The One Thing Intelligent Leaders Should Never Say to Designers
Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, writes about â€œcareer-limiting phrasesâ€ that â€œjeopardize oneâ€™s professional image and potential for promotion.â€ Price goes further to say that employees who use certain phrases â€œwill likely be replaced with those who convey a more positive attitude, collaborative spirit, proactive behavior and professional demeanor.â€
As Design Leader, Principal, and a DesignOps consultant, Ihear from dozens of people per week. Iâ€™ve seen a gamut of toxic behaviors thatantagonize and push away competent and dedicated designers (myself included). However,nothing comes close to the negative impact on the morale and effectiveness ofyour designers than this one word:
Here are four reasons why you should ban the word â€œprettifyâ€from your office:
1) â€œPrettifyâ€ is dismissive and pejorative when applied to design
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines â€œprettyâ€ both as â€œtypicallya pleasing but unnecessary accessoryâ€ and â€œattractiveâ€¦ without being trulybeautiful or handsome.â€ In other words, something ultimately unnecessary and oflow value.
Although designers areoften asked â€œprettifyâ€ a bad situation by painting some lipstick on it, this isnot the primary function of design.
Design is a whole slew of practices aimed at helping theteam achieve business goals with maximum efficiency, bring innovative technologiesto market while reducing risk and avoiding wasting resources, and generallyimprove the competitiveness of your enterprise. The impact of Product andService Design on the business outcomes is thoroughly documented: it generatesbillions in ROI annually in a huge variety of industries, transforms lives, andimpacts societies on a global scale. Two of my favorite projects to bring upwhen discussing Product Design are the US Highway System (â€œdesigned to enable adriver to go from coast to coast without stoppingâ€) and the electric light bulband socket system designed to bring safe, reliable and cheap light to everyhome and workplace in a world.
The same goes for Visual Design and Branding, which isarguably even more valuable and certainly more nuanced. Leading brands likeCoke, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Under Armour â€“ to name but a few â€“ cite billions ofdollars in brand equity. Brand equity painstakingly created using millions ofpieces of collateral, deliberate touchpoints, and key experiences â€“ stored incollective memory as the sophisticated emotional and factual relationshippeople have with your company.
Is design having a valuable impact on your organization? No?Could it be because you are inadvertently using vague and imprecise words likeâ€œprettifyâ€?
2. â€œPrettifyâ€ is vague and imprecise
Design works best as a way to achieve specific businessgoals for a particular audience, at a precise moment in time. Good designassignments are actionable â€“ theystrive to precisely define what youare trying to achieve and for whom.In contrast, â€œprettifyâ€ is vague and imprecise.
For example, the designers of the US Highway System weregiven a specific, actionable vision: â€œdrive a car coast to coast withoutstopping.â€ Imagine if instead these designers were told to â€œprettifyâ€ someroads? Would we have ended up with billions of dollars of flower urns adorningevery intersection, with no relief of congestion in sight?
Alternatively, letâ€™s take the famous â€œthousand songs in yourpocketâ€ example of the Apple iPod and iTunes combo. Imagine what would havehappened, if instead of a â€œbold and magnificent ideaâ€followed by a â€œsurgicallyprecise opinionâ€, Steve Jobs would have just asked Jony Ive to â€œprettifyâ€ aSony Walkman instead?
The same goes for visual design: exact phrasing helps focusthe design on the needs of a specific audience. â€œMake it colorful, edgy andmodern, something that Billie Eilish would useâ€ would result in a verydifferent design from â€œmake it trustworthy, safe, familiar, andun-intimidating, such that older people with weak eyesight could use it withoutglasses.â€ A precise statement such as: â€œmake it usable by oil and gas workerswearing gloves and protective equipment, in bright, direct sunlight on a smallscreen of the Toughbook Pro. The UI has to be unambiguous, color-blindnessfriendly, and high-contrastâ€ has the right amount of information a visualdesigner would use to make the product work well for the desired audience. The word â€œprettifyâ€ has none of those things,and neither does it indicate what would make the design successful.
