Ever heard a creative director say, “But that’s not what I asked for!” Or a designer explaining the reason they’ve produced a certain solution is because that’s what they thought you told them to do?
In a design studio, there are few things as frustrating as discovering that feedback you gave during a critique resulted in wasted time and effort because they heard something entirely different from what you intended to convey. Or from the other perspective, receiving what you thought were pretty clear instructions, only to discover the work you produced was totally wrong.
Effective communication—especially critiquing and presenting—is a skill that can take years to master and unfortunately doesn’t get the attention and time it deserves in most design programs. Just because we’re trained in visual language, doesn’t mean we’re great communicators. Many young designers aspire to be art directors, creative directors, and even owners of their own design firms and communication becomes critical for career advancement.
So as designers, what can we do to improve our communication skills?
Recognizing that communication is a two-way exchange is crucial. It is every individual’s responsibility to contribute to effective communication. Blaming others isn’t going to help a design team work more collaboratively or efficiently.
For me as a project leader, communication is rooted in honesty, so I try to take a forthright approach to clarifying both my needs and understanding of a situation, as well as asking for clarity from others so there’s no room left for misunderstanding. Obviously respect is an important aspect of effective communication, but I’ve found that adding too much soft language and “please and thank yous” can lead to passive aggressive instructions and ineffective results. If you use language like, “we should do this…” without specifying precisely what you require, who you expect to do it, and by when, then you’re very likely to be disappointed. And if you’re unclear on something, it’s not a sign of weakness to admit you don’t understand—it’s your duty.
“I just don’t like it” is never an acceptable critique. That’s like a client saying “I’ll know it when I see it,” which drives all designers crazy. And if you’re the one receiving instructions, it’s smart to restate what you just heard to make sure you understood it correctly—otherwise you leave room for assumptions.
Miscommunication in a design studio is often a result of confusion surrounding expectations. Be direct. If you don’t understand who is in charge or what is required, ask for more information. Be clear. Be specific. And don’t fear conflict either. Debate is good—especially in a design studio environment where critical discourse can lead to superior solutions.
Everyone communicates differently based on their personality type. There are even tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which identify how people’s psychological predisposition can affect the way they communicate. Some people want to know all the background and details about a project, where others will prefer to just know the pertinent facts and nothing more. Knowing this can be helpful in learning how to effectively communicate with design team members. [Here’s a free personality test based on Carl Jung and Isabel Briggs Myers typology]
Like any exchange with clients, it’s important to capture studio communications for clarity and future reference. After a meeting—even a short one—a follow up of what was decided and action items is vital. And for goodness sake people, be smart about using email! Not only can email be a slow and tedious method of communicating, it can greatly increase the chance of details and instructions being missed or delayed.
Communication without a task list is just noise. Using project collaboration tools (e.g.. Basecamp, FunctionPoint, etc) to collect key communications and link them to task milestones is a much smarter choice than email or a passing comment.
When working on a project, never wait until you’ve fully developed a design concept before consulting a manager or even your client. Whatever you do, don’t wait too long before expressing a concern or giving an update on a project, as it can lead to real problems in a busy studio facing timelines and delivery dates.
A parting thought for leaders in design studios: Communicate more openly with your team about project financials as well as how the firm is doing, what direction it’s headed, and goals for the organization. This helps each designer not only to understand the role he/she plays in a specific project, but in the bigger picture of the entire company, contributing positively to the culture and unity of the team.
Communication is up to you. If you don’t feel like you’re getting enough information, ask for more. And if, as a manager, your studio is lacking cohesion and a positive culture, consider how your communication style may need some tweaking. Never assume they can read your mind—no one can.
Mark Busse is a founding partner and managing director of the Vancouver-based strategy and brand design firm Industrial Brand, a past president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada [B.C. Chapter], and a design writer and educator.