Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

The Designer's Virus

"Bubonic Plague," in Albert Fournier, Atlas de Bactériologie, ca. 1910. (Collection: Winterhouse)

I took part in the recent Eye magazine debate in London on the relationship between design and marketing. Also on the panel was a creative director from one of the big international branding agencies. He talked about design in a way that I found barely comprehensible. He used phrases like "driving customer revenues." He made design sound like something you squirt from an aerosol can. My blood thinned. Everything he said confirmed my distaste for the corporatization of design.

And yet, as I listened, I found myself if not exactly agreeing with him, then at least seeing that he had a point of view. He spoke in a modest and reasonable way. It was obvious that he regarded his approach to design as thoroughly professional and utterly unexceptional. Perhaps he was right and I was wrong? Perhaps it is dumb of me to believe that the only design worth bothering about is design born out of a mixture of personal enquiry and intelligent intuition? As these thoughts fizzed in my head, I realized I was suffering from the designer's virus: empathy.

Empathy gives us the ability to see the other person's point of view. And when you think about it, there's no more valuable skill for the working graphic designer than the capacity to see a client's point of view. The objectivity that designers derive from an empathetic nature is invaluable.

I discovered early in my working life that I was nearly always able to sense what clients wanted. I could do it even when they weren't sure themselves what they wanted. By a sort of automatic psychological profiling, I found that I could intuit what would make them happy. Over the years this sixth sense grew. It sometimes became difficult when dealing with groups of people, yet I found that I could usually locate a collective desire.

I knew what the bastards wanted and I gave it to them. But as I developed my own philosophy of design, my ability to know what a client wanted started to become a burden. Sometimes what they wanted wasn't what I wanted; sometimes what they wanted was just plain bad. Wrong, even. Gradually I realized that I'd produce better work if I didn't have so much empathy shrouding my thinking.

It's a favorite pastime amongst observers of the design scene to divide designers into opposing camps. In an interview with Steven Heller, Massimo Vignelli defined two contrasting types of designer: "One is rooted in history and semiotics and problem solving. The other is more rooted in the liberal arts — painting, figurative arts, advertising, trends, and fashions. These are really two different avenues . . . one side is the structured side, the other is the emotional side." In his celebrated Eye article, "The Steamroller of Branding," Nick Bell suggested that designers could be classified as either "agents of neutrality" or "aesthetes of style."

Let me suggest another possibility: designers are either empathizers or egotists. Most of us are empathizers; we want to please our clients and we are happy to forgo some personal gratification in favour of giving them what they are expecting. But egotists are only interested in getting what they want: they have a fundamentalist certainty about themselves and their abilities. Their work is often better than the work of the empathisers.

I caught a glimpse of the non-empathetic approach recently when I interviewed the British illustrator Terry Dowling. Dowling is a cruelly neglected figure. A pioneer of radical illustration in the 1970s, his dark, chopped-up collages were a precursor of Punk style. He was also Vaughn Oliver's tutor, and has subsequently worked with Oliver on a number of projects. I pointed out that during his long career he'd hardly ever done any commercial work. "It might sound arrogant," he said, "but I will only work with clients who give me a totally free hand — and if they don't like what they see, they don't pay for it. I've done a number of significant jobs that have gone right the way through, and then been rejected. So I say, sorry but find somebody else, I don't want to be messed around."

Much as I admire this, I couldn't do it. My empathetic nature wouldn't allow me. I've sacked a few clients in my time, but I've persevered with countless others who deserved to be dumped. And the reason I persevered with them was because I could see their point of view even when they were behaving unreasonably. Empathy in design leads to harmony and professional accord, perhaps even to riches. It's an essential part of the job. But it's also responsible for lots of mediocrity and formulaic design solutions. And if you've got the empathy virus, there's no known cure.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design

Comments [39]

You speak about Empathy as if it's a bad thing. Being empathetic to your clients likes and dislikes doesn't necessarily result in bad work, and that same work is not necessarily worse than a designer who says "screw it, I'm doing my own thing." I've seen so so so many designers who only do what they consider to be "right," and as a result their entire portfolios are filled with misguided projects that all look the same.

