How To Fit a Circle In a Square Hole

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Being a designer in an environment where most people adhere to a strict path of logic can be challenging. There are few logic-centric people who understand the value design has to a product or service. Instead of beating your head against your desk, do something to get the company on common ground.

The Only Orange in the Apple Orchard

Apple and Orange

Think back to the first time you discovered that not everyone holds the same respect for design as a necessary part of business as you do. You were just making your grand entrance into the professional world and, much like a child discovering their own hands and feet, you were overzealous about the impact design has on every aspect of society and business. Then something happened—a conversation with a supervisor or colleague, or a meeting with a client—that took the wind out of your sails and revealed the biggest challenge any designer can face: convincing the world of your work’s validity.

Especially with the advancements of Apple and Google within the past few years, design is taking a more dominant role in the business process more than ever. Even if your company knows that design is essential to their success, they may not understand why. Though you have a perfect understanding of the importance of your work, do you know how to effectively explain it in a way that will make sense to them?

Method to the Madness

Many business and technology-oriented people see their work as being the polar opposite of design. Business and technology experts make things work, and designers are often seen as just making things look pretty. As many of us know, design is by definition far more than decorating something to make it aesthetically appealing. So how do we convince those left-brained thinkers that there truly is method to our madness?

Build Your Own Bridge

Define Yourself

Design is...

To help others understand the full weight of the importance of design, the first step is to construct a definition that clearly outlines what design truly is within the context of your environment. Design can generally be defined, but the key is to use terminology that will register with your audience.

Let’s start with the official definition of design given by Webster himself: “deliberate, purposive planning” is one of a few given. Steve Jobs once said “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” One Plus One Equals Three has a lengthy list of definitions for further reference.

This could be a good starting place for those approaching technology-centric executives. Explaining that “design is the conscious effort to impose a meaningful order” (Victor Papanek) will display the common ground between business, technology, and design. Demonstrating commonality between practices develops a greater feeling of a more cohesive bond between colleagues.

If attempting to appeal to an advertising or communications executive, emphasizing design as a visual language would be wise. “…Information only has value when it is successfully communicated. If it cannot be accessed or understood it does not have value.” Dirk Knemeyer, Thread Inc.

Design is...

Define Common Ground

The “Apples” or “Squares” might have a harder time realizing similarities between practices than the “Oranges” or “Circles” might. After establishing camaraderie, it is not enough to only understand how the other half of your team thinks. You must show them that you are capable of thinking in the same manner. It would be easiest to start with the skills you share, regardless of how you apply them.

The most obvious might be that of problem solving. Design is often much like a puzzle, placing the pieces carefully and strategically. Business requires constant analytical and strategic thinking such as in the realm of project management. Providing analogies between your work and theirs will better help them understand just how similar it is.

Another way to drive your message home is to prove it to them. Give them a mock-up to look at of something in two versions: one well designed and the other ignoring general best practice knowledge. It doesn’t have to be aesthetically unappealing; you could very well use the same graphics and typeface but just rearrange the layout. Let them choose which one appeals to them better. Of course this will only work if they have good taste, but we’ll assume for now that they do.

Establish Validation

As Roger Martin said in his STEP article, “Design and Business: Why Can’t We Be Friends?”, take inattention to validity as a design challenge. Since designers are essentially half-breeds with skills spanning multiple practices, it might very well be easier for us to jump on the left-brain-ship rather than expecting our colleagues to even meet us halfway. To paraphrase Joe Duffy, we must start working to convince the business world of the importance of design in our everyday lives instead of designing for designers.

So, how do those Apples think anyway? This will of course depend on your particular environment, just as your definition of design, but take a look around. What are the expectations of the programmers? Most likely they are encouraged to pursue certifications or further education of some sort. Do other people in your company participate in local professional social scenes? If you haven’t found one of your own, some AIGA chapters offer social outings as well as other events.

Keep in mind that certifications aren’t just for programmers. W3C Schools offers both an HTML Developer and ASP Certifications. Microsoft also offers a Web Developer certification. To avoid being stoned on the spot, I will reiterate that we are trying to bridge the gap and get closer to being on the same page as our colleagues. This might sometimes require keeping our opinions regarding Microsoft to ourselves and acknowledging that they are for whatever reason the most successful technology company in the world and having their name on your resume will attain a certain amount of respect. To redeem myself, there is also the Adobe Certified Expert.

For the Apples of the Audience

Still trying to narrow in on the impact design has on your business? There are a number of resources out there to help you understand what design should mean to you. Garr Reynolds has a detailed article on this matter, elaborating on Bill Bernbach’s quote “The difference between the forgettable and the enduring is the artistry.” The Design Management Institute also offers a Design Value for Business Executives seminar.

