Empowerment, boundaries benefit designers and partners

The other day in the studio I had a surprising conversation with a new designer. His budgets were looking hopelessly convoluted and were in danger of bursting. Turns out that instead of keeping to the agreed list of projects, he had agreed to any and all requests for his services. I asked why on earth he would do such a thing. His answer was, “I don’t want to say ‘No.’ I’m just trying to be a good partner.”

Needless to say, he was being the opposite, for a number of reasons, but I’d like to focus on one way of reading this situation. The recognition of design as a unique business function has been growing ever since Apple’s design-oriented products began sparking both round-the-block retail lines and the imagination of other businesses. For designers, this opens up an opportunity to transform their role into an active, upstream client partnership with greater responsibility and accountability. How great is that?

Not great yet, once you realize the irony that it’s the designers themselves who may have the most difficult time adjusting to this behavioral shift. The budget conversation was just one illustration of this difficulty. Put simply, strong partnerships require not only strong identity and boundaries, but also the reflexes and instincts to maintain them.

Marketers and other business partners have well-established identities and clear boundaries, and tend to have the skills to leverage and defend them, while many designers are underdeveloped in these skills. I see it firsthand in all of our new designers, at all levels. To develop this skill quickly, we ask our designers four questions:

  1. Do you have a clear sense of what you bring to the table as a design professional, and what is your vision as such?
  2. What are your unique responsibilities to the engagement and how do they differ from your partners’ roles and responsibilities, and how do you articulate this?
  3. What tools and resources do you need to solve the problems or take advantage of the opportunity, and how do you maintain and protect these resources?
  4. How would you redirect any interaction that oversteps 1-3 in order to get back to a positive and progressive outcome?

When we put these questions into practice, the idea of “good partnership” moves quickly away from an expensive and time-consuming vortex where the designer politely (or not so politely) fulfills all requests. The process becomes more efficient and the work gets exponentially better. Designers become adept at seeing themselves as trained professionals with hard-earned expertise, and subsequently bring to the table something more substantial than just boards and comps. They also begin to see their other business partners in a similar light. Marketers, for example, become not just mere gateways to getting good work into the marketplace, but rather co-creators. This is good for everyone.

There are, of course, relationship differences for an in-house group as opposed to an agency-for-hire, but I don’t think they are as stark as commonly assumed. Each has nuances that can favor or hinder an equal partnership model. In either situation, when you have identity and boundaries established, all sides can benefit as good partners.

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