How to Effectively Navigate Egos in Design
Consider great marvels of human civilization from the Great Pyramids to Snapchat. Remarkable feats of ingenuity require vision, ambition, and—above all—collaboration. And you can be sure that in any major creative undertaking, egos abound—just imagine trying to collaborate with larger than life figures like Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs or Kanye West. Innovators and dreamers with big ideas require teams of possibly-lesser-known creators to make them real. One element that separates the successful examples from unknown failures relegated to the dustbin of history is effective ego management.
Working on any design project, whether you’re the lone designer working for a client or collaborating on a team regularly means putting your people skills to work. The majority of people you will work with in design will be team players willing to engage, listen, contribute, and collaborate effectively to create something amazing. And everyone can have a bad day here and there—we all do!
Creative and entrepreneurial ventures are sparked and advanced by all types of characters—that’s what makes them interesting—but who hasn’t seen many a promising project stymied by unyielding personalities and inflexible attitudes?
Remote assignments can be especially difficult in this regard. You may be working alone with a sole client, or as one of a few designers/developers each wearing many hats. You may be working across different time zones, which can make it hard to conference in real time, and slows down the pace—and you may not have the luxury of a dedicated project manager to make sure everyone’s pulling the same cart.
Whatever the situation, to ensure the optimal outcome for your project, you have to balance your technical responsibilities while playing the part of ego manager. You as a designer are responsible for managing them (as well as yourself) and there are no excuses for your design decisions—the user is the king, not a client or your teammate.
Learn to navigate these tricky waters with grace and professionalism and you will grow as a designer and as a human.
I. Common Ego Monsters
Every project is a creative collaboration between multiple human beings who leverage their unique skills and experience to move toward the goal. It’s quite understandable that any of these experts may have a difference of opinion or style informed by their own experience. Healthy creative tension can bring two or more diverse brains together to hash out a great solution through conflict. Sometimes, however, strong personalities can rock the boat too hard.
Watch out for these common ego monsters:
THE KING CLIENT - My way or the highway!
As a design professional, it is your job to look at a particular problem that needs solving and propose solutions. You draw from your own experience to apply your expertise toward finding the optimal design to present to your client. While you welcome feedback and iterative revisions, you expect a level of trust in your expertise—that your solution and the rationale behind it will be considered carefully.
However, you will occasionally meet a client or project manager who merely expects you to do as you are told. This kind of client has a clear, sometimes immutable idea of what they want the designs to be and are certain they have the best answer to every design problem.
So what if extensive research and design precedent backs up your simple form design—your client knowsthat users want to provide deeply personal information through 15 form fields to sign up for their newsletter. Who cares if you’ve user-tested a dozen UI designs for the mobile app—the client prefers rotational controls on the settings screen.
This kind of circumstance is often called a HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) situation, and it can be particularly difficult to manage. The King Client “rules” over a project, issuing feedback in the form of decrees and mandates. This species of big ego monster sees themselves as the sole source of inspiration and will resist counter-proposals even when backed with data.
As a designer, your responsibility is to deliver value to your client through optimized, tested designs. You expect to weigh outside opinions to improve your design and meet the client’s business needs at the same time. You do not expect your client to stubbornly fight against your recommendations because they are hung up on preconceived notions or pet ideas.
Of course, you want to please your client, but sometimes “just following orders” will dilute the effectiveness of the ultimate result. No one wants to feel like a “button monkey,” and this can be particularly demoralizing to any designer who cares.
THE SCOPE-STRETCHER - Just one more little thing!
I have never worked on a design project where the scope or desired end result didn’t change a bit here and there from the beginning as agreed upon. Maybe your design needs to account for an unforeseen scenario. Maybe you can enhance a branding presentation by depicting the logo you designed mocked up on a stack of business cards. That’s the nature of design.
Unfortunately, there are clients and managers out there who may feel entitled to stretch and push the scope of the project far beyond reasonable limits. They decide three-quarters of the way through a branding project that they have changed their mind and want to start from scratch. You only agreed in your scope to design screens for an iOS app, but they expect to see a separate set for Android. They may make seemingly small requests here and there that—before you know it—add up to dozens of hours of extra work.
