Be a Design Sherpa

The beauty of digital design is also its downfall: The pixel has no value. Think about that for a moment. The raw material we as designers use to build our creative masterpieces with is worth a big fat ZERO. If we were carpenters we would have to source wood, and specific types at that. If we wanted to go home at night and whittle away for fun, it would cost us. Albeit not much, but it would be something.

I think this is why digital products are so difficult for companies to create. It’s like getting a free trip to your favorite store (Apple for me) and you can grab whatever you want. Would you stop at the necessities? Heck no. You would try to carry out everything you could possibly manage. It’s all free, so why not right? So, as a business needing a solution, it doesn’t cost me anything to ask to see the design in seven different colors. It doesn’t cost me to rebuild the navigation, because it’s just pixels.

If we were building a physical object like a table, choosing one material over another would have a consequence attached. That consequence being an increased cost for your choice. Sure, in design there’s time associated with building with those pixels. But again, the notion of time is a huge grey area. There is no real standard on what a designer’s time is worth. There is no certification to say we are at a certain level, or in fact, that we are at all a true (good) designer. A good designer’s time should be worth more than a just “ok” designer. However, what constitutes a good designer depends on the person judging.

Picasso’s Napkin

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.1

“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”

Penny For Your Thoughts

When it comes to quoting design solutions creative people seem to falter. So many agencies and freelancers struggle with one thing: What am I worth? Some costs are based by services. The big agencies give things important sounding names like “ideation,” or my personal favorite, “design thinking.” Other places that are more technical in nature seem to list things like a mechanic. Instead of “Lube, oil, and filter,” it’s “Custom XHTML/CSS templates, and CMS setup.” When it comes to pure design efforts we get to the elephant in the room: The thinking involved. How do you put a price on that?

Clients want something tangible to put a price on. You can’t put a price on “thoughts,” especially when the CEO might wonder why their own employees can’t just sit there and do some creative thinking. In a recent article, author Don Norman states: “Are design consultancies especially good at this effort? Are they somehow mystically endowed with greater creativity than the people employed in their client companies? Nope.”2

So as designers we’re left with the short end of the stick here. We have a raw material of no value. Our creative thinking is tracked by the metric of time, and this pushes us to limit ideas and solutions. The cost of our time is relative to our experience, which also is very difficult to evaluate.

Be a Design Sherpa

The design process is easy from the outside to grasp: Understand the problem. Come up with ideas to solve that problem. Test which solutions seem to be best. Then repeat. The place where businesses seem to get caught up is the place where designers can offer the most value: Containing and guiding creativity.

I believe it is my role to do more than just take some requirements and go behind a closed door for a week and come back with some ideas. This is an old method of thinking. That is when the agencies and freelance consultants owned that process. I don’t think today that as a designer I have some magical creative power and the client should not be a part of my process. It should be measured of course. Not every client wants to be so involved. We need them as much as they need us. They know their business. We know how to design for people.

Just like the free trip to the Apple store, we need to help them pick the essential elements that will get them to their end goal. There are so many options from a design standpoint, it’s hard for them to not want everything. From a development perspective it’s the same. Just because you can add a Twitter feed or embed video, doesn’t mean you should. The client doesn’t always know this.

Designers can help contain the important ideas, and get rid of the rest. An end product that looks like a thick Swiss Army Knife is not ideal. Just designing pixels alone in an office leads to making a decent portfolio. As a Design Sherpa though, you can guide your client through the feature madness and continue to push forward to great solutions. This also helps bring down the wall where the client is the enemy of good design and creative thinking. Design Sherpa’s make great solutions that create solid experiences and excellent work.

1) Picasso’s Napkin from How to Charge by Ellen Rohr
2) Design Thinking: A Useful Myth by Don Norman