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JournalNotes & Thoughts

Internal Design Commentary

Pete Orme

‘Talk me through it’

As a designer, it’s important that you’re able to share and articulate your visual design ideas with clients in an appropriate and meaningful way. It may not be a formal presentation or pitch, it could be sharing assets through Basecamp or a test URL and following up with a Skype call or additional notes. You should take this opportunity to ‘pitch’ your ideas with belief and conviction and talk confidently about what you’ve done and ensure it’s clear that you’ve made informed design decisions. When a client asks, be ready to answer the question ‘Talk me through it’.

If pitching or sharing your design ideas formally is part of your job or something you’re used to then story telling is a must and you may be more articulate than many, but a lot of designers work less formally with their clients, particularly freelancers. It’s so important to tell a story, say why you’ve made the decisions you have and enter thoughtful discussions about why your ideas look the way they do.

I’ve been through the initial design sharing process with clients many times and along the way I’ve developed an interesting little trick to inform my approach. In the early days I would often enter into discussion armed with a sense of ‘it just feels right’ but no discerning story to tell. That’s not to say my ideas were poorly judged, I just hadn’t ‘recorded’ my thought processes that informed my decisions. I was under prepared and couldn’t react to some of my clients’ questions.

So how do I explain my ideas to my clients? Perhaps a better question, initially, is ‘How do I explain my ideas to myself?’ If you can do that then you’ll have a much stronger story to tell your client.

Enter, Internal Design Commentary

To remedy my ‘it just feels right’ approach, I started to do something that I now call ‘Internal Design Commentary’. Throughout every design project I’m always running internal commentary. By that I mean questioning, reasoning, interrogating, informing and believing in what I’m designing as I go through the process. This may sound obvious but I like to make a point of doing it.

I’m not talking about baseline grids, font pairings, vertical rhythm and so on. I’m talking about the simpler stuff. The stuff that you can share with perhaps greener clients in terms they will easily understand. I constantly make simple comments to myself about why, for example, I’m organising, colouring, spacing, populating and branding every part of my design the way I am; ‘Let’s keep these buttons simple, we don’t need gloss on these buttons, that doesn’t follow the clients’ brand’, ‘This will be content managed, let’s make sure this layout is flexible’, ‘We’re not using grads or drop shads in this design so be consistent and stay away from them’, ‘The logo is circular, let’s try playing on that to extend the brand’, ‘Let’s break this content into digestible chunks’, ‘People like clicking pictures, let’s keep these links simple and uncluttered’. You get the picture, a constant stream of simple reasoning that informs your design.

As designers, this is what we do and we all go through this process and draw on our years of experience but it perhaps happens on more of a sub-conscious level if you don’t make a point of doing it. The whole time we’re answering these little questions we’re shaping our design and we’re building a story. A story that can be really useful when articulating our ideas to clients.

An exercise

As an exercise, during your next design session, try commentating, either internally or externally, on what you’re doing. Explain everything you’re doing to yourself for every mark you’re making on the page. Make some mental notes or even jot them down on a piece of paper.

Tell your story to yourself

It may seem a little anal to have a reason for absolutely every mark you make on the page, but what harm can it do? You’ll have armed yourself with lots of notes about your design decisions that you can refer back to later.

My commentary isn’t always internal. At times, I literally talk out loud to myself about what I’m doing as I’m doing it. This can seem strange and amusing to my colleagues, of course, but I find that making a point of audibly processing some of my thoughts assigns them to my conscious brain, making them easily retrievable when I need to rationalise my design to myself. I’m getting a simple story straight in my own mind and I understand why I’m designing the way I am. By constantly running my Internal Design Commentary throughout a project I’m able to:

1. encourage myself to think my design through more thoroughly
2. get a deeper and complete understanding of my design decisions
3. have a reason for every part of my design
4. proactively tell a story about my ideas in simple English
5. predict some of the questions my client will have

Tell your story to your client

Internal Design Commentary is about making simple notes. A check list, if you will, of decisions you’ve made that will arm you with a story about your design in plain English. If you can tell the story of your design to yourself then you’re in a great position to tell the story to your client. When your client says ‘Talk me through it’, you can do just that. You’ve been doing it internally throughout the design process.

Your client may not be tech savvy or familiar with the web and in many cases they may not even care about the deeper craft involved in your design.  But they will expect you to talk confidently and professionally about your work in their language. Your client will need reassurance that you’ve thought their problem through and met their objectives. If your design is carefully considered then you can predict a lot of their potential feedback questions and have answers readily available. Talking to clients, after all, is about having them trust that you know what you’re doing.

Be a better designer

‘It just felt right’ is ok. You’re a talented designer and sometimes things just happen that way. Maybe you inadvertently turned a few layers off in Photoshop and had a happy accident!  At times we sit back, tilt our heads, squint our eyes and think ‘Yeah, that looks about right’.

Being a designer is not just about executing the visual, however, it’s ultimately about communicating. With clients and colleagues alike. If you have a clear story about your design then you have something insightful to share with your developer. Just as with clients, you can predict many of their questions and arm yourself with the answers. Show them that you’ve carefully considered how your design will behave responsively.

Communicating your design story is not about being reactive to your clients questions. Proactively share it and back it up with informed thoughts. I’ve found Internal Design Commentary to be invaluable in helping me do this and I’ve become a better designer for it. When I’m asked by one of my clients or colleagues, ‘Talk me through it’, I’m ready.


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