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The Selfless Designer

Freeing yourself of factors that might adversely affect your output begins simply by detecting self-imposed negative influences. We’ll look at thoughts that are typically associated with these influences in this article.


That last project turned out bad.
I’ll make it right with this one.

Each project should stand its own merits. Trying to compensate for something else that you consider substandard is to put needless obstacles in your way. There could be many reasons why a project did not turn out as you had hoped. But as with all work, assess the results from the perspective of the client and their end users. Of course, some things may not have been executed in the manner you would have liked, but if you followed any kind of credible process, then the outcome is likely not as bad as you think.

Learn from it, but let it go.


That last project was an award-winner.
I’ll make this one just like it.

Learning from and building on both success and failure alike is the essence of experience. But it should not lead to a cookie-cutter approach, where one client gets the same deliverables as the last, short of a few tweaks. Each of your clients deserves a fresh approach, even if they happen to be operating in the same sector as another of your clients. Awards are transient, and the criteria for an award may not match the objectives of the project. Accept accolades with good grace and move on.


This next project will be an award-winner!

Like the thoughts above, forget this one immediately. If awards are what motivate you, then your focus is misplaced. Awards are welcome when they come, but to engage with a client with one eye on a shiny trophy is just another needless distraction. Perhaps you crave the acceptance of your peers, but then awards are not the answer to that. Community-oriented thinking is a faster route to recognition from your colleagues. My guess is that the vast majority of awards won have been happy by-products, not goals in themselves.


I know exactly what the client needs.

This is perfectly fine, if you have gone through a comprehensive process to understand the client, their objectives and the end user’s objectives and have agreed on metrics for success. If this is the case, then by all means stand by this assertion. But if this is your thinking from the outset, right after being awarded the job or having met
the client for the first time, then your judgement is flawed. Stop and reassess.


This project is going to be soooo cool!

Nothing wrong with that as it stands. Indeed, a positive outlook on your contribution to a project is to be encouraged. Just keep a check on your definition of cool. If you mean that the project will be a reflection of the latest design trends or will feature as many CSS tricks as possible, then you may want to retract the statement.

As Happy Cog recently put it, what is the ROI on cool?6

Remember: to clients, cool = effective.

Projects that you or your peer group consider cool will probably make up only 10% of your body of work over your career. If your imperative is cool, then the interests of your client are probably not at the top of your list of priorities. Try thinking, “This project is going to be sooooo effective!” Better, right?

Further Reading on SmashingMag:

If any of these thoughts sound familiar, you are not alone. They are perfectly natural. Even after years in practice, I’ll readily admit that these and similar notions invade my thinking. Each of these examples in its own way introduces a preconception and a degree of negative influence into your workflow. They can be so corrosive, tainting your work without your even realizing it.

Too often, the stereotype of the designer that the media presents is of the flamboyant narcissist who instinctively “knows” the solution. The quickest way to avoid falling into this trap is to stop designing for yourself and to adopt an alternative point of view, whether that of the client or the end user.

By becoming selfless, we lose the ideological baggage that can hamper our potential and instead open ourselves up more to influences that will lead to an effective project.

These are typical thoughts that I have been conscious of as I embark on new projects. What mental baggage have you been aware of that hinders your performing to your best?


Footnotes Link

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Rick Monro is a designer and writer from Belfast, N. Ireland and Head of Design at design and development agency Tibus. He writes on UI design (and other topics) at his personal blog, Designing the Middle. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  1. 1

    Really awesome post, Rick. My favorite quote would have to be “Learn from it, but let it go.” Great advice!

    I’m curious what your advice is for balancing selflessness while still conveying professionalism? In other words where are some of the lines between listening to the client and/or end user and ensuring that they are listening to you?

    • 2

      Thank you for your comments Rondal, much appreciated.

      You won’t need me to tell you that handling the client is a perennial issue in design, and you’ll forgive me if I don’t have an easy answer :)

      Design is an emotive issue, and largely subjective. Data, research and metrics are our friend, no matter how cold that may sound. What I mean by that is, if we can tell a client that a button (for instance) has affordance, benefits from the aesthetic-usability effect and is rendered in a specific colour because it is universally recognised as encouraging interaction our input is much more likely to be accepted than if we say the button “just looks right”. We may know it instinctively but we must be able to explain why. So it pays be a ‘Scholarly Designer’ which is another post altogether…

      If the debate with a client around design remains purely emotive, then it will always come down to who can shout the loudest – almost certain to be the client as they are paying!

