On Consulting

For two and a half years, now, I’ve been working as a design consultant. It wasn’t until the last year, however, that it’s begun to sink in for me what that actually means.

Let’s get one thing straight. Design is extremely important in my work. Every day I’m bustin’ hump in the tool du jour, whether it’s Keynote or Illustrator or Excel at my desk, Sharpies and Post-Its and half-sheets of paper in the project room, a red pen and 11×17 print-outs in a design critique, pen and paper when out in the field doing in-home interviews, or donning my coding mask and cranking out a prototype for user testing or front-end code for production or what have you.

I am a specialized generalist. I need to be insanely great at all of these design activities. And the new activities we invent on-the-fly to fit the needs of the project? I need to be great at those as well.


I have found that while being a designer is extremely important in being a design consultant, being a good listener and communicator is even more important. Like, we’re talking 80/20 here. All Pareto Principle up in here. And that’s not 80 percent design, but eighty percent communication.

The biggest reason great designs never see the light of day is due to a lack of organizational will. And deeply understanding that will, and bending it to our purposes, is perhaps the most important thing a design consultant can bring to the table.

Good designs don’t die because they’re not great. They die for the same reason as great designs.

If you want to be a successful design consultant, you need to understand your design medium. And that medium is not web, not mobile, not digital, not print or multi-channel or built space or whatever.

Your medium is people.

But it’s not the people you think it is.

Because your probably thinking of your users. Or customers. Or whatever we’re supposed to call them these days.

No doubt, understanding your users and their behaviors, their emotions, their hopes and dreams and fears, is unbelievably important. But as a consultant, nothing you dream up is going to get remotely close to them if you can’t win over the hearts and minds of your client.

It took me far too long to realize this, but we’re not hired in order for us to do awesome design work. It’s certainly nice that we do, and people tend to be very happy when it works out that way, but it turns out it’s not about you or your designs. It’s about your client and their users.

Every day you are interacting with the client, you need to be selling your design. Not at a superficial level, not at a used car salesman level, but at a deep and empathetic level.

You know all that effort you take to understand and empathize with your users so you can design great things for them? You need to apply that same level of empathy to your stakeholders and clients.

When was the last time you proposed a particular approach to a design challenge that you felt was fundamentally in the best interest of the user? And when was the last time someone on your client team hesitated in accepting that idea, based on their knowledge of business constraints, market constraints, technical constraints, or whatever?

How did you respond? Did you carefully articulate your rationale for the idea? Did you lock horns and argue? Did you storm out in a huff? Did you agree to redesign it the way they asked while grumbling to yourself about how stupid an idea it was and how much it compromised the rest of the system? Or did you ask them why they feel that way, and try to arrive at some sort of mutual understanding?

Whenever someone is talking, they’re telling you about something that’s important to them. There are the words that are said, but there are far, far more words that are not said. Your job as a design consultant is to get to what people mean by what they’re saying, whether they’re users or clients.

Also, clients don’t hire you because you’re a hot shot designer with a reputation. They hire you because they have a job that needs done, and they think you’re the right one to do it. They’ve put a lot on the line, probably spent a considerable amount of their budget, to bring you into their game, and so you owe it to them to listen to them.

Your job isn’t to take a brief, go down a hole, and eight weeks later simply wow your clients with your work. That’s execution, not design, and the “wow” factor rarely lasts more than a few minutes after the big reveal anyway.

Nay, your job is to work closely with your client at every step of the way to make sure you’re aligned strategically, and yes, politically. Your client needs to be able to own your work, heart and soul, and evangelize it within their organization. They’re the ones who put their ass on the line to hire you, and this should be their victory.

A design that meets the needs of users without meeting the needs of the business and thus doesn’t get implemented, is a failed design. A design that meets the needs of both users and the business, but hasn’t been co-created or communicated in such a way that key stakeholders are sold on the idea, is likewise at huge risk of failure.

But what of the design that was brilliant, satisfying every aspect of feasibility, viability and desirability, but over time was chipped away and compromised at the request of a nervous client until it was unrecognizable? Who is responsible for the resulting mess, the client, or the designer acting under the client’s direction?

These are the good fights, the important fights to have, and they seem to have little to do with design skills, and everything to do with people skills. An effective design consultant is able to carefully listen to, understand and empathize with a client, alleviating their anxieties while simultaneously standing up for the design. Even after the design is finished, the majority of the work still remains. Design is a job, and you’re not done until you’ve sold your design through.

A great design consultant knows when to be the oak and when to be the reed, in a storm bearing little resemblance to what we might consider a design practice.

But this is life.


  1. December 4, 2012 – 12:56 am

    Thanks for sharing this Dane. Some really inspiring reading – which may feel counter intuitive to how some designers may feel that great designs should sell themselves.

    A couple of questions to mull over – what happens when the client stops paying you – do you continue overseeing and communicating the design principles?

    What happens if the project is taken over by someone with their own set of design ideas and you’ve stopped being paid – do you still stick to the project like glue despite being unwanted – and unpaid – and potentially disruptive – and – despite your own business needing you to focus elsewhere?

    I guess not everyone finds themselves in the privileged position of being involved throughout a project to completion.

  2. December 4, 2012 – 10:00 am

    Hi Al,

    Thanks for your kind words, and you bring up an important point.

    I typically work on a project for a client full-time until that project is over. “Over” almost never means “launched” because the scale and scope of the clients we work with means they have incredibly robust in-house needs for engineering. So while the strategy work is done, and the design work is done, the engineering work still has a long ways to go after our engagement is over.

    This is what makes it so important that the client team has such a strong sense of ownership over the work, because they are the ones that will be empowered within their organization to see it successfully through to completion.

    After a full-time client engagement I typically move right on over to the next full-time client engagement. There’s little time to remain involved after a project, even if I go “rogue” as you suggest.

    Which makes it all the more important that we structure our engagement so the materials we hand over continue to live and breathe within the organization after we leave.

    “Letting go” is one of the hardest things you do as a consultant.