Graphic design is, as much as we hate to acknowledge it, a service industry. Our livelihood comes from the money our clients pay us to design, ergo we work for them. It is our job to make our clients happy, but that doesn't mean we have to produce piles of crap. A designer is as much a servant as he is an educator. It is our job to satisfy the client's needs but also show them why a little twist on what they're expecting might be better. Clients also are rarely artistic-minded and see design as a necessary path to corporate solidarity and brand euphoria. They hire designers to produce things that will result in sales; that's all there is to it. So you cannot expect your clients to understand the way you think and must instead speak to them in terms they can grasp: profitability, brand continuity, advertising, demographics, etc etc.

As a person who is admittedly cursed with empathy, you see it as a direct path leading to mediocre work when you should see it as a path leading to success. If you can tell the client wants an orange square, try it and see what you can do with it, then give them a souped-up orange square AND a red triangle just because you think it might work better. Explain your position and show them that you have their best interests in mind. Giving a client what they want doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Empathy is an honourable human characteristic and should not be ignored (or enforced) exclusively for business reasons. Clients are people. And so are designers. Although this may be idealistic, we really should have empathy for all people, within reason.

That said, employing empathy doesn't mean one subscribes to the adage - "The [Client] is always right". This would be a childish, archaic and counter-productive approach.

To state the obvious, clients know their business better than a designer ever can. Similarly, designers understand their own skill-set better than clients do. This is, of course, why both parties come together. But the idea that education (or creativity) is exclusively offered by designers to 'ignorant' clients is absurd. Education and creativity, in all their forms, are two-way streets - and empathy is a useful tool in each case.

Of course, progressive work requires a measure of challenge, sometimes heated. When each party respectfully challenges the other (and empathy is a great mediator here) the results invariably produce exciting results. This doesn't mean choosing the middle ground or taking the lowest common denominator. It is simply the product of a successful, respectful relationship.

In the cases where clients (or designers) are obstinate bastards, devoid of any empathy, the choice is simple: Resign them civilly or stock up on migraine tablets, don your armour, and hope for the best.

... designers are either empathizers or egotists.

Or crazy!!!



Joe Moran

Empathy is not only laudable. It's in short supply. Dare I say that shoot first, ask questions later -- which seems to the philosophy du jour for some many nations and special interests -- is the antithesis of empathy?

And frankly, as much as we might have higher goals for design. Design, especially design in the U.S., is born from a professionalization of commercial art. It's commercial art mixed with European modernism and viola: graphic design. It's born to serve the product. The message. The thing.

Now that doesn't mean you can't be ethical. And that you can't have standards. But design doesn't exist outside of the culture of exchange. The culture of commerce and creation of desire. Whether you are shilling for Macy's or the U.S.S.R. -- you've still got something to sell.
Inaudible Nonsense

Adrian only seems to leave us two options on where we stand as designers. Yes, I have empathy for clients. Yes, I have an ego that will coerce me into doing what I want. But, I also have a third "virus": compulsion (if this is common in designers do tell). My compulsion covers everything from research to kerning. If the aesthetic is shitty it's going to have a water-tight grid. If I have to use a terrible typeface I will kern it to the best of it's ability. (You get the point...)

In all I don't consider this a bad thing... even if my brain does explode by the time I'm 30.

Bonus Comment Fun: Client Quote of the Week
- - - - -
Designer: So, you said that you wanted to change a few things on the home page of your website?
Client: Yes, can you make it more, uh... more... new-age?
Designer: Okay, uh... We could—
Client: Or more flashy.

"But design doesn't exist outside of the culture of exchange. The culture of commerce and creation of desire."

It exists. Nowadays, not a macy's or USSR. And still works well. The debate beween advertisement and design I see is not over yet. where is it then? In one's critical eye.

Adrian, where did you read that Heller/Vignelli interview? Thanks.

It sounds like empathy is being obscured here and in turn is being used as a scapegoat for your decision-making process. Your ability to see the other person's point of view certainly is a valuable asset when dealing with clients, however this is likely not the motivating factor for why a designer makes design/work decisions against better personal design/work judgement. Likely, concerns regarding finance, client retention, the nature of a word-of-mouth business and principles come into play in the decision making process in this respect. I imagine that even Terry Dowling and similar design practitioners (practitioners that decide to only continue working on projects if their best judgement is trusted) can and do understand the point of view of their clients but choose not to be in agreement with it. Being empathic does not require one to be in agreement with the subject of one's empathy.

Perhaps he was right and I was wrong? Perhaps it is dumb of me to believe that the only design worth bothering about is design born out of a mixture of personal enquiry and intelligent intuition? As these thoughts fizzed in my head, I realized I was suffering from the designer's virus: empathy.

