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The best designers are business strategists

The old days of “visual design” are long gone. We need to think much broader & deeper to solve today’s design challenges.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see the value in “UI Design” as a speciality anymore. Since I started my freelance design business in 2001, I’ve always felt a digital designer’s responsibilities included user experience design, even before “UX” was a thing.

Ever since design jumped off the printed page and onto interactive screens, the definition of design had to include how those interactive experiences worked for their users. For years, engineers took over that role, and we got a lot of very poorly designed software that was window-dressed by graphic designers after the fact, with little scrutiny over whether it functioned well.

Of course we’re way past that now. Successful companies are design-led, andgood design processes form a fundamental part of their decision making and high-level business strategy.

With this, comes a rapid acceleration of what design can and should include. Every touchpoint of a brand’s experience is now designed as part of a holistic strategy. What used to be merely afterthoughts — like onboarding, empty states, email design, micro-copy, interactions, and even user validation— arenow equally important as every other part of a user’s journey through a product or service.

And that’s just the definition of a UX/UI designer. I’d argue that a designer with a wider toolbox of general skills has value that can reach far beyond that.

Designing for your clients, or for likes from your peers?

Fancy Dribbble shots, gratuitous animations, tarted-up Behance case studies, and unsolicited redesigns — what do these say about you as a designer?

If you’re a branding expert, your role may spread into naming, market research and fit, personality and tone of voice, copywriting, art direction, marketing strategy — just to name a few.

If you’re a web designer you’re reaching into info architecture, user experience, accessibility, engagement strategy, copywriting, content design and art direction, communication strategy, responsive design and device optimisation, etc.

Not that you have to do all those things alone, or be an expert at most of them. But they are all part of the process, and they all overlap into design. Someone should be considering them, and be asking the “how’s” and “why’s” about these business decisions, and you should be involved in that process.

There is no such thing as visual design anymore

Not in isolation. Every part of any business can benefit from improved design.If you’re not helping design all those facets holistically, you’re losing an opportunity to dramatically increase your value as a designer.

If you still think of yourself as only a UI / visual designer, you’re getting such a small part of the pie that you might not even taste it. And your slice is shrinking every day. Not because it’s less important — visual design will always be important, and always in high-demand (despite what champions of voice interface may say). Your value is shrinking because the definition of design is expanding, and your service offering isn’t broadening to match.

Designers, kill your labels

Redefine your freelance service offering as a complementary process that delivers your ideal clients the most value.

Many of my clients may come to me for what they think is a visual design project: they need a website or app designed and they mistakenly believe that most of that job is “graphic design”.

It’s easy to see why this happens — the visuals are the most readily available and easy to judge measure of a designer. Our Instagram society champions pretty, sharable pictures, while those in-depth case studies you write about overcoming brand perception or UX challenges get mostly passed over.

Those clients who come for UI design, leave thinking they’ve found a goldmine. They get business strategy consulting when all they thought they’d get were pretty pictures.

I’ve had clients whom I’ve spent weeks in brainstorming sessions with — helping to conceptualise new digital products and services from the ground up — all well before the topic of “how it looks” was a consideration. Or projects where we’ve spent months on info architecture, user flows, and wireframes before anyone gave much though into the “visual design”.

I’m quite fond of the times when my client’s design feedback consists of mostly comments about how good my placeholder micro-copy is. They find that half their content writing is done for as an accidental part of our design process.

And I’ll never forget the times when my good design solutions inspire improvements to business practices, rather than outdated business processes compromising design choices.

You see, these things are all connected

You cannot design without content, but so many clients don’t have all their content prepared. So you make assumptions and become a copywriter when you need to. (Over time, you might even get quite good at it).

Designing a brand must be anchored in company goals, values, customer needs and experiences. But all too often your client lags on helping define those metrics, so it falls to you to fill in the strategy gaps.

Your client may know what problem they want their app to solve, but haven’t thought through half the details of how they actually achieve that — both from a user experience perspective as well as higher level thinking such as product naming, pricing, and marketing strategy. So you put on your strategy hat once again to to guide them through that process, chipping in with your two cents when you can.

And the end of the day, where did those client feel like they got the most value? They probably expected exceptional UI design, because that’s the norm, not the exception these days. What they’ll remember are all the valuable contributions you made that were beyond their initial, limited understanding of your services.

Genuine over-delivery wins

The key to being a valuable designer is to over-deliver, and not the cheap and easy way which is simply under-promising.

The moment you give a client way more than they expected is the moment you have a client for life. They’re hooked. They were looking for help with a one-off project, but instead they’ve found a long-term, trusted business partner that they cannot believe they’ve lived for so long without.

Professional freelancers don’t do “gigs”

Are you expendable, temporary help, or a valuable long-term business partner?

Reaching our creative tentacles out to the broadest edges and overlaps of design gives us nearly unlimited built-in avenues to over-deliver. We need to be learning new skills and stretching our comfort zones so we have the experience to offer valuable advice across this ever-broadening spectrum of designable business facets.

If you’re a freelance consultant, this is even more vital.

A niche UI design specialist can survive within a large organisation’s team, where there are other specialists to round out the process. When you’re on your own, your client needs a one-stop-shop.

Thankfully, if you’re a freelancer, you’re also a business owner. So you have a better chance of relating to the business decisions you may help your client shape.

Be that exceptional generalist designer (or “product designer” if you wish)— that business strategist who always over-delivers with surprise added value — and you can count yourself as one of the best.

In your client’s mind you will be, even if you don’t believe it yourself.

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Benek Lisefski

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.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.