A designer without communication skills is just a pixel pusher
Communication is a core part of our craft — and equally important — it’s a “soft-skill” essential for getting design work done successfully.
I meant to write about all the different soft-skills designers need in order to navigate the complexities of modern digital design. For research, I posed the following question to my favourite Facebook design group, Designers Guild:
What soft-skills are most important in making a good designer?
I was expecting a range of responses about self-discipline and time management, empathy and multi-dimensional thinking. Instead, everyone said just one thing: communication.
Why are communication skills so important to designers?
Communication isn’t just a soft-skill for us. It’s a core part of our craft. Design is communication.
Communicating emotions, ideas, and functionality to customers through images, words, motion, and interaction. That’s our job. There’s no way to avoid communication and be a designer.
But more than that, communication is how we perform our job. Design is a client service, and therefore requires constant, effective communication (both ways) between designer and client. If you’re working for an in-house team you need a similar kind of communication, but instead of a client you may have various internal and external stakeholders, plus manager and team members to coordinate with.
If that communication falls flat, your ability to design effectively is compromised, because good design relies on good information.
Let’s explore the ways designers need to communicate, and what skills are required to do so effectively. I’ll cover:
- Talking business & defining a brief
- Setting client, stakeholder, or team expectations
- User testing & research
- Design feedback & articulating decisions
- Development handover
Talking business & defining a brief
Design used to be performed in a silo. You could be good at just one thing and leave the rest to the business people. Not anymore. The unicorn designer needs enough breadth of knowledge to span across the entire product design spectrum. Even more so if you’re a freelancer without a team of other specialists to support you.
Effective design starts with a deep understanding of your client’s business goals and customer’s needs, and properly defining a project brief that marries the two. Your information gathering and interpreting skills are tested here.
Some well-organised clients will come to you with most of this sorted out and documented to the last detail. Others will have only a vague idea of what they want to achieve but no clue how to get there.
Every client knows their business better than you do. As a designer, your job is first to listen, then ask good questions. Your ability to comprehend your brief — and tease out the missing details — will affect the very foundation you base your design work on.
To excel, you’ll need to drop the jargon and talk in business terms. Avoid assumptions, and don’t relent until all uncertainty is clarified.
This isn’t just front-loaded at a project’s beginning. Every time the scope creeps you’ll have to follow the same process again to integrate it into your brief:
- Listen carefully to gather information.
- Consolidate and interpret that info to understand the challenge.
- Ask questions to clarify unknowns.
- Integrate that new understanding into your brief.
How to talk to potential clients
Nail that first interview, and they’ll be begging to work with you.
Setting client, stakeholder, or team expectations
Why do some projects go so smoothly while others feel like a struggle at every step of the way? Mostly, it’s down to a mismatch in expectations.
- Do you know who all the project stakeholders are, and how each one’s primary objectives and concerns will colour their decisions?
- Do you and your client agree on a process to follow, and when to expect updates on the progress of each phase?
- Do they understand what kind of commitment and feedback you require from them, and when?
- Do your colleagues know your role, and how it dovetails with theirs? What points are liable for details lost in translation?
These are the types of expectations you need to accurately set before and during each design project. This requires constant foresight and continual communication — to resolve potential frustrations or disappointments before they arise.
User testing & research
So you’ve defined your design challenges, set client expectations, and now you’re starting to develop some potential design solutions. How do you know if they are right?
You test and validate them. You get feedback and identify where things work and where they don’t. But you can’t get the right kind of feedback unless you frame the right questions to ask.
That might be as simple as a single question about preference, or as complex as A/B testing the conversion rate of an entire prototype. Your communication skills will be tested by how well you can consolidate your design solution into a testable artefact, and how precisely you can frame your question around the right context to get maximum value from user feedback.
If you can’t clearly communicate the idea you want to validate, your data will be inconclusive or misleading.
Design feedback & articulating decisions
Have you ever come up with a design solution you thought was exceptional, but failed to convince your stakeholders of its value?
Or have you received terrible suggestions from your client, but couldn’t find the ammunition needed to effectively shoot them down?
Designers need to know how to sell their ideas. When you’re presenting a concept to your client, you better be able to articulate and justify every design decision you’ve made. “Because I thought it looked better” isn’t a good enough reason. In fact, it’s a terrible reason. We try to remove subjective opinions from design critique in order to focus feedback on that’s effective and measurable. So we can’t then justify our own decisions by lesser criteria.
Instead, rely on UX research and best practices to support your decisions. Rely on hard data from testing. And if you’ve got nothing but your experience and instinct to back up a decision — at the very least — justify your work by explaining the underlying design principles that support it.
Again, setting the right expectations comes into play here. Stakeholders need to be told what to focus on, and what level of feedback is most useful during different stages of the project. It’s up to us to facilitate that feedback processto ensure what we get out of it helps us move forward.
Frustration-free design feedback relies on communication like:
- Setting expectations for what type of critique you need.
- Outlining a feedback process and timeframe.
- Articulating your design process, and how you arrived at your preferred solutions.
- Asking clarifying questions to uncover the root cause of concerns — so you can understand the problem rather than a proposed (and often superficial) solution.
- Effectively summarising and consolidating feedback into actionable data.
Managing the design feedback and iteration process is the single most important communication challenge facing most designers. If you plan for it effectively, that process feels like teamwork rather than a battle of opposing forces.
How to give and receive great design feedback
A comprehensive guide for designers and their clients to provide frustration-free feedback and create better design outcomes.
You might think when your design job’s nearly done, you can relax your communication muscles. Wrong.
Unless you’re coding your own designs (as some of us do), careful documentation and handover with your developers is absolutely essential communication for creating that elusive “single source of truth”.
- Have you mockup up, prototyped, and documented your micro interaction and animations?
- Are your responsive design patterns and examples sufficiently communicated?
- Are your developers clear about all functionality, user flows, empty states and error screen?
Don’t assume they’ll understand anything not drawn out and comprehensively explained. Leave nothing up to their guesswork. Attention to detail at the implementation stage is paramount to doing your design work justice in code, so you can’t afford to drop the ball on communication right when it matters most.
When designer communication fails
If you fail to effectively define the design challenge, collaborate with stakeholders, and justify your design decisions, then what exactly have you accomplished? Have you contributed anything beyond pushing pixels at someone else’s direction?
Designers lacking communication skills may survive in junior roles with a hand-holding mentor or manager. But freelancers, senior designers, or design leaders are worth next to nothing without exceptional qualities of communication.
As AI takes over more low-skill tasks, the usefulness of keyboard monkeys will diminish further. Our value as designers will lie in the ability to navigate the nuances of communication and creative thinking — that which machines can’t replicate.
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.
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