Design means doing what I say

neverlistenOccasionally I read an article that I completely agree with. I nod my head, check an imaginary box somewhere in my cerebellum that’s labeled “see what I mean” and retweet that article. This article actually: “Great design = getting people to do what you want.”, by Seth Godin

Then I go to bed. At 2:32 am, I wake up and think “wait, …. do I?”

I read Seth’s article. And found myself convinced. I believed (because I wanted to believe) that my efforts as a designer are spent trying to get the client to want the things that I think they should want. After all, I have years of experience in this, and I’ve probably approached the clients particular design challenge in a hundred different ways over the years. I’ve probably learned to avoid a few problems and pitfalls that lie along the path that this particular client is walking down. I can be a good guide for them, pointing out where the cracks are in their plans, warning them of the mistakes that they are about to make. They should trust me right? Isn’t that why they hired me? Aren’t they expecting to benefit from my expertise? Because:

Great design is pushing/focusing the user to do something that he’ll thank you for later.

Seth Godin

Is it my role as a designer to find a way to make the client want what I want them to want? What I believe is right? Am I supposed to be designing for what’s best for the project,site,community,etc. and just assume that the client will thank me for it later?

But then the alternate seems less appealing as well. Am I only here to “draw up” what the client wants to build? Do I just assemble the documents needed to get through the process and leave my opinions out of it? Am I just a filter for the clients ideas? Is that what all those firms who label themselves “service” firms are trying to do? Was I hired to “write” down everything you’re saying no matter how much it makes my heart hurt? If you already know what you want and you’re just looking for someone to put it onto paper, why do you need an architect?  Or as Frank Gehry not so eloquently put it:

I don’t know why people hire architects and then tell them what to do.

Frank Gehry

Apparently, Frank doesn’t need to be nice to get clients anymore.


I hear both sides of this argument again and again from architects.

  1. “We should provide a service to help our client navigate the process.”
  2. “We should find creative solutions to complex problems.”

To be honest, I’m getting tired of the argument. Are we creative artists? Or are we simply providing a service? There are only 2 people that fit those two molds. One is an pompous jerk, and the other is so dull I want to poke my eyes out with the mechanical pencil in their shirt pocket.

There’s a middle ground that’s much more effective, and it’s the space that most of us work in everyday. We listen to what the clients aspires to, we get excited about the potential, we share our experiences with similar aspirations, we warn of the possible risks involved in these aspirations, we notice the limitations of the initial idea and point out ways to expand it and build on it, we get excited about that possibility, we get you excited about that possibility, you worry about drifting too far away from what you had in mind, we hear that, but we can’t let go of the possibility of something awesome, we plead our case for it, you’re swayed a bit, reluctantly, so we try it out, we like some of it, we see the excesses of some of it, we rethink it, we compromise, we try again, we get excited again, we search for what we’re looking for, and at some point we forget who’s idea was who’s and we just look at the problem at hand, we solve, we imagine, we create, we build.

At some point the distinction between the “right” thing to do and that thing that you “told me” to do falls away, and we start talking about the thing that we ARE doing. We start saying “we” instead of “me”, and “I” and “you”. Because, that’s what great design really is:

Great design is getting to a place where WE (designer and the client) are creating the same thing, together.
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