Lost In Translation

August 7th, 2012 by Mat Dolphin

“I’m not sure, I just think it needs a bit more, you know… wow”

The majority of designers reading this will have have been there, in a conversation with a client who is simply unable to articulate exactly what it is about the design that’s not quite right. And yes, it can be frustrating. Adding a bit more ‘edge’ or injecting some ‘life’ into a piece of design are fairly vague words that can be interpreted in a number of different ways, and extracting exactly what a client is trying to communicate can often result in more confusion than clarity.

Designers need to be able to talk about relatively subtle visual references. We’re regularly required to explain to people (clients, account managers, other designers), the reasoning and thought process behind our design decisions – it’s part of our job. Hopefully, like other practices we have to do on a daily basis, we improve until we’re pretty good at it. We can talk about our work easily and articulately. Designers who have worked together for a long time can become adept at discussing work in incredibly efficient ways, understanding what the other is getting at increasingly quickly and accurately (we recently attended a talk at which Adrian Shaughnessy spoke of the almost telepathic way in which design partnership Non-Format work together).

So to find yourself trying to get feedback on a piece of work from someone who hasn’t honed this skill can be difficult. But we do have to keep in mind the reason why a client may find it hard to describe how they feel about the details of a design; it’s most likely something they’ve never had to do. Many people who commission design work aren’t designers, if they were, they may well have done it themselves. Many clients are people who are briefing, feeding back and approving their new branding or website for the first time. We need to bear this in mind and give them a break.

The fact that the majority of people struggle to tell you exactly why a certain typeface or colour doesn’t work doesn’t mean that they’re wrong to question such details. Design by it’s nature shouldn’t be aimed solely at designers, and the subtleties that are so difficult to pinpoint can be massively important.

So how do you get past this language barrier? We’ve spoken recently about the importance of allowing your work to speak on behalf of the client, but helping the client to speak to you is another skill that must be developed. A bit of empathy is needed. The person you’re talking to doesn’t always know how to talk about your work in the way you do. In our experience, designers are often pretty geeky about their specialist subject (we include ourselves in this generalisation) and we can’t assume that everyone shares our interest, knowledge and trainspotter-esque nerd-speak.

Any successful designer / client relationship needs to work as a two-way collaboration and an appreciation of the fact that you’re approaching the work in two very different ways is essential. Talking about the importance of aligning the custom ligature to the x-height of the tightly kerned Akzidenz Grotesk might make it appear that you know what you’re talking about, but there’s a pretty good chance it will alienate and confuse a client who has no idea (or interest) in the finer points of typography.

Discussing your work in non-patronising, lingo-free terms and listening to what you’re being told is a major part of the design process. Most people are more experienced than they realise in picking up on subtle visual nuances, but speaking about them is a different matter and something that is worth bearing in mind the next time you’re being asked to add some ’sparkle’ to your work.

Thanks for reading,

Phil & Tom

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