10 ideas for better design business

Design Museo Helsinki
Grafia exhibition, Designmuseo, Helsinki. Copyright Matt Corrall 2018

I recently visited the Designmesuo in Helsinki, where I was impressed by an exhibition by Grafia – the ‘Association of Visual Communication Designers in Finland.’ It discussed how design operates as a business and how this impacts the lives and livelihoods of designers. Whilst it didn’t attract the same crowds as some of the beautiful glasswork and product design classics upstairs, it certainly got me thinking. It raised some insightful points about common – near universal – business problems which blight us as an industry, and which if resolved could dramatically improve the way designers live and work.

I’ve been designing for fifteen years. Currently I’m the Design Director at Pancentric Digital, a London agency specialising in UX and service design. Being in management means more exposure these days to all the sticky details of how agencies operate as businesses. I’m involved in sales and planning, contracts, recruitment, team and project management, and strategic work such as launching new client services. All of this has helped me better understand the businesses that operate around the work designers do.

Over my career which has spanned product /industrial, service, digital UX /interaction, branding, graphic design and illustration, I’ve experienced recurring issues which I know through talking to my peers are common problems for many of us across different industry sectors. As a junior designer, the project work given to me often appeared chaotic – given with little notice and oft changing in scope and detail. The agencies I worked for seemed to lurch from one sudden crisis to another, requiring long unpaid hours from me to resolve, which I soon learned was “expected as part of the role.”

As a design director, my peers and I tackle regular difficulties which usually stem from misunderstandings between agency and client – confusion over language, deliverables and timescales for example, over trying to describe a holistic process in a legal contract, and by the way what exactly does a designer do all day, anyway? Visit several firms – be they agency or in-house – and you will see little consistency in the language people use, the way they describe their work, how much they charge and even the job titles (and salaries) they hold.

Modern design practice has been around since Raymond Loewy started streamlining in 1929, and yet as an industry we still feel misunderstood, sometimes not taken seriously by our clients. With UX and service design, one can argue that the sectors are still young and immature, yet product and graphic design are in a similar situation despite a several decade head-start. We argue about definitions of our roles and processes, debate switching to this month’s hot new prototyping software and make diagrams to try and explain what we do to our clients, our practice in a constant state change.

Raymond Loewy
Raymond Loewy, presenting a concept car sketch Source: https://bit.ly/2I2u24a

Our focus is – commendably – upon improving the quality and robustness of our work and yet I argue our business practices are in need of some attention, too. I – like Grafia in Finland – believe that improvements here could make a big difference for the health and wellbeing of designers. Whilst I cannot claim to have all the answers, I do have a few ideas. I believe there is an opportunity now to demonstrate better business practice in design and start seeing real change in our wellbeing. I believe there are ten things we can start working on right now.

1. Universal design terminology

Every design team uses different language to the one next door. Across the industry there is absolutely no common agreement on what the activities we do or the things we make are called. Teams spend time choosing terminology that they believe best reflects their outlook, or adopt from their favourite design books, but frankly, we’re all over the shop. Meet your peers at a conference and it’ll take twenty minutes to understand one another’s jobs – I can confirm what a pain this is in recruitment situations, too. Imagine then how it feels to be a client, new to design and to the language, trying to understand what’s being described. The jargon we use means little, and conjures up a different picture in every head.

I devote a lot of time in sales talks and early project phases to helping clients understand what we do and what they’ll get from us. I show examples for clarity and avoid unnecessary jargon wherever possible, all in the aid of clear communication.

Imagine how much time, money and misunderstandings could be avoided if every designer used a common set of terms for activities, project stages, tools and deliverables. Clients could compare and work with different agencies more easily. Everyone would know what’s being discussed or could look up a reasonable definition and know it’s accurate. If we could stick with the same language for a few years too, it might even start to become recognised outside of our own sector.