So, the designer's empathy "virus" is a sickness that allows you to understand and rationalize the point of view of one's client or another practitioner during a debate?

I knew what the bastards wanted and I gave it to them. But as I developed my own philosophy of design, my ability to know what a client wanted started to become a burden. Sometimes what they wanted wasn't what I wanted; sometimes what they wanted was just plain bad. Wrong, even. Gradually I realized that I'd produce better work if I didn't have so much empathy shrouding my thinking.

First off, lets not insult the client because they don't have good design sense - thats why they're hiring a designer, no?

It sounds like you would produce better work if you stuck to your design guns (so to speak) or believed in your design/work principles more deeply - not because you had empathy toward your client.

Empathy in design leads to harmony and professional accord, perhaps even to riches. It's an essential part of the job. But it's also responsible for lots of mediocrity and formulaic design solutions. And if you've got the empathy virus, there's no known cure.

This kind of sum-all statement really obscures the use of the word empathy in design. Empathy, and empathic design, is an approach used commonly by interaction designers, and no doubt in other design disciplines, in an effort to create user-centric solutions.

It would seem that the "virus" you're discussing is not in fact empathy, but rather the ease in which you compromise your (design?) principles.

Let me suggest another possibility: designers are either empathizers or egotists. Most of us are empathizers; we want to please our clients and we are happy to forgo some personal gratification in favour of giving them what they are expecting. But egotists are only interested in getting what they want: they have a fundamentalist certainty about themselves and their abilities.

This categorization of designers is simplistic. For my own part as a design practitioner, and those of my colleagues, I know that we don't make design and client decisions with only only one set of motivations in mind. Sometimes retaining a client and an account is important. Sometimes design principles steer the decision. Sometimes its about money and making sure my girlfriend has a healthy ice cream budget. There are a myriad of motivations that have different priorities at different times.

Their work is often better than the work of the empathisers.

By what measure? The measure of "good" design? The measure of success in the business? The measure of how well it serves the users? The measure of their bank statement?

I feel that lumping designers into two categories of decision-makers is an extremely flat and limited way of viewing not only designers, but people in general. Certainly they are more complex.
Christian Palino

Reading back over my post I'm noting a rather cold tone. While there has been a lot of criticism about several of the articles here of late, let it be said that there is appreciation not only the effort overall but also discussing the topic of how designers relate to their clients and balance the client's desires. However I feel that this article is missing the mark a bit on the role that empathy is playing.
Christian Palino

Thanks, Adrian, for using a moment of personal introspection to reflect more broadly on the design profession. A cogent and engaging piece of writing!

How about empathy for our readers, users, and audience? When I write and design a book, I try to imagine how potential readers will interact with it. Will they understand what I'm trying to say? Will they find it useful? Will the choice of words and images communicate an idea clearly or will it be clumsy, obscure, or confusing?

When designers and writers think only about their own voice and personal agenda (succumbing to the inner egotist), they lose sight of the people they wish to address. We need to empathize with our audience, not just our clients. Once you start thinking in those more public terms, having empathy stops looking like "selling your soul." Empathy is simply part of successful human relationships.
Ellen Lupton

I would have empathy for my readers as a commenter, for example, not make a single grammatical, spelling, or syntax error if I was getting paid or had a proper home. I could include a top ten list of why I write so incoherent, including the word lazy, but then I would have to go into my history and torture as of late.

Please, Ms. South Carolina, I wanna be beautiful, too, but I am past 45 and angry.


So, I read this piece, and then with blood on slow boil, scrolled down the comments to make sure nobody had already written what was top of mind for me the minute I saw the word empathy in this piece. But Ellen has. Fortunately, she's explained to us in both a succinct & accurate manner what empathy really means for a designer. And thank god for that.

The rant that Adrian goes on here actually strikes me as the inverse of the mindset he criticizes in the "creative director from one of the big international branding agencies". Too many designers are still holding onto the idea that they are artists and that the game today is about being persuasive enough to convince their clients why they should approve clever ideas that are (in the designer's subjective opinion) superiorly designed. Or whatever. Here's a hint: if the client needs to be convinced of why to go with your idea, maybe they don't see the relationship as client + hired artist = making corporate art.

We're not artists hired by businesses. We're designers hired by businesses. We design & express things but really our most important role for the audience and our client(s) is as communicators. And that role's not just about a.) understanding clients and all their politics, or b.) solely relying on your own intuition to make design decisions.

