Be Cooler by Design

What you need to know about working with designers.


You’ve been hiding your digital camera in your briefcase for months, taking artsy snapshots of coffee-cup carcasses and still lifes of pens between meetings. On weekends, you’ve morphed into a flea-market junkie, building a diverse collection of 200 spoons you now study for curve degree and metallic shine. Now all you have to do to prepare for your big design meeting on Monday is put pencil to paper and begin sketching like Raymond Loewy. Stop — put away the pencil! “The worst for me, as a designer, is if someone came to me with a picture of something and asked me, ‘Can you please do something like this?’ ” says Lena Simonsson-Berge, a 30-year Ikea design veteran. But doesn’t being a good design collaborator mean swapping your marketing hat for a designer’s beret? PowerPoints for paintbrushes? Simonsson-Berge and other design professionals would argue no, and in fact recommend quite the opposite.


As design increasingly plays a central role in how companies define and differentiate themselves, folks in marketing, research, finance, and the like who have never touched CAD (much less know that it stands for computer-aided design) are finding themselves working more closely than ever with design teams. They depend on designers to concoct magical innovations while also expecting them to speak their common language of bottom lines and ROI. The best designers pull it off. But don’t you owe it to them to meet halfway? How can you become as much of an asset to designers as they are to you?

1. Show them the canyon

“There’s a guy at Ford, an Italian guy, Giuseppe Delena, and he always used to turn to the marketing people and say, ‘Don’t tell me you need a bridge, show me the canyon!’ ” says Dev Patnaik, a principal at Jump Associates, a design-strategy firm that works with companies such as Nike and Sony. People view designers as artists, but their fundamental role is problem solver, so the more strongly you can articulate what the need is and who the problem is being solved for, the better the solution they can dream up. That’s why Ellen O’Neill, VP of design for Starwood’s St. Regis, Sheraton, Luxury Collection, and Four Points properties who’s designing rooms for St. Regis’s new residential condo line, finds value in spending time with developers who can share every last detail about their potential customer. “Our job is to design the experience they’re going to have when they’re staying in the room,” says O’Neill. “Their job is to tell me who’s going to be in there.”

2. Metastasize Your Metaphor

Rather than trying to do designers’ jobs for them or overwhelming them with too much data, which often stifles creativity, try finding innovative ways to express the essence of a product. Patnaik encourages nondesigners to use the metaphor technique favored by Apple’s Steve Jobs. “When Steve Jobs was working on the previous version of the iMac, he told [Apple design guru] Johnny Ive, ‘Make it like a sunflower.’ ” Jobs wasn’t encouraging yellow petals; he provided Ive with a metaphor that captured an idea about its functionality and essence. “It’s as if that picture is something I can double-click on, and it’ll open up in my mind,” adds Patnaik. For those who aren’t natural metaphor generators, he suggests sketching an idea on paper and asking yourself the functional and emotional reasons it moves you. Then trash the sketch and communicate those reasons to your design team.

3. Stay For the Ride

Just because you’ve diligently presented designers with the problem doesn’t mean your involvement should end there. Robyn Waters, Target’s former VP of trend, design, and product development, cites collaboration as Target’s secret sauce. “I had a rule in my department — no ta-das. It wasn’t like design went out, researched, then made stuff and went, ‘Ta-da!’ ” Make it a point to break down the silos and spend time in your designers’ world. When Tom Dair’s team at design firm Smart Design was developing Hewlett-Packard’s digital-camera printer, the Photosmart 375, they made sure HP joined them on ethnographic adventures inside users’ homes. “When people say they don’t understand design, it’s because they don’t get involved in the process,” Dair says. By teaming up throughout the journey, nondesigners learn that design decisions are based more on function than aesthetics, and designers aren’t plagued with shocked reactions that lead them back to square one.

4. Relinquish Your Taste

Sure, exercises such as “find 35 ways to use a pencil aside from writing” that teach you to think like a designer are helpful, but what’s more important is being able to zero in on the reasons behind your reaction to a design. “Don’t talk about whether you like it or not,” says Gavin Ivester, who heads Puma’s international team of footwear designers. “The most frustrating nondesign people to work with are the ones who think that design is only cosmetic.” Rather than react to a new product based on your personal taste, suggests Ivester, think about the effect it’ll have on your target audience. And if you find a design visually unsettling, rather than dismiss it, learn the designers’ rationale. “A lot of great ideas appeared insane at first, and a lot of designs that have advanced product categories seemed ugly at first,” says Ivester. So keep the questions coming. That, rather than developing your inner fashionista, will lead to your company’s next brilliant design idea.

About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton