Je suis coupable

Design is a Job

Mike Monteiro’s ebook Design is a Job touches a lot of subjects on running a web design agency. A lot of gut-wrenching subjects to say the least.

I have lived Mike’s ebook where I work. It’s refreshing to know that client-supplier relationships in the States are quite similar to the relationships in France. Contracts, design criticism, collaborative issues, presentation tactics, etc, you name it, we’ve been there. I suppose that’s the way it is in most B2B businesses. It’s a relationship that requires both parties to communicate often to one another and search for common ground.

But Mike was particularly poignant on selling design. In particular, presenting design work before you get a deal. And I am here to go on record, that I am guilty of 1st degree designing before a sale. And though I knew it all the time, I was for the most part in denial. Aye there’s the rub: je suis coupable. And I say that with lots of regret, because though creativity has always been one of our strengths, you do not need to do pre-sale design. Besides, it’s only natural and right that we wait till we get the job.

So I’m here to make amends, and do my community time.

Overall thoughts

For over 15 years where I work, with almost every project (be it institutional or commerce) we often face the same question: do we submit a design proposal with our offer when asked?

Up to today, even if I may have hesitated for a second or two, it was always an easy yes. It seemed to be to our advantage. We love the creative part. We love the challenge. And it does help foster the response globally, as to how we should strategically align the objectives behind nice graphics.

But it is time to say no. And for good reason.

Because what I think Mike’s getting at, is that I was «hearing» the wrong question. The question prospects are asking is not «are you creative?» because they can see that with your previous work. No, the real question prospects are asking is: «do you understand our need?» And by asking for an upfront design job, it’s like saying «prove it.» So our real up front homework is to know our prospect enough that we can prove to them that we will meet their desired business or communication goals.

And after failing to win sales numerous times in spite of great graphics, I know that we can prove to them a much better way then to «pondre une maquette.» And you cannot just rely on previous work, as Mike elegantly says «clients aren’t hiring your portfolio, they’re hiring you.»

Here’s what Mike had to say about designing before the sale:

A few days later the client told us they were asking the candidates to sketch some concepts for the proposed site to help them make their decision. And get this! They even offered to pay for it. Not bad, right?

We said no.

We told them that in order to design the right site we’d have to do our research. We’d have to talk to them about their goals, their content, their brand, how they made their money—all that stuff. And we’d have to talk to their intended audience. We’d have to take a look at the competition. Technical constraints, editorial process, content strategy, etc., etc. We needed to understand and define the problem we were being asked to solve. Then, and only then, would we propose a solution….

We told them that if we were just to do some quick sketches, without the benefit of discussion and research, the ideas would inevitably be wrong. We’d never be able to guess what was in the clients’ heads. And we wouldn’t put ourselves in a position where we’d be judged on our mind-reading prowess.

Not much I can add, it’s all there.

But I am left with one question which is how can we convince a prospect (especially on an RFP where we do not have the benefit of a referral) that we understand their need? I suppose this could be different for all of us and according to the nature of the project, but my answer is content strategy. Name one prospect who says here’s all the content, these are the priorities, this is the tone I want, these are the personas, and so on and so forth. And even if the prospect says something to the all-too-often tune of “it’s just a remake of our existing site; we only want a better, more modern design” we know that “modernity” starts with improving the content.

Yet, without this information, without a hard-thought reflexion on the content, we shouldn’t even begin to be thinking about design. We should always design content.

So understanding the need requires having a vision of the project built around content strategy. But how can you present a strategy before it’s validated or discussed with the prospect, and without presenting a visuel? It seems like the same conundrum as before. What’s different this time?

In many ways, this is precisely where content strategy helps. Back to content-out design. It’s a process that can be explained, and to a degree adapted to your potential client’s environment even before the sale. That’s what the prospect needs to know, and we can point out key benefits to this approach. How far do you go? You go as far as the prospect needs you to go to make sure they know that you got it. You do the research. You do not do the «work».

I gather some agencies may say that presenting their design is still a valid answer to proving you understand. This has led me to battle another question: shouldn’t web agencies stop all together responding with a mock-up? At first I convinced myself that yes, we should all make that effort collectively to help our industry overcome what is essentially a blaring weakness of ours. But after more thought, if a competitor complies with a design because they don’t know how to present a strategy otherwise, I say go for it and learn the hard way like I did. In the end, I feel much more comfortable and confident that I am asking the right question when design is asked. And I believe that presenting a content strategy is more convincing in the end.

That said, I’m not going to stand here and make promises that I’ll never récidive, but honestly, I will do my best.

What else can I say

In a way, Mike’s ebook is the older twin brother to Client Centric Web Design. While Paul is interested in designing for the client and how to create sites that clients love, Mike discusses the ins and outs of working for a client, and how to create a positive relationship that lasts. Both ebooks should be required reading for agencies.

Publishing info

Title of ebook: Design is a Job
Author: Mike Monteiro
Date of initial publication: 2012
Publisher: A Book Apart
Where you can buy