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Design Is Persuasion

/ Thoughts & Opinion

I’ll be honest. I twisted the title slightly there. Design isn’t strictly persuasion per-say. And nor should it be. But for many designers persuasion is an inescapable part of the job, and I think a lot of people forget that as well as communicating to a user, designers have to communicate internally or to their clients too.

So when I say design involves persuasion I don’t refer to persuading the user since I don’t believe that’s the case. Users won’t be persuaded (if they don’t want to do something they probably won’t). I don’t believe design should persuade, but more deliver for the users. It’s not about what the designer wants the user to do, it’s about what the user wants or needs from the design. It’s more about delivery method, storytelling and so on.

What I’m really talking about here is designers having to persuade the client. Before your work gets to the user (or before it’s made “live” anyway – since users may be involved from the very beginning if you favour UX as a method). That moment when you finish your design concepts, your wireframes, prototypes or your branding identity ideas – whatever you’re presenting – and the client comes back with feedback. Perhaps suggestions, or just questions about where and why.

That is when designers have to don their persuasion hats.

Now some would argue that it’s in the presentation. Like your maths teacher showed you in high school, you show your working. What you used for research, testing, inspiration and where the idea may have originated. Show the evolution, the decisions you made along the way and then when you present the stage that you’re at now, the client has context. Wonderful context. I dare say this is the most common situation. Then with any luck the objections you have to deal with will probably be less severe or more considered at least.

Others might conversely opt for the big-reveal. The “wow” moment, hoping that the impact of the work and the design and creative content will speak for itself. A dangerous and bold move, although one that some favour, hoping the execution of the design and impact of not being hand-held to this point will impress the client.

The presentation however, might not be something you’re in control of. You might have passed it over to an account manager, or creative director who then does the presentation, and so if they’re lacking the skills to persuade on your behalf, or if there’s no presentation beyond an email or two, what then? The client has feedback and it gets passed down to you.

When you’re further down the design chain, as a junior designer or working as part of a big team, then this can often just land on your desk. Then you’ve got an uphill struggle to try and make your point. Go on, explain that line-height, font-size, colour decision and see how many people will spend more time going back to the client with a list of reasons.

Maybe you’re up against it time-wise, maybe there’s a horrific case of “they pay your wages buddy, just do what they say” and then how long is it before a few more situations like that arise, and you begin to feel distinctly like “the monkey who can work Photoshop*”.

I think there are so many factors at play which can make a designers life both inside and outside an agency difficult, but ultimately it often feels like there’s a great deal of persuasion required. As a designer it forces you to justify everything, so that when you’re challenged over a design decision, you have an immediate response and reasoning.

Persuasion by its nature suggests that the client isn’t quite satisfied with something, and that they need to be convinced that it’s correct, or convinced to consider it as a possibility. It’s probably worth saying that it’s perhaps not even “persuasion” at play in most cases. It’s more likely to be justification, or reasoning. I’d presume in many cases even with some persuasion, if a client doesn’t particularly like or see the value in something, they’ll stand their ground, and so persuasion has to take a back-seat to concession. And then as the concessions mount up, where do you stop and consider re-thinking the whole thing?

I don’t purport to have any solutions here and it was merely a recent conversation with a colleague that brought the subject up – but in writing this, I have been forced to consider a few important things:

  • Should design persuade the user, or should it merely be used to help the user achieve their own goals? Is there more at play here?
  • How do people present their work to the client, and what sort of impact does it have on the way it’s received? Could two different people present the same work to the same client and get different bits of feedback based purely on the way they present the work?
  • For designers lower down the chain of command, how do they make sure their work is being correctly communicated? Who’s responsibility is that?

Perhaps something to ponder in future.

*or Fireworks.

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Alex Cowles

About The Author: Alex Cowles

A largely cynical and often sarcastic designer and front-end developer by day. Unknown international DJ & music producer extraordinaire by night (and at weekends). You probably won't like him.