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Handling Design Conflict as a Non-Designer

How to acknowledge real problems to better support your designers

Right off the bat, let’s clarify: we can’t change your physiology.

If you naturally struggle with interpersonal conflict, there is some mental preparation we can do and some tactics we can employ, but we can’t change your brain. That’s a good thing. We want to arm your natural strengths, not change you. So let’s go!

As a team, we should preach and believe that the right kind of conflict is critical to making good design. Design without conflict is art. Conflict without design reasoning is just an opinion. We’re creating the science of well-researched art that solves problems as perfectly as we can understand them. Today we’re going to talk about how to do that even when it feels terrible. Let’s jam!

“Design without conflict is art. Conflict without design reasoning is just an opinion.”

Design conflict with non designers

1. Remove your feelings from the conversation. Does the problem go away?

One of the hardest things to do as a non-designer manager is to figure out whether the issue you’re about to bring up is really valid. You should always be learning more about best practices design, how to do it, and how to employ it; but the fact still remains, you’re responsible for the outcome of your project. You have to bring up problems when you find them.

When you’re about to bring up something you think is wrong with design, take a step back and ask yourself if you’re the problem and if you’re speaking impartially. If you’re causing a problem based on your opinion, you should do more work to understand why you have that opinion and if it’s valid. If you have a real reason to believe there’s a problem, lead with that when you bring it up. Your designers won’t like the problem any more, but they’ll respect a manager who leads with the real issue, not his or her personal feelings. The best thing you can do when bringing up problems with design is come with as much data and hard proof as possible. Designers are pros at solving real problems with their design skills.

“When bringing up problems with design, come with as much data and hard proof as possible. Your designers will repect a manager who leads with the real issue rather than with personal feelings.”

2. Most conflict with a designer means you don’t both agree on what the real underlying problem is.

Assuming your team is talented and you both agree design exists within your organization to solve problems, conflict usually means you have different understandings and beliefs about what design is actually doing.

Careful, disagreeing about the problem we’re solving is completely different from disagreeing about the process of finding problems or the timing of the discovery of this problem. Designers and managers can spiral down into that conversation sometimes. Acknowledge the issue if the process or timing is wrong. We can fix that later. Focus on better understanding and defining the problem. What’s the real problem we’re solving? Do we agree on what that problem consists of? Do we agree on the path to solve that and whose job it is?

“Disagreeing about the problem we’re solving is completely different from disagreeing about the process of finding problems or the timing of the discovery of this problem.”

3. Ask why, not what if.

Managers are always always always tempted to ask “what if” questions. The more you learn about design, the more you want to flex that design muscle and come up with an idea. After all, you probably are a grown-up marketer, advertiser, writer, and have lots of insights and ideas. Everyone is creative, that’s a good thing.

However.

It’s not your job to come up with design solutions. If you want to be a designer, flex that muscle elsewhere. You’ll find it’s much easier to edit on someone else’s work than create your own from scratch. The most beneficial way you can apply your design muscle is by using it to help your designer gain clarity. “What if we changed background color every section” is a great question. That doesn’t help your designer solve a real problem. That teaches your designer to follow your preference on trend and think of you as that manager who dabbles. Instead, ask your designer “Why haven’t we more clearly delineated section breaks in this page?” If you have a preferred way of doing that, ask them whether they’d like to see some websites you think have done that well, then send them a few links with bullets about what you like on each. You just avoided an emotional preference-based conversation. Instead you left the onus on your designer to solve an issue and gave them more perspective. This is an especially effective tactic if your designer is alone without many/any other design eyes on his or her project.

“As a manager, it’s not your job to come up with design solutions and the most beneficial way you can apply your design muscle is by using it to help your designer gain clarity.”

4. Don’t take your designer’s job.

#3 segues nicely into #4 here. Many design projects go off the rails when design starts struggling and managers jump in to help. Designers become fixated on why design is off track and why it’s not design’s problems: brief was terrible, schedule unrealistic, don’t have enough time, there wasn’t any research, etc. Managers become fixated on finding and killing problems. In the past, the manager was probably really good at doing this. After all, that’s why they got promoted to being a manager.

The result is a big pancake. Metaphor alert! The bottom (designers) were getting cooked. SO, we flipped the pancake and the uncooked top folks try out the heat. This dynamic, while new and team-y feeling, will further bog down the project. Designers and other team members will start surfacing their problems to managers; the areas where they’re stuck and have no idea what to do. Managers will start generating solutions -and- identifying other problems they think they’re seeing. Suddenly, it’s everyone’s job to find problems, designers can’t do anything because their work is now their boss’ job. Managers work 10–12 hour days doing bad design work and showing it to the designer for help. This is a classic management misstep. But design is tricky, for some reason we don’t see it easily.

Don’t take your designer’s job. If she’s stuck, find ways to unleash her. Make it possible for her to come up with 3 new ideas and bring them back. Find another designer to workshop the problem with for a couple hours. Find more inspiration for her. Get more budget to bring in outside help. These are things you control that can make it possible for her to actually tackle the problem at hand and grow/learn.