3. â€œPrettifyâ€ has no measurable success condition
Another issue with the word â€œprettifyâ€ is that it has nomeasurable success condition. If a designer is â€œprettifyingâ€ something, howdoes she know when to stop? When is the design â€œprettyâ€ enough? Who decides theright level of â€œprettinessâ€? Chances are the business leader who assigns thejob to a designer is the only one who is also qualified to measure the rightlevel of â€œprettiness,â€ as the word has no qualifying success condition, whichmeans nearly endless iterations of intensive, demanding (and costly)high-fidelity design work.
Early in my career, I have been tasked, creating 47iterations of the same design over a period of 3 months. None of my designshave been judged â€œprettyâ€ enough, so the work continued, creating a completewaste of time, effort, and resources and achieving no business objectivewhatsoever.
As a leader who assigns work to designers, itâ€™s up to you tocommunicate three things: 1) your actionable vision and 2) the target audience,and 3) the desired measurable success condition the design is meant to achieve.Not sure what these are? Designers can help! In fact, thatâ€™s part of our jobdescription. Through techniques like user research, personas, user journeys,and vision storyboarding, we stand ready to help you define the problem,sharpen your vision, and determine the criteria for success. However, theseactivities take time, including planning and collaboration with other teams â€“which brings us to DesignOps, yet another thing that the word â€œprettifyâ€ignores.
4. â€œPrettifyâ€ ignores collaboration and operational constraints
The word â€œprettifyâ€ implies that the magical design unicornscan be called to come in last-minute and sprinkle magic fairy dust over yourproject to make it a brilliant success. Design simply does not work this way.
The best way to achieve a repeatable successful outcome foryour company is for Business, Development, and Design to work together from thebeginning. This is sometimes called three-in-a-boxapproach â€“ the method routinely practiced by leading tech companies likeGoogle, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Citrix, Salesforce, and many others.Instead of asking design to â€œprettifyâ€ something after itâ€™s built, for yournext project, try inviting designers into the room for a joint discussion to help with problem definition. You maybe surprised at the outcome.
Now Iâ€™m not saying every single little button or field needsdesign feedback or review. That is neither possible nor desirable. Robust,well-built Design Systems are a foundation of DesignOps and have a fantasticway of empowering development teams to make confident, independent decisions.However, to function appropriately, Design Systems must be created andmaintained by the ongoing collaboration between Design and Development teams,the concept that the word â€œprettifyâ€ completely ignores.
How to fix the â€œprettifyâ€ problem
Whenever you are tempted to ask someone to â€œprettifyâ€something, substitute a more precise statement that reflects the goals of yourproject and the way the specific customer would feel about the project whenitâ€™s completed. Add a success condition, which must be satisfied to count theproject a win. If you are not sure, ask a designer for help in defining theproblem, the audience, and criteria for success.
If you are building something reasonably routine, yourdevelopers can safely rely on a sound Design System. However, if you find thescope growing, or if something isnâ€™t 100% clear, or feel entirely right, thatis the time to call the Designers, not after the whole thing is developed.Engaging Design early in the process will avoid hurt, disappointment andburnout from your designers and will help your product shine, usually with lessdevelopment time spent taking wrong turns that you will have to fix later at amuch great expense.
So whether you say â€œprettifyâ€ in as an ongoing practice, orhappen to say it only rarely, itâ€™s critical for your continuing success as abusiness leader that you recognize when youâ€™re making this faux pas, and shiftto more productive mode. Remove this toxic word from your vocabulary and ban itfrom your office.
Want to learn more about the ways of the winning Product teams? Need more resourceful practices for your Business, Design, and Development to work together more harmoniously and productively? I teach in-depth custom workshops, keynotes, and consult industry leaders on an individual basis, and would be happy to discuss how I can help you bring the DesignOps best practices to your organization. (Just donâ€™t ask me to â€œprettifyâ€ something! )
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