If you don't like that role, then go do art for yourself and whoever else cares.

empathy is a beautiful trait. You might say that it lowers the quality of the design work. But design is, fundamental, a deeply humane, personal practice. I think if the work makes the connection and expression the client is trying to make, it is successful. You cannot remove it from that context. Sometimes our ideas and preferences don;t match up with what they want, and empathy becomes a burden. But when we find clients that don't know what they themselves want, and we can interpret their desires into great work, that is when empathy is so valuable.

And then there are just good, old-fashioned, crappy clients that almost seem to WANT bad, tasteless work. Empathy can do nothing for them. Nothing can.

I hate to state the obvious but here I go. I think this blog needs an injection of originality. This fine art vs. commercial work argument is getting a little crusty. Architects fall into different camps in terms of what kind of work they'll take on. So do designers. So do lawyers. The results are that some work is commissioned and some is the work of an artist. Some is a mixture of both. Neither wins. Almost all occupations have this kind of dynamic. Would you refuse to call yourself an "architect" if others calling themselves "architects" could be bought for any price?

If you feel your client is just plain wrong, then tell them, with whatever level of commitment you feel appropriate. It doesn't matter if you or the client end up victorious. Follow your instincts, there is no one correct way to manage clients and the work. The original article actually starts to make what I think is a much needed distinction, which is an objective look at different approaches to "designer". You can believe service is to serve a clients needs, or you believe service is more "tough love" where you help the client see new ideas. Or it's both. I'd argue against purely subservient commercial design as a fulfilling pursuit as a designer. You'd perhaps disagree. Cool. Maybe we won't work in the same studio. Am I declaring you unfit for the title "designer?" Hell Naw. You don't embarrass me.

That said, the effort to correct the impression that designers are inherently the decorators of base corporate impulse needs to be squashed. Done. So can we talk about something else?

I think it is important to find a good balance as a designer between empathy and creating well designed peices. We think, what is the most effective way to communicate this client's message but still produce a quality design...maybe the design is not the exact style that the designer would choose personally, but is still a well designed piece...something to be proud of.
marjie devore

I think all designers have a bit of both the empathizer and the egotist in them. The amount of each depends upon their work experience. As a design school-trained Marketing Manager, I can say I've had more than my share of conversation with designers in which I tried to explain to them that the client has not f**cked with their design, that in fact it is not "their" design at all. I think what more designers ned to understand and embrace is that they are providing a service; that being the use of their talent and skill to realize the vision of someone who does not have the talent and skill to realize it themselves. Or else go be an "artist".
Bob Evangelista

Adrian wrote: Empathy gives us the ability to see the other person's point of view.

No, not really.

Empathy is the ability to feel what another person might be feeling.

Perspective is what gives one the ability to see the other person's point(s) of view.

Even a designer who can deeply empathize and feel every nuanced emotion that his/her clients might experience needs to gain perspective. Perspective enables the designer to think about how one's work might be received by an audience. It's also quite useful to try to look at things from the perspective of one's client. Having perspective is a far more objective skill that having empathy, which seems highly subjective. Empathy is all about emotion. Well, maybe some designers do work entirely based on emotion. But, regardless, it always pays to keep one's own work in proper perspective.

Adrian also wrote:
I discovered early in my working life that I was nearly always able to sense what clients wanted. and I knew what the bastards wanted and I gave it to them.

As we see, it is always possible to entirely lose perspective on yourself. And, of course if you really have empathy for your clients, you're not very likely to call them "bastards." Because you'll know just how bad that makes them feel, indeed, you'll be able to feel it yourself.

Rob Henning

If this is to remain a healthy debate, I don't think it's helpful to discuss clients with such weight in the context of empathy and design.

To Bob E.'s and Ellen L.'s point, empathy is about the audience, not the client, and design is a craft that makes the complicated simple. When you look at Vignelli's work, or Crouell's, or many others from previous generations, you can see that empathy with the audience has always been part of design. So it's not a new concept; maybe just more formalized. But why some of the designers who thrived in the 80s and 90s don't embrace that part of our craft (or even learn how to use it) I do not know, because it would actually help them sell their beloved designs through to clients more successfully.

