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Why Compromise Is the Great Design Superpower

The more important your work, the more trade-offs you have to make.

There are no perfect design outcomes. Real projects rarely end up looking like Dribbble shots. Designers are never satisfied with their work.

The perfectionist in me doesn’t want to admit it, but these are truths of digital design. Every design process is a series of compromises. Larger, more important, and meaningful projects often require greater compromises to get them across the line.

Compromising doesn’t mean shipping poor work you’re not proud of. It means delivering well-considered work that satisfies the needs of everyone involved.

Leave your ego at the door, please, and let’s talk about why compromise is the great superpower of design.

Compromise is more than working within constraints

Design, by definition, means problem-solving within constraints. Those constraints may be technical, budgetary, time-based, user-centered, business-driven, and based on any number of other factors.

Working within constraints isn’t a compromise because they were never up for negotiation.

Compromise means a trade-off between two competing needs. It means using new information to make course corrections rather than being unwilling or unable to adjust what you thought was best before.

Compromising doesn’t mean shipping poor work you’re not proud of. It means delivering well-considered work that satisfies the needs of everyone involved.

Each stakeholder in a design project can have their own agenda, and even when each of those agendas is valid, they don’t always align. This situation of misaligned needs is where compromise is valued most.

Great designers have the ability to assimilate even seemingly mutually exclusive needs, balance their strengths and weaknesses, and produce an optimal design solution that satisfies all of the project’s requirements as best as possible.

Every design process requires countless trade-offs, and other project stakeholders rarely have the tools or the perspective to make those decisions. It falls on the designer to find the optimal outcome. Good designers are simply the ones who compromise most cleverly.

Compromise is not acquiescence

Accepting a poor idea without protest isn’t compromise, and it’s terrible design. You do your clients a disservice when you acquiesce. Compromise requires some give and take from both sides; otherwise, it’s a dictatorship.

In a landscape where the best design projects are the result of highly collaborative teams, design by dictatorship doesn't work — whether it’s the client, designer, or someone else doing the dictating.

When designers conflate compromise with acquiescence they despise these trade-offs because they think it means their work is somehow diluted. But true compromise feels satisfying, not hollow. When you stand your ground just firmly enough to balance a tricky set of competing constraints, that’s something to be proud of.

Common compromising situations

Here’s an example: Last year, I worked on a large website project. Its importance to my client was paramount. Their entire business revolves around the performance of their website. Fluctuations in conversion rate meant messing with millions in annual revenue. There was a lot of pressure to get it right.

That pressure came from all sides. They had simultaneously gone through a rebrand, and their brand agency had strong ideas about key design elements that had to be included. Their SEO agency had strict guidelines about link structure, content length and placement, and things like “page rank juice flow” that put restrictions on navigation. Their development team had almost unrealistically tight constraints on timeframe and had to work within a specific tech stack.

All of this was in addition to my primary constraints: the needs of the user. And more frequently than I would have liked, those needs didn’t align. What branding wanted could have made for an ill-considered and inconsistent responsive visual system. What SEO wanted could have compromised the ideal user experience we were so driven to create. What engineering needed could have put all of that in jeopardy. And at the end of the day, it would have been our users holding the short straw.

At times things got a bit heated. Stakeholders didn’t see eye to eye. Misaligned agendas had to be rectified.

It didn’t blow up, and ultimately, the project was a big success. But only because of some careful compromises, most of which fell on my shoulders to facilitate. My role was UX and UI design, but fulfilling that task on such a complex and high-stakes project meant being a facilitator of trade-offs more than a creator of innovative ideas.

Luckily, I had the tools to make that happen.

Designers are equipped

Designers are equipped to solve these compromises with aplomb when they are T-shaped (or “specialized generalists”). Or maybe you’re M-shaped or comb-shaped, or you call yourself a deep generalist or a multi-hyphenate.

Combining breadth of understanding with one or more deep areas of expertise gives you the ability to understand and communicate with empathy across disciplines. And it forges the tools needed to find creative compromises where others may not see them.

If you understand business strategy, branding, marketing, writing, front-end coding, and engineering in addition to your primary field of design expertise, you’re perfectly positioned to be the ultimate compromiser.

Your breadth helps make connections and insights that a narrow specialist wouldn’t have found, and then you can funnel those insights into the depth of your specialties to create really meaningful design decisions. You make discovering innovative solutions seem easy because you’re seeing connections other people aren’t even looking for.

The design process — whether Double Diamond or something else — forms a structure to help us tease out all the constraints, identify where design compromises need to be made, and then converge on the optimal solution.

In this way, UX design is the great unifier. It’s the one discipline with its fingers in all the pies. That puts you in the driver’s seat when the tough compromises have to be made.

It’s why Design Thinking is a thing. Good design processes give us tools to make clever compromises. All areas of business can benefit from that same perspective.

Don’t despise compromise

If you despise compromise, you may be more of an artist than a designer. There are no outcomes in design that don’t involve compromise because design is problem-solving for people, and people are complicated. Design is a continuous process of compromise.

Design is as much about constraints as ideas. Pretending those constraints don’t exist so you can push your pure vision out into the world is what immature designers do. Embracing those constraints and thriving in the challenge of compromise is what expert designers do.

Bonnie Chen summarized this sentiment perfectly:

I’ve gotten to the point where I see my responsibility as the designer as a mediator between business strategy, engineering, product, brand, content, [and other] needs. I just happen to facilitate these conversations with mockups and visual artifacts.

When a designer stops seeing themselves as the owner of their vision and instead as the facilitator of a collaborative design process, compromise becomes natural, easy, and entirely necessary.

Thanks to Scott Berkun, Bonnie Chen, Shaun Whalen, Deuce Cruse, Clarke Hyrne, and others from the Designer’s Guild Facebook group for insightful discussion that helped me clarify these points.

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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.

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