Reap What You Sow

Some would see the approach of taking the first step towards commonality as a burden, or something that shouldn’t be their responsibility. People often think people should just know how to do their job. But, we all know that’s not the case. So, don’t view your efforts as being for anyone but yourself. You’re trying to make your job easier all while improving the communication within the company. Improving the environment you work in is just as much for yourself as for the company itself. The Golden Rule has never rang so true, because showing respect for your colleagues of all shapes and sizes and colors—apples and oranges, circles and squares alike—will in turn give your colleagues more reason to respect you.

Recap and Further Reading

A company is only as successful as its interpersonal relationships. Relating to those who don’t take you or your work seriously can seem impossible. With some it actually could be. However, any business owner or manager has one primary goal: to succeed. Instead of letting people wonder why you’re even on the payroll, show them that you share the same goal and your work is actually half the battle of selling the company, its service, or its product.

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Ann Edwards is a freelance designer from Indianapolis, Indiana. She is also an avid car enthusiast, music addict, and self-proclaimed web geek.

  1. 1

    firsttt!!!

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  2. 2

    @firsttt!!! – -.-” !?

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  3. 3

    great post

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  4. 4

    I agree with the main idea, but is that how you really think of us? I’m a programmer by trade who regularly reads this blog, and I hope those comments aren’t representative of the whole design world’s idea of business and programming types. I’m not wholly left-brained, or less capable of understanding design than a designer is capable of understanding business or programming.

    If you want to bridge the gap, you should expect people on the other side to meet you halfway, to understand your work. Disconnections between design and business won’t get resolved by only one party doing all the understanding “for” the other.

    Programming is a tool in my kit, a means to achieving creative ends, and I find it’s the hackers with that mindset that are consistently the most interesting (Zed Shaw, anyone?) The kind of people I want to work with can use both hemispheres of their brain.

    (Sometimes they are out there, though. Had a prof once espouse that philosophy to his class – “We make it work, then we make it pretty. Actually, we don’t make it look pretty, because we’re programmers. Nate makes it look pretty, because he has a ponytail.”)

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  5. 5

    “How’d ya like THOSE apples?”

    This article seemed a bit fuzzy and vague to me, but I could be wrong. 83~

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  6. 6

    Curt Simon Harlinghausen

    August 25, 2008 6:55 am

    Interesting article.

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  7. 7

    @Evan: I definitely understand your point of view, and I agree that most everyone would want to work with only people who used both hemispheres of their brain. However, not all of us are so lucky and this post is geared toward those who are dealing with the most difficult of situations. I thought it was better to target the worst-case-scenario so that those more fortunate might still be able to find a few bits of info they could use to their advantage.

    @Quakeulf: I felt the same way at points but could never narrow in on exactly what it was missing. Any suggestions?

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  8. 8

    @aedwards: Sure, I dig that. I definitely don’t want to say that anything is always the case. I enjoyed the article, gave me something to think about – a good example of the Guy Not to Be. Thanks for the response too, and good luck working with the types like my professor!

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  9. 9

    Looking for a better team

    August 25, 2008 7:45 am

    This article strikes a cord with many creative individuals in today’s software development market. Again, not stating that all developers are visionless and are unable to produce visually compelling interfaces, but these people, from my experience, are rare. But, ironically enough, I have come across a larger number of developers that ‘consider’ themselves designers and try to dominate the project stating that a creative designer is not needed for the project. They consider functionality as the definition of design. User experience is only measured by how successful the application works.

    The strongest team is made up of apples and oranges that clearly acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses. A developer that admits that h/she is not a designer. The designer that admits that h/she is not a developer. Clearly, the definition of a team.

    A team quickly falls apart with the the arrogance of the individual sees themselves as the developer and the designer.

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  10. 10

    Programmer here…with no illusions of her capacity for design…A couple of suggestions for (visual) designers. 1) Use Smashing Magazines very logical and smart information to support a cost-benefit assessment. (Yeah, I know, but sorry, that’s how you’ll make headway.) 2) Programmers and engineers have, believe it or not, the same problem with convincing their customers why even software or a bridge or a building needs to be designed. So, as far as I’m concerned we’re in the same boat and definitely should be united more than divided in common cause. (Fists raised! Booya!)

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  11. 11

    Now I’m still a student, and will definitely state that I am 60% developer and 40% designer. I am strong programmer in js, php, mysql and ajax, but sadly enough am one of the better designers in a program that is dominated by people calling themselves designers… which most of them are not… or developers… its kind of sad. Anyways, I find it best to find someone one that is 50/50 (or close to) each side of the brain to communicate the importance of both… as they usually understand it

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  12. 12

    I’ve worked with this one guy that was absolutely unbearable. He swore that all my role was at the company was to be “the young hip guy that focuses on artsy bullshit”. He always thought I was nitpicking things when I’d bring up real issues of usability. He caused half the staff to leave one by one until the company went under… I ended up finding an awesome job and have never been happier!