2. Project contracts that suit the design process

Sometimes we struggle to bring design projects to an amicable end. We find misunderstandings arise late in the day where the work appears to have deviated from what was initially agreed. Particularly today when the trend is to hire designers to ‘disrupt’ or create ‘breakthrough innovation,’ we begin by exploring a problem space and defining the design to be done, rather than working from a detailed brief from the outset. The brief emerges as part of a robust yet holistic process.

In agencies, the initial agreements are usually legally-binding in the form of a contract. The problem is that these contracts typically detail fixed timescales and deliverables before it’s possible to do such a thing accurately, or instead leave terms open to interpretation which means client and agency argue later over what was intended. Progressing with innovative work, designers can find the initial estimate is no longer the right thing to do, but because it is legally binding they are bound to deliver what was written down. It can get messy and it leads to awkward negotiations over amendments and fees.

We need working agreements that recognise creative process – that by definition, we cannot know at project start exactly what will happen and what will be delivered, but we have a rough idea that will get better as we go. We should price based upon estimates and ranges derived from past experience. Most importantly, the agreements need to allow for change and gradually narrowing specification, rather than attempting to detail everything up-front.

For my clients I typically provide a fixed quote for the first Discovery phase and ranges for the rest based on previous project records. At the end of each phase, the subsequent phase is re-estimated and turned from a range to a fixed quote.

We also need to define ‘done’ as something other than a fixed set of deliverables like webpages and instead as desired outcomes – sales are improved, a new market is reached, or customer complaints are reduced, because ultimately the design will be whatever achieves these project goals. Pricing should be about estimated time and progress towards these goals, not about number of wireframes delivered or presentations made.

3. Abolishment of free pitches

There is an old practice in design which still lingers like a bad smell, despite us moving forward in other areas, and that’s the free pitch. This is where a client asks several agencies to begin design work for free, without any research or discovery phase, and present concept mockups in a competitive pitch. Effectively ‘try before you buy.’ Agencies can easily dedicate a week to this with no guarantee of work or reimbursement.

Illustration of designer working on a laptop
Time spent working on free pitches devalues what designers do. Source – https://bit.ly/2w4hN2s

In my opinion these always lead to wasted time and poor working relationships. In fifteen years I have never seen a project start this way that did not run into serious trouble later. Free pitches ask designers to respond to a short, incomplete brief that contains information the client has deemed relevant, rather than giving the professional the chance to ask questions or conduct research. The concept delivered will therefore always be wide of the mark, and in no way representative of the final product should the project go ahead.

In most cases, without an understanding of the inherent value in design thinking, usability and performance, clients will judge agencies based on the immediate visual appeal of their hastily conceived mockup. It really boils down to a beauty contest – who can dazzle with the shiniest Photoshop mockup, and it is a poor way to set design direction.

Most significantly, free pitches devalue what designers do and imply that our time is not worth money. If we will work for free for a week once, why wouldn’t we do it again?

On principle, I always refuse to answer a brief when a free pitch is requested. Designers should be judged on their credentials, examples of past work and recommendations from other clients, not by how much they are prepared to give for free.

I propose a standard response that all designers can use to rebuke requests for free pitches, covering the points above by way of explanation. If we can change client expectations by consistently saying no, then we can start instead to build healthier client-agency relationships and ensure time is well spent both all parties.

4. Promotion of good design and its value to business

With a surge of interest from many business sectors around innovation and design thinking, the world is starting to see there is more to design than just aesthetics. Client expectations however, still vary wildly and a great deal of time and effort goes into reaching a consensus on what our role on a project is and what we are being paid for.

The real problem is – people aren’t always sure what designers do and what their value is, let alone what is required to design well. We know our value is in our experience and skills in research, empathy, creativity and crafting elegant solutions that focus on people. By contrast, many customers believe our value is in delivering great aesthetics and the visuals or models we deliver, rather than the problem solving and intelligence behind new ideas.

We are getting there, but there is still a way to go to help everyone get more familiar with designers and what they do. The more this is promoted, the easier it will be for all concerned to work together when expectations are aligned.