If you've ever wondered why a company like Google has so much success with their almost undesigned-looking products, it's because they have a fanatical respect for their users. They design things that surprise and elate, but they do it within a completely relevant framework, because it's based on research with their audience's needs and desires. The iPhone is another example of empathy fueling design to make its audience both happy and relieved at the same time. But even if you're just designing a book cover or a poster, understanding the intended viewer and what they want can lead you to some very powerful ideas.

I feel for you. This is not a joke or making fun of what you shared. As many have pointed out, empathy is in general a positive thing, in the abstract, quite noble, yet what you are describing is the personal cost that a highly empathic person pays for dealing with the public.

When feeling what another feels and hopes for and at the same time knowing that the results will not be positive can be downright painful. Do you feel as if you are being torn between the need to give people what they want and what will do them the most good? Does your gut wrench when it is necessary to tell a client no, that is not a good idea?

All the marketing theory in the world won't make that feeling go away. Those with well meaning advice generally just don't get it. It's not a matter of knowledge or strategy. It's most definitely about any sort of artistic ego. It's just plain feeling uncomfortable at a visceral level. Telling your client this or that won't make that feeling go away, will it?

No advice, just letting you know what I read from your post.

"When designers and writers think only about their own voice and personal agenda (succumbing to the inner egotist), they lose sight of the people they wish to address" As I read this article and Ellen Lupton's comments all I can think of is Rick Valicenti and him being the quintessential "aesthete of style." He seems to be really good at it.


Empathy. Ah, yes, I recognized my own empathetic character while in grad school---oddly enough, during a time when I wasn't working with clients that often. Funny thing was, all of my work was self-directed and all of a sudden I felt (gasp!) like an egoist. It was an awkward, but awakening moment in my design career. Many of my designer colleagues have a cure for this empathetic disease we're speaking of: being poor. They get tired of living check to check, and they learn to dive head first into projects, take control from the client in order to get the best work, or even stab the competition in the back! Greed kills empathy.

First, empathy is vital but empathizing with someone is not the same as agreeing with them or capitulating to their unspoken demands.

Second, it is arrogant and dishonest to assume that you know what someone wants, to give them whatever you divined as their "choice," then blame the result on them.

Third and most importantly, the role of the graphic designer should neither be about what the designer wants nor what the client wants. A designers' job is negotiating the needs and interests of a variety of stakeholders. Think about serving the client's needs and goals rather than the client's wants. Then, as Ellen pointed out, also think about the needs of those who will use whatever you design. Then think about everyone and everything else affected by what you do.

Empathize with everyone. If that causes you to do mediocre design then work harder, reconsider your standards of greatness in design, or find something else to do for a living.

ps: I worry about statements like "design is a service business" because too many people only know one model for service business: the drive-up window at McDonald's. If a question anything like "Do you want fries with that?" seems applicable to your work, you may be doing design on a sadly mediocre level. Working in a mediocre manner is the main thing that leads to mediocre design. What would you think of a conversation about whether an attorney should write the contract the client thought would be nice or the contract the lawyer really finds poetic?
Gunnar Swanson

It is my understanding that the origional intention of client relationships should exist to serve the client in the method the designer sees fit. If one were to look at the client 'designer' relationships of antiquity, the roles are almost completey reversed!

In Congo (as with many other parts of the world) it is perfectly appropriate for one to ask grandeous favors of another. For instance, you may be asked for a laptop if you seemed affluent. This could be construed as one over-stepping a cultural boundary. It in fact is not. The percieved begging is a signifier of respect for, "A man who does not respect you will ask you for nothing."

In our current cultural context, what is the purpose of a designer without an opinion? Surely I didn't spend 4 years in school to simply act as an interface between business and demographics. I was educated and self educated to THINK and DO, not simply DO. Although, in the bigger picture is all of this really relevant? No, but in our short time on earth, I would atleast like the satisfaction of knowing that I left a mark, even if it was just on a singular partition of the design world.
Shane Johnston

Gunnar's three points are very well thought out and succinct.

I would like to see an article on those times us designers thought we knew better than the client, but found out we were in fact wrong.

I think that would be an interesting read and would allow us to better appreciate empathy, humility, and the power that inheres in an ability to work with others - it is more rewarding to solve others' problems than it is to indulge our egos. The former thrives on recognition, the latter on attention.

