, a shared mindset gets team members on the same page and helps avoid the “us vs. them” mindset. Shared knowledge and identity are the important goals in this area, and can keep the team working effectively.

Above all, keep lines of communication open and honest. Give team members (designers and otherwise) opportunities to give honest feedback about how processes can be improved. Leave ego and feelings out of the equation, and just focus on how every team member can be prepared to do their best work.

Then the next time your designers are at a cocktail party, they’ll make all their friends jealous when they say:

“Actually… my teammates are pretty great!”

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