5. Standardised job titles and salaries for designers

Pancentric are currently recruiting for a new Senior UX Designer. We have been interviewing applicants for a few weeks now, and find every recruiter – and applicant – has a different idea what the job title means as there is no standard to refer to – What is a UX designer’s responsibility at our firm, and what do we define as ‘Senior?’ These are important questions which we spend much time answering. In design, we have wildly varying responsibilities from firm to firm, and job titles – much like the terminology we use – are different everywhere.

For example, we have been getting applicants with everything from 1-15 years experience for the same job, and everything from a two week introductory course (General Assembly) to a masters degree by way of education. Salary expectations for the role vary within an incredible £50k range. It’s easy to see how a company hiring their first designer could be hoodwinked into paying someone relatively inexperienced for a senior role. Needless to say, we could make life easier for ourselves by standardising job titles across all design disciplines.

Designers talking around a table
Designers at a Meetup. Probably with different job titles and terminology. Source – https://bit.ly/2HX7NNf

I propose a banded pay-scale system similar to that used in teaching, to define a designer’s seniority. Designers move up bands with each year of experience, with an accompanying raise in pay. For the most advanced bands, testing by an independent body would be required to move up a level, and or proof of professional experience provided, ensuring titles are earned and can be trusted.

For example, our disciplines could be defined thus:

Design researcher
Product designer
Furniture designer
Graphic designer
Digital designer
Service designer
Design manager

With bands defined thus:

Junior – Bands 1-3
Midweight – Bands 4-6
Senior – Bands 7-10
Lead – Bands 11-15
Manager /Director – Bands 12+

A system like this would make it easier for employers to make the right hire, for designers to communicate their experience and find he right roles, and for career advancement to be steady and fair.

6. University credit for short design courses

Designers come from a range of educational backgrounds. Product and graphic designers have often trained in their discipline at bachelor or masters level, but digital (UX) design is a newer discipline, and so practitioners have often side-stepped from related fields such as software development, and psychology. The huge demand for digital design skills in recent years has encouraged more people to make that move, and so we’re seeing many short, intensive courses like Hyper Island and General Assembly setup to help people start building relevant skills.

These are excellent beginner courses, and ideal for those taking a side-step, however we are seeing attendees from these courses sometimes finding their way into relatively senior positions, in part because of the job description issues I mentioned earlier, in part because there is no clear quantification of educational merit.

Degrees and the oft-accompanying internships take people a whole lot further, and this is reflected in the work, knowledge and capability of graduates. Whilst the short courses are a very good thing and encourage more people to try design, this difference in educational merit needs to be made clearer.

I propose an extension of the existing UK university credit system to these short courses, to bring them into the fold. For example, a Bachelors’ degree in design is currently worth around 360 points, with points awarded with each completed module or internship. With accreditation, short courses could award their own points, which should be around 10-20. This has the added advantage of recognising their head-start should short course attendees decide to learn more and pursue a full degree. Credits would make it easier for everyone to understand a designer’s level of education – and what short courses are really worth – when applying for work.

7. Fair working hours and paid overtime

As mentioned earlier, designers can often find themselves expected to work long hours at short notice, and often unpaid – it’s more common in agencies, but in-house teams too, experience their fair share of rushes to hit deadlines where all hands are needed on deck. I expect diligence and dedication from my team, who will put in extra time on occasion to achieve the high standards of quality we hold ourselves to, but having worked my share of late nights and weekends as a junior, I plan carefully to spare my team the same, to the extent I am able.

Young designer working late at his desk
Long hours at short notice are often expected of more junior designers. This shouldn’t be the case. Source – https://bit.ly/2KpsqzX

For many though, these crises keep coming around, and after fifteen years in the business I still hear about them regularly. Many arise directly from the problems mentioned earlier with communication and project planning, and so could perhaps be avoided, but we would still benefit from some protection.