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  13. 13

    I really enjoyed this article, it provided me with insight on some of the battles that go on between apples and oranges…and why it’s important to have both sides on the same page. Some questions: 1) how can you get both sides to understand each other? 2) what is the best way to manage office environments where designers and programmers co-exist? 3) if you can get the business model in place to get apples/oranges on the same page…then how will you ever get that customer to buy in? (and perhaps literally BUY in)

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  14. 14

    great article.. Smashing Magazine Rocks!!

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  15. 15

    “Of course this will only work if they have good taste, but we’ll assume for now that they do.”

    All of this also will only work if the other side – be it the programmers, corporate or whomever is having a hard time “getting” the importance of good design – is also willing to meet halfway. A rather obvious point, but if one has the misfortune of working with people who are not only completely oblivious to best design practices but don’t even comprehend the role of marketing, life is going to be tough for a designer.

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  16. 16

    Great article!

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  17. 17

    I completely understand where this is coming from. I have actually worked in agency settings where this mentality was prevalent… although I would think this is probably more pervasive in-house.

    I find it interesting that the comments have leaned towards the designer/developer relationship, although the article seems to be more about design vs. business. The overarching themes are applicable across the board, though. Embracing, and taking a stake in both sides of a problem can be beneficial.

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  18. 18

    interesting articles…

    this issue is very frustrating for designers, especially in my country, where business people still just can’t seem to appreciate design better… it is a challenge in some ways, but if it’s too much… well…

    guess it’s up to all the designers to build that bridge…

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  19. 19

    maybe if you make the circle’s diameter equal to the lenght of the square..

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  20. 20

    If you have to explain the purpose of your own job constantly, maybe you need a carreer change..

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  21. 21

    @unnamed: Most designers tend to be OCD, challenge-thirsty people. And, true designers love and believe in what they so much that they welcome anyone who challenges its validity. So, if you don’t believe in what you do enough to defend it on a constant basis, then I’d have to say that designers aren’t the ones more likely to switch occupations.

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  22. 22

    I tend to agree with Evan. This gives a rather negative picture of developers. If design is, as you quote Steve Jobs, “how it works” — and I agree with that wholeheartedly — then developers (and others) certainly play a role in design. What I find offensive is the idea that someone else decides how it works, and developers just build it. While a developer might not really have the graphics skills of an experienced designer, most developers have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t in a user interface, and have something to contribute here.

    Developers are often expected to be graphic designers. At my last job, I created a rough icon for an application I had developed and stated that I wasn’t a graphic designer, I didn’t spend too much time on the icon and they could have a graphic designer work on it if they wanted something better. Instead what happened is someone on our QA team volunteered to make the icon, and, I got the reputation of being the developer who couldn’t do graphic design, when, ironcially, I was apparently the only developer who could tell the difference between an icon that was professionally designed and one that wasn’t.

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  23. 23

    Magnificent article Ann!

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  24. 24

    A designer who can’t think like a businessperson is useless to everyone, but themselves. Too many artists and designers are ignorant of the basics, and management and marketing sees them as snotty, self-important limp noodles who haven’t the time nor decency to speak in terms the money-makers understand.

    THAT is where the animosity and apathy stems — it’s not because those types can’t grasp the importance of design, it’s that the designers/artists, in their eyes, have proven themselves to be as enlightened as a fence post when it comes to real money-making.

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  25. 25

    @Mike:

    1) how can you get both sides to understand each other?
    The first step in the direction of getting the whole company on the same page is to make sure that the directors/managers are properly educated on the value and process of design. If the directors understand how design affects the success of products, services, and a company, it will provide the groundwork for the whole company to follow suit.

    2) what is the best way to manage office environments where designers and programmers co-exist?
    There isn’t a set recipe of one part design, two parts programming, and a pinch of common decency. This depends greatly on the environment.

    3) if you can get the business model in place to get apples/oranges on the same page…then how will you ever get that customer to buy in? (and perhaps literally BUY in)
    Case studies. Prime examplePrime example:: “Result: a 971% (not a typo) sales increase and a 45% reduction in manufacturing costs.” You can’t argue with those numbers! There are more case studies on the same site.

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  26. 26

    i agree with this article
    sadly is the true the programers thinks that are designers.

    just look why apple is so popular (have designers)

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  27. 27

    Tedly= you give the most arrogant brainless post that i seeit, you say the designers are brainless to understand bussines. why you dont think that your brainless for design

    the bussines game must be a coperative work.
    developers and designers no only one.

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  28. 28

    great article
    the developers create
    designers sell the product

    a total true

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  29. 29

    hi
    o3oi892oy60a4w9g
    good luck

    0

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