Using design principles in relationships

As a designer, I work in ideas. But I also must work with people. If I could distill everything that I’ve learned as a designer down to one thing it would be this: Ideas are excellent; people are essential.

People are not only vessels for ideas, they bring them into form. Designers sometimes think they are responsible for both discovering ideas and executing them, but at some point our ideas must live beyond us. They are shared with co-creators, with clients, with stakeholders, with audiences we may never meet.

Unfortunately, designers are often not trained or well practiced in this business of inviting others into our process and ultimately letting go of our work so it can serve them. Worse still, our clients may also have expectations and misunderstandings about how much of the work is ours and how much is theirs, and legal contracts alone don’t guarantee clarity.

The way I see it, marketing is becoming more about information and relationships (and less about fabrication and power). Designers are no longer pushing concepts to clients who push them to passive consumers. This means the job of the designer is changing, and we are not the only ones who may find this change unnerving.

The good news is that designers have much to contribute in the face of ambiguity. After all, we are accustomed to the blank page, to the one-hundredth draft. Designers offer clients much more than thoughtful, innovative concepts and well-crafted products. We can even offer more than a useful way of thinking. We can offer a way of collaborating.

By considering design principles, we can all make better sense of our relationships. Designers have the tools for sharing perspectives strategically. Here are some suggestions for how we can use the basic principles of design to better our relationships as a whole.

Proportion. Just like all parts of a design must be appropriately sized, so must we understand that as collaborators we are an equal part of a larger whole. We are not all-knowing and neither are our collaborators all-powerful. We can tell when the head of a figure looks too big for its body, so we must learn to discern when a certain conversation, conflict, or collaborator is less important than we might believe it to be, or more so. There will always be things we cannot change, such as how someone chooses to provide feedback, but we can always decide to change how we personally respond.

Balance. What is the weight we are carrying? Are we taking too much responsibility, or too little? Collaborations are all about reciprocity, so sometimes we need to show up and serve and sometimes we need to ask and receive. Know your constraints and communicate them; nothing is fast, good, and cheap.

Emphasis. Designers know how to grab a viewer’s attention (and ideally we also know how to focus our own). When we lose focus, we need a north star to re-direct our efforts. Periodically we must all ask ourselves: What is my highest value and priority? Do I care more about the type of work I'm doing or the type of collaborator I'm working with? Do I put my current collaborators first or reaching prospective, perhaps better ones?

Movement. Like everything, collaborations change. No mistake lasts forever, nor any success. Just as designers guide a viewer’s eye, it is equally important to reframe our perspective in positive directions. There are always many choices available when we are at a crossroads, and there are always more collaborators when we diverge from former ones.

Contrast. One day we are excited about a new project, the next we are dreading all the work we know we will have to put into it to have it be what we want it to be. If we pay attention to these highs and lows, we will be more understanding and helpful when our collaborator is going through their own peaks and valleys.

Pattern. Paying attention to our own feelings also allows us to notice habits we might consider changing. We will never be perfect, but we can develop a self-awareness that empowers us to be consistent enough to earn the trust of our collaborators.

Rhythm. Perhaps it sounds like too much work to be communicating with collaborators with such clarity. Just as designers slowly learn about composition and technique, we all make progress at a steady pace, one step at a time. If we're lucky, we learn to enjoy the dance.

Unity. It is because of people working together that ideas are possible. But no one need be a doormat, or a dominator. We can and should consider what’s best for the entire group or project, which at times may require us to let go of our self-doubt and speak up and at other times to let go of being "right" and listen.

Personally, I measure my success as a designer not merely in terms of the quality designs I create but also in terms of the quality relationships I foster. In my experience, they generally go hand-in-hand.

A good collaboration is both exciting and nerve-wracking. We will be pushed beyond the limits of our own perceived abilities and it will be for the benefit of us all.

This blog originally appeared on the blog of the Colorado Chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design.