The real problem is that overtime is rarely rewarded, and usually expected as part of the job. Employment contracts usually state a working week of 37.5 hours but contain a clause allowing extra hours to be set at the firm’s discretion.

I suggest protection for designers from regular unsociable or unrewarded hours with employment contracts that set out work hours clearly, notice required for late working and monetary rewards in return. I also suggest a professional body – be it a trade union or similar – to encourage adherence.

Unlike many other industries, design doesn’t have established trade unions or similar central bodies to help maintain standards such as contracts as working hours. With the rapid growth in disciplines such as digital UX, this is perhaps something that we should experiment with as an industry, for our own wellbeing.

8. Industry-wide code of ethics

In our field we’re lucky to be able to work across a whole range of industries, and with the rapidly growing interest in digital and service design, there are few sectors which we cannot contribute to. As a designer one must always ask the bigger questions about what we are designing and it’s impact on the world. That said, there is always a commercial motivation behind our projects – we work to build better products and services for real people, but our projects cannot happen unless they also make money for a business.

Every once in a while, designers may find themselves being asked to do work which makes money, but which actively harms or manipulates people in pursuit of profit, rather than helping them. This could be obvious – I have been asked (and refused to) design military weapons for example – or more subtle and hard to evaluate.

Consider the EU’s GDPR regulations for example, which are a very positive step towards countering some unethical business practices in the digital world – ‘Dark patterns‘ in user interfaces which trick people into buying products or signing up for services without realising – budget airlines are notorious for using these – or impenetrable vague data usage policies which Facebook and Cambridge Analytics famously used to their own advantage recently.

I believe the vast majority of designers, as empathic and focused on people as we are, are in this business because we believe in putting people first. I believe too, that many of us may find ourselves in awkward situations every once in a while where we may feel pressured to do something we know is wrong, and in those situations we could use some help.

I propose a universal code of ethics for the design profession. A professional body to provide guidelines for designers and require everyone who enters the profession to adhere to them. In this way, we will always be clear about what is acceptable, and our clients too, can be reassured and know what to expect from working with us.

9. Project reviews and records

It’s considered good practice in many fields to review and document a project upon completion, so that lessons can be learned for next time. Indeed, retrospectives and project progress charts form a key part of Agile software development and are business as usual for developers.

By contrast, the design world can be a little reactionary for many of the reasons mentioned above. In my experience many agencies’ business models means paid project hours trump everything else, and so a fast-paced culture is maintained which favours scrambling on to the next project rather than taking time to learn lessons from the last. I would not go so far as to call all of us disorganised, but I am certain that many of us could be made more efficient by building project reviews and better book-keeping into our schedules.

Illustration of a designer reading a report
We all benefit when we take the time to record and learn from past projects. Source – https://bit.ly/2w4hN2s

The next time a client approaches with a new brief, imagine being able to quickly plan based on a clear record of similar previous projects, adjusting to avoid any pitfalls that hit you last time, and giving accurate financial estimates. If we make time for these reviews and records part of standard practice like our colleagues in development, we will make life easier for ourselves in the long run.

10. Common portfolio rules

Every designer struggles with the burden that is a portfolio. They take a long time to build, and whilst more standardisation might reduce the need for them, today they are still a necessity when it comes to communicating your skills and experience accurately. The problem is that much of what a designer creates is – upon payment of fees – owned by the client, and particularly in product design it can be months or years before the product or service is finally launched, if indeed it ever does see the light of day. In some sectors designers are contractually obliged to never show or discuss their work at all.

With so many restrictions in place, crafting an engaging portfolio to show off one’s best work whilst respecting client confidentiality is a minefield that every designer has to navigate from their very first job.

I propose project contracts that set out clearly from the outset what may be shown or discussed, and make allowances for the designer to present finished work in a portfolio, even if in a reduced or anonymised form. Clear, standard rules in this notorious ‘grey area’ would remove many headaches for all parties and help us to always show our skills when we need to.



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