When I attended my first design conference I remember sitting in the audience listening to icons of design talk about how designers think differently. (In my memory this was Ric Grefé, Michael Bierut or Bill Drenttel. But honestly it could have been all three of them.) I was skeptical. I didn’t buy it. How could it possibly be true?
With a bit of perspective after working with lots of different kinds of people solving all kinds of problems, I can unequivocally say that designers do think differently. And it is by design. Whether you went to school for design, or you learned on the job, you have been trained to look at a problem, envision a solution, create a plan to bring the solution to life, then iterate and refine until your solution exists. It is what we do.
Lots of creatives have similar skills but most people do not think this way. Every day I encounter people who cannot envision a new solution. Mostly they want to emulate what others have done. And this is the root of the conflict that clients and designers often face. Clients that can't envision something they haven’t seen, are asking designers to produce solutions that are familiar. Designers, who have been trained to create solutions that break boundaries, chafe at the predictable, safe solution.
Recently I worked with a mature, high-powered investment banker who works with international start-ups. She hired me to work on bringing a category-defying drink to market. Not only did the product not exist anywhere but our drink was also going to be totally locally sourced and produced. We figured it would be a sure-fire hit. But we were having a hard time convincing the manufacturer who would produce it, that concept could be successful. We named the product. We named the flavors. We participated in flavor development meetings tasting dozens and dozens of samples. Then I stepped to the forefront and began working on the design.
I contracted to produce up to three design directions. And, as is my norm I over delivered and I submitted five totally different approaches. One took a nutritional, vitamin-focused tact. One had a graphic approach to a highly targeted portion of our defined audience. One was more crunchy-granola. One was a whimsical spin on the unusual physical characteristic of the product—highlighting the swirl of natural solids at the bottom of every bottle. And the final was an ingredient-focused approach that highlighted the unique flavor combinations.
After some consideration the manufacturer decided he wanted a distinctive mark that could be trademarked. (This had not been part of the original brief.) I took our selected approach—the one that focused on ingredients, and began exploring how to make the brand name function as more of a trademark. I came back with three different solutions.
My client was amazed. She couldn't believe that I could keep coming back with new ideas. Her response made me step back and think about our differences. Here was high-powered executive that worked with entrepreneurs and financiers of all stripes. But she hadn't worked directly with a creative before. It reminded me of just how unusual we are.
[To make a long story short, the project was sadly cancelled. But it wasn’t a total loss. I taught someone valuable lessons about design. At least I’ll keep telling myself that.]
But let's take this idea of thinking differently one step further. Don’t forget that you think differently from the designer next door. Some designers come up with the solutions immediately, even while sitting in the client meeting. They then labor over finessing and prototyping for weeks. Painfully making small tweaks. Others, like me, find themselves wallowing around in a problem for a while. My office gets trashed. I have to explore and reject dozens of concepts. But once I've hooked the idea that fits I can finish it up in days.
I suggest you do a little self-assessment. Think about how you work—how your brain processes—and embrace it. And at the same time remember that everyone has their own unique style of working. Respect them and they will likely respect you.
The next step is to communicate clearly about your work style with your clients. Build schedules that allow you the time and space to do your best work.