Virus is such a word that it pushes me to think about negative issues. On the other hand Empathy is much more positive and a virtue for human being. Actually when you read these two words together then I begin to think if it is possible to have a life without using empathy? On theory it seems possible but in my opinion it is not. It is not because we all as designers have the responsibility to public. It is not about ethics but rules. I think todays world is very much settled on empathy. Witout this virus there is now way to "accept other things" such as accepting stranger to our home. This is an invented word like "tolerance". If you have the empathy then you need to tolerate the person that you think for. But for me all these two words are the subwords of the word "democracy". Thats why I say that everyone has emphaty since you live in a democratic society. Even you ignore it or not you somehow have to think for the person that lives below of your flat. Still this is a very simplified example it is true that in democracy there is empathy. But this doesnt mean that we need to do it. For me, empathy can also be very tricky way of accepting others ideas. The problem here is that it creates a feeling of seperation. Especially if there is one side empathy. So I would say designer should be aware of the other (client) but also aware of him/herself. Designer has still need to cover his/her reflection on the work but with a respect to the client. Because the other reality is since we don't show this respect to others then we can't expect from them. There has to be a way inbetween. Maybe not the short cut or the highway but still a way to reach there. I would say empathy is neccessary but always being aware of we also need to be understood. Without putting any difference.
Murat Kolon

Goodness, judging from your commenters, it's practically illegal to say anything critical about empathy.

I wish to interpret your entry over-literally in a different respect: isn't bubonic plague a bacterial infection, not a virus?

* Is a designer working in HIV prevention... :P
Daniel Reeders

The designer's VIRUS OR the designer's CURE?!
I personally think (as many of design's theorisers) that design is an "integrative" practice. So, if you apply this notion of integration into the process of design while working with a client, than you must have something like this: understanding the client's needs in order to integrate them into your work.
HOWEVER, even if designers are usually linked to that profile (in opposition the artistic profile, witch is a lot more liable to the expression of personal feelings), they are not necessarily suited with 'great notions' of ethic. Design does not have its own purpose... It means it could serve good and/or bad wills. So, what we might need is to get to a point where notions of ethics are linked to our practice. Because today, it is clear for most of us that design is having bad effects into society... but that is another unsettled question for another unsettled discussion!
(Sorry if there is some orthographic and/or syntax errors ... "it might be a frog problem!")
Louis Drouin

I don't think empathy is the problem. I think it's apathy.

Empathy allows us to see what the client wants. Apathy keeps us from giving them what either of us needs. Awareness of the restrictions, solution or problem is not the cause of the problem...

To be more specific; Empathy allows us to see the box. Apathy keeps us from leaving it.

Personal enquiry and intuition pays the bills. Yeah, right.

Here's a comical situation I encountered recently. The marketing group of a large, well-know company had serious doubts about the brand identities that the design team presented. The identities didn't test well with the intended audience, nor did the marketing group "feel" that the work was appropriate. The design team insisted upon pushing for one identity, in opposition to all the factual data presented, solely on the basis of their creative intuition. The marketing team relented to the creative gurus. When the identity was released, it was ridiculed and lambasted by the design community. Design bloggers wrote that this shoddy piece of work must have been the result of marketing muscle squashing creative brilliance. I almost laughed my *** off when I read the comments, having been on the inside and knowing that the exact opposite was true. So much for the prescient superiority of the design instinct.

Are you talking about the London Olympic logo? LOL

While I agree with the bulk of Adrian's post on empathy, the initial connection with the experience with that branding director does not seem to have any relation with the discussion on empathy.

Design operates on many levels, and i dare say, it would be a little closed minded just to circulate it around empathy.

The new role of design and designers today operates in many areas and often very high up on the pyramid. Activities such as core competence facilitator, creative problem solving, revenue generation (as the branding person described) or even strategy visualization. ARE very valid concerns in the business of design.

By just focusing on empathy you just hover on the low level technical problem solving aspects of a design solution. Sad to say this area will be where most designers play at and thus will be the place where most are struggling to survive.


Adrian's point is well made. Empathy is essential in the practice of design.

However, another point to consider is the role of the designer as an advocate for the end user.

Often the needs and preferences of the client do not reflect those of the people who will use the client's product or service. Therefore, it is the designer's professional and ethical responsibility to address (empathize with) the needs of both the client, and the end user.

It is also worth noting that not all design is the result of a client coming to a designer and requesting service. In fact the practice of design does not require a commissioning client. A designer may design his or her own products and market them directly. In this case empathy for the end user remains essential, however the standards of design need not be compromised to placate a client.

Michael M. Smith

There are two types of people in the world:
those who believe there are two types of people in the world,
and those who don't.