Oh, and don’t forget to solve the issues your designer pointed out about the brief, schedule, etc.

“If your designer is stuck then try and find things that you can in control to make it possible for them to actually tackle the problem at hand to grow/learn.”

5. Cultivate the perspective that design is a provable or disprovable hypothesis.

We have no business designing for problems we don’t understand. That may sound controversial. After all, isn’t design the process of doing something new and beautiful in a way nobody has done before? No, that’s art. We’re doing art + science, remember? Again, we have no business designing for problems we don’t understand. In fact, if we do that, we’ll end up having no business because we’ll art beautiful things that nobody needs.

Design is always provable or disprovable. Setting up ways to test our designs against our problems is critical. It will help reign us in when we get too design-y or we’re unfounded in our ideas. It will also highlight other problems in our process or project. Designers may not be able to identify or solve a problem. Maybe they’re too junior. Maybe we haven’t given the time or tools. Reinforcing that design is provable will help you solve many of these issues. It brings us back to agreeing that design is valuable — it’s solving problems with real dollar potential and impact.

“Reinforcing that design is provable will help you solve many of these issues and bring you back to agreeing that design is valuable.”

6. Ask your designers what they need in order to better understand and better solve the problem. What are his/her limitations?

Sometimes, you need to bring up an issue with a designer that is related to the fact he or she just doesn’t have the skills necessary to address the problem at hand. Ouch. This is hard. You’re not a designer, but you have to deal with the reality you’re seeing. This is probably the most human issue we’ve handled yet — this spans all of management, not just Design.

Thankfully, this issue can be solved many different ways. Unless you have a really open relationship with this designer, or you’re a complete asshole, you can’t simply tell a designer you think they don’t have the skills. Instead, you can try a few of these things:

If none of these work or won’t work in the time constraint you have, this is the same as any other team member issue. For some reason, managers feel like they can insult design in a way they wouldn’t insult other skill sets. We’d never chastise an accountant and tell them “You’re just not good at numbers”, but for some reason we would remove a designer from our project and say “your aesthetic just isn’t what we want/need for this project”. If you have to remove a designer, be frank about the shortcomings like you would any other skill: “Hey ____, I really appreciate your work on this project, but I need to bring in an outside designer. We’re not solving the critical issues on this project well or fast enough and we need to make changes to get on top of those.”

7. When in doubt go get more actionable data (and for the love of all that is good, make sure it’s accurate).

You may have read this before: There are entire fields of design related to data, insights, and testing. If you’re still running redesigns with a single designer on the team, you’re doing it wrong. A great basic list to check out is this one on css-tricks. It’s dumbed-down and has issues, but you’ll notice they have 6 design titles for big buckets of design tasks and skills. That’s not counting the titles they nest under each.

You shouldn’t hire all of these people, but you should understand that they exist and make informed decisions about whether you need to solve for the value that they bring. In reality, if you have one or two designers on your big project, they’re playing all of these roles to some extent. Maybe your designer is really good at UI and brand, but not UX. Maybe she’s amazing at laying out content and creating an experience, but bad at the little pieces of the UI and connecting with a front end developer. It’s your job to understand this minutiae and infuse expertise, insights, or data when it’s needed. Real design, good design requires input at the outset. I’d go as far as to say your outcome can only ever be as good as what you start with before you begin designing.

“It’s your job as a manager to understand these minutiae and infuse expertise, insights, or data when it’s needed. Real design, good design requires input at the outset.”

In introspective closing.

Let’s come full circle. Approaching design problems as only science isn’t realistic. No matter what the problem is, there’s almost always an element of it that is aesthetic choice. Your designer’s career is centered on those choices (among many others) and they most likely aspire to be more artistic than they currently are. They dream about projects without silly constraints; they follow designers they love, they hand-craft how life around them looks and feels; whether it’s at work, at home, or out in the world around them. If you cannot respect the perspective of your designer, there’s a bigger issue at play here. Maybe you need to step out of the way. Maybe your org needs an Art/Creative Director who ensures overall design choices match with brand and company values. Maybe your designer is championing personal taste at the expense of good solutions to business problems. If you find yourself constantly at loggerheads with design in your company, step away from your project and investigate why. Get perspective from people who lead or manage design at other companies. Maybe the problem isn’t you OR your designer. Maybe in the process of designing for problems, you’re finding out that your organization needs to change what you believe about design and it’s opportunities.

“Maybe in the process of designing for problems, you’re finding out that your organization needs to change what you believe about design and it’s opportunities.”

If you liked this, come harass me on twitter or take a look at another post I wrote about leadership and conflict.

Originally posted on Matt’s Medium page.

Independent Producer and Director. Partner at Atlas Local | Hosting Greenville Grok | Product-guy-partner at Really Good Emails | Always hunting a scary project | Find me on Twitter

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