      • 3

        “…we must be able to explain why” i think that is the key, the most important thing if you want to win the “battle” and to be able to show alternatives if the client do not want to listen, at the and the client pays the bill so i also think that it is important to choose your “battles” just as you wrote: “stop designing for yourself and … adopt an alternative point of view”. For a successful Website you have to work close together with your client.
        Great article with useful tips, thanks!

  2. 4

    “choose your battles” – right on the money, Theo.

    A cynical reading of the post might be that we should cave in and concede every debate with the client. However it’s more a case of being completely self-aware of the baggage that we as designers are bribing to the table. The client may well have their own fixations, e.g. what Competitor X in the next town has done with their website; the onus is on us to have a robust response to counter whatever these might be.

    .. and thanks for the comment!

  3. 6

    ‘Too often, the stereotype of the designer that the media presents is of the flamboyant narcissist who instinctively “knows” the solution. The quickest way to avoid falling into this trap is to stop designing for yourself and to adopt an alternative point of view, whether that of the client or the end user.’
    – Yes, yes, double yes. If I had a nickle for every time someone said to me ‘You’re the creative guy, figure it out’… it’s -NOT- magic. I can’t wave a wand and pour a delicious graphical sauce over everything.

    It’s very hard to explain people what kind of job you really are doing, and it doesn’t come naturally.

    I’ve fallen into the ‘this will be awesome’ trap a whole lot aswell! It’s pretty easy too. You get a briefing, it all sounds great and you are pumped. But takes one wrong turn and notice you complete had the wrong idea.. ouch :-)

    • 7

      Hehe… “wand” – it’s as if design college is some kind of Hogwarts where we learn the dark arts of design.

      I always attempt to keep the emphasis on design as a process, not a “taa-daa!” moment where we unveil our great vision for the project.

      I agree on the idea that explaining our process doesn’t come naturally to many designers. Earlier in my career I used to avoid client contact during design phase purely because I was afraid of hearing anything negative! Dumb.

    • 8

      “‘You’re the creative guy, figure it out’… it’s -NOT- magic. I can’t wave a wand and pour a delicious graphical sauce over everything.”

      OMG is THAT ever the line of the century! Trying to pry, bribe, beat useful info out of clients that are “too busy” some days requires a hit man!

  4. 9

    Justin Nguyen

    August 11, 2011 1:53 pm

    How can satisfy clients when they also think that a good design is must contain many jumping image with stupid colors. (-”-)

    Designer is the hardest job. ❤

    • 10

      It’s a continual challenge to counter those kind of requests, Justin. Sometimes keeping the focus on the target audience is a quick and easy way to counter requests for inappropriate colors or tasteless animation!

  5. 11

    Another great post! That makes me think for a second there. I always love designing because for one thing, it’s my work, out there in the world. People will see it, appreciate it.

    • 12

      Many thanks, Peach. That’s in important point you raise there: the difference between an honest pride in your work, and ego-driven intransigence. It’s the latter of the two we need to steer clear of.

  6. 13

    Great reminders. Anyone can make style, but can you design? Basically what Happy Cog said. Thanks for the post.

  7. 14

    Thanks Justin. And Zeldman’s seminal ‘Style vs Design’ essay from way back never ceases to be relevant.

  8. 17

    I think there is some great intelectual points made in this thread. I’d also like to contribute by stating something one of my mentors said to me, after telling him I was into “just getting it done” mind set, and giving the client “what ever they want” within reason.

    He then artfully stated “…but then you lose your voice”. That was an eye opening moment for me.
    There is doing business efficiently, then there is doing business professionally (as in providing your professional unbiased opinion when needed).

    Those that can balance both will be hugely successful.

  9. 18

    P.S. +1 – always use data and proven concepts to push through your ideas, and yes – pick and choose your battles!

    • 19

      Great points David – professionalism lies at the heart of all this, which frequently involves deciding on whether:

      a) to suppress our inner “artist” (let’s be honest, we all have one) and not sweat the small stuff or…

      b) to defend something robustly and communicate in way that emphasises our expertise *when it really matters*.

      I strongly believe that experience is the greatest asset we have in making that judgment.

      Thanks for your comment!


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