The Danger of a Design You Love

Avoiding pitfalls in the way we think about design.

After eighteen years or so in and around the creative industry in Silicon Valley, I’ve seen a lot of ideas come and go and a lot of crazy strategies for how to communicate them. Too often, I see people fall victim to one of the many companies that will guarantee a “design you’ll love” and this ends up being their biggest design misstep — choosing a design they love, only to find that no one else does and it certainly doesn’t resonate with their audience.

But what if you have terrible taste though? Would you know? Would people tell you?

The danger of a design you love is that you are not your audience, and yet the design process is generally still centered around gaining client approval, and clients are generally still focused on their opinions rather than validating its effectiveness. I get it, your audience doesn’t own your brand, you do. But that doesn’t mean it should simply be an expression of your personal taste.

What people are thinking but too polite to say

What good is a design you love, if no one else does?

In my line of work I’m often asked how I draw the line between art and design. The simplest way I’ve explained it is that art is an expression of your self and your vision, whereas design plays on the same parts of our brain which react to art, but is created with a purpose—to achieve some intended effect.

Any designer can give you a design you’ll love, but is that really what you’re looking for? You likely have more important goals in mind than making a pretty picture for yourself, like getting customers to opt-in, engage, or buy.

However, countless people have paid for a design they were super psyched about, just to find out (usually way too late) that customers hated it. I like to call this the “99Designs effect” as it seems to be at the root of their mostly squandered potential.

Avoid squandering your potential by getting out of the way.

The simple key to avoiding this pitfall is to hire the right people for the right job, and then trust them to do it. You want to be like Lee. Lee says:

“I hire people brighter than me and then I get out of their way.” — Lee Iococa

The truth, however, for a lot of you is that this is going to be a lot easier said than done. Many people (especially business owners) get used to, and even look forward to, playing creative director when it’s time to commission design work. We sometimes operate under the mistaken impression that our work is an expression of our selves. It shouldn’t be. It should be a mechanism optimized to generate value—not stroke our egos.

Oh, and this isn’t just entrepreneurs. Anybody who has had to get an approval from a VP at a big company on design work knows we are often optimizing to the boss’ taste, rather than strategic efficacy.

But good designers say No, and smart clients listen. A good designer, like a good coach of any kind, will gently guide you away from your terrible ideas and into the solution that best meets your goals. That’s their job. And in order for them to do that effectively, you need to let them.

If you have a hard time letting them do their job, it really comes down to trust. Either you need to get over yourself, or you hired the wrong designer. Hire someone you trust.

So, while a design you love certainly sounds like a logical choice, it’s really only because we are so used to a broken system. Don’t be a part of the problem and perpetuate an illogical process. Clearly articulate your goals, hire the right person, and get out of the way. I know it can be hard to let go of the reins, but it really is the only thing that makes sense. But, don’t take my word for it, let Steve tell it:

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” — Steve Jobs

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