Oh to live in a non-dualistic culture...

I would like to comment directly to 'the relationship between design and marketing.' Indeed, the audience/consumer ought be considered. However, Marketing in the United States is a dominant category of clientele and as a designer I try to be aware of the inherent biases that are embedded in any given client structure if I'm ever to achieve a final sign off of approval.

I do not react to Adrians empathy/egotist binary as dualism. It seems more like poles on a continuum. If the client does their homework and provides a creative brief, it can be discerned with a little bit of conversation if the client is seeking more of an 'egotist' or a designer who needs to be thoroughly 'empathetic'.

If the client is Intel, in almost every case, the work by the designer must be strongly empathetic and the role of the designer will be as a stylist working under strong guidelines.

If you are working for NIke, it wouldn't be surprising if you were hired as a designer to work in a category that you are intimately involved-a former NCAA cross country athlete designing for their running shoes. Participants understand the culture that the product is targeting thus the best designer for the job is one who can bring their personal experience to the project in order to create a design that speaks directly to that culture.

Each Marketing client have their own strategies. They come to the table with their own set of expectations.

However, the perspective on what the client is demanding does not always appear clearly. An ideal egotist model could help create a perfectly suitable design system for any Marketing team. It is the very nature of a creative agency to employ their own process to produce a solution to a project. Since a Marketing department has gone outside of its own hierarchy to seek a result, it is assumed that the Marketing department did their research and picked out the creative agency that they deem fit to handle the project. It is the Design agencies role to account for all the usability factors and return to the Marketing team the prescription. The Marketing team can either take their medicine as prescribed or find a new doctor.

If the Designer decides to be put on retainer, the ability to be a good empathiser will only help the Designer cope with the day to day demands placed upon their skill.

One rub that seems to cause tension for the designer is the regularity that Marketing teams position themselves as the conceptualists and the designer as the stylist. This seems to be the dominant paradigm here in the United States. In many situations, the Designer is always thought of as an egotist that must be restrained. This relationship was precisely articulated above in this thread by a design school trained Marketing Manager who stated: "I think what more designers need to understand and embrace is that they are providing a service; that being the use of their talent and skill to realize the vision of someone who does not have the talent and skill to realize it themselves. Or else go be an "artist". The prevalence of this sentiment is disappointing.

I think what Adrian is getting at, if I may be so bold, is that a designer who thinks only in empathic terms, is doomed to the dregs of bad-design. essentially you become a "yes-man," and you begin to sacrifice all your personal aesthetic beliefs to the will of the client.

while the business of graphic design may be a "service industry" the role of the designer hasn't changed. painter's in the renaissance suffered the same plight, yet the truely brave and bold ones looked beyond what the the client wanted and saw what was needed.

if you look at some "design" projects like the Urban Forest Project for instance; the value was to benefit design itself not its end user.

there's nothing wrong with being empathic, but the disease is caused when a designer forgets himself for the sake of some dimwitted client.

call it selfish, but empathy only goes so far for a designer with any sort of vision.

Rather late in life I realized there is creative work I was doing for myself, and creative work for others. To my frequent agitation they rarely seemed to intersect for me, and I pretty much learned not to push one into the other's space. But I also discovered there is a meeting place where my own ideas become not mine, but part of a larger work. The more I look for that meeting place the more I find it and the larger it gets; I have a much more satisfying view of my life now.

Charles Eames (a designer and an artist) made a Venn diagram visualizing this meeting place:

[T]he interest and concern of the design office, the area of genuine interest to the client, and the concerns of society as a whole....These areas are not static - they grow and develop as each one informs the others. Putting more than one client in the model builds the relationship - in a positive and constructive way.

In Design Q&A he pointed out the nature and value of "constraints":

Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem—the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible—his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints—the constraints of price, of size, of strength, balance, of surface, of time, etc.; each problem has its own peculiar list.

I took a new look at my "own" work and of course saw that I was already working with constraints I'd made for myself. Expanding the constraints, and accepting them as part of doing anything, takes some effort. But it works.

Eames again from Design Q&A:

Have you been forced to accept compromises?
I have never been forced to accept compromises but I have willingly accepted constraints.

thanks for the GREAT post! Very useful...

designer is crazy relative to you like you are crazy relative to designer ... but need to remember that in real any design is poison for his own author, at best it's a drug ... The cure illusion

Jobs | July 16