When called on it, a sensible collaborator will likely realize their requests are out of scope and make amendments, either to their expectations or your compensation. But an unreasonable personality may react with nearly righteous indignation. They don’t think they’re asking for anything out of the ordinary. They may declare that you are the one being unreasonable or uncooperative.
As professionals, there is an implicit rule to respect each other’s time and effort. By defining the scope of a project early on, all parties are agreeing to a framework of reasonable expectations where everyone will play their part in order to arrive at the best outcome. We all want to over-deliver and exceed expectations, but it’s up to us to decide what requests constitute a bridge too far.
I shouldn’t need to tell you this, but you should always have a contract and always have a detailed written record of scope, requirements, and deliverables. Here are 10 clauses you should be certain to include in your agreement.
THE VISIONARY - I am the guru
A designer is part scientist, part artist—an analyst and a problem solver. A level of cultivated confidence is a requirement of the profession and designers are enlisted for their creative expertise. When solving a design problem, whether alone or on a team, you have to believe in your own skills and rely on your experience.
There are designers, though, whose attitudes go well beyond a healthy confident streak. They see themselves as the next insert-your-inspirational-design-guru-here. They refuse to scrutinize or amend their own ideas and respond to constructive critique poorly.
On a team, they may completely disregard the insights and contributions of other designers that don’t align with their own. They seem uninterested in weighing the suggestions of “lesser” designers who just can’t see their genius. They treat developers like “code monkeys” and fellow designers like amateurs—which makes everyone grumpy.
This attitude is especially demoralizing coming from a team leader or creative director. Sure, they may have the ultimate say in the shape of the final designs, but a huge part of being a leader is leveraging all the creativity your team has to offer. The best ideas don’t always come directly from the top.
A great design lead takes into consideration diverse opinions as well as gives strategic critique to facilitate great design. No matter the size of your team, every collaborator’s input should be considered and scrutinized to achieve the best result. Anyone can have that great idea that makes all the difference. Even the most experienced and celebrated creatives can find something to learn.
II. Ways to Navigate the Ego Seas
While you can’t adjust every bad attitude, there are a few general methods for avoiding and dealing with an overabundance of inflated ego.
You may be surprised by the power of transparency and communication. Keep in mind that not everyone you work with will share your exact expertise, skill set, and understanding of your design practice. Let your clients know that designing complex products may require specific phases of design thinking. If you educate your client about the benefits of validating your UX design at low fidelity, they will be more receptive and give constructive feedback when you present them with sketches and wireframes.
As designer Bronwen Rees writes in her piece on Effective Design Communication:
“Having the ability to articulate design decisions assures stakeholders they can be trusted and have the expertise necessary to complete the job. It also proves purpose, validating that they have thought about their solutions and that there is logic to their approach. A clear explanation tells businesses that the outcome is a result of user research, product testing, and a well-thought-out design process.”
Be explicit—walk your collaborators and clients through your solutions and open the floor for feedback. Avoid confusion by being crystal clear about what you intend to convey with your designs and you will likely cut back on friction in the process. Even better—include them in some of the ideation and problem-solving process by conducting remote design workshops!
Part of communicating is also making sure that everyone is on the same page from day one. If you don’t have the help of an effective project manager, it’s up to you to set the pace. Ensure a good outcome with the right start. Have a clear outline of deliverables (and be explicit about levels of fidelity) as well as contingencies for changes in scope. Be clear that timely deliverables rely on timely feedback.
Shopify outlines some common pitfalls in a project that can lead to scope creep, as well as some effective strategies to help avoid it. Managing expectations means communicating with your client and team about what is needed when and being proactive on touch points.
I also recommend establishing a schedule of regular check-ins and opportunities for client feedback. Make sure they feel that they are part of the process—because they are! A bad attitude is sometimes the byproduct of insecurity and regular communication helps assure all parties that you’re all rowing in the same direction.
Map It Out
Sometimes, the standard scope documents aren’t enough to help your client or collaborators fully visualize the actual scope of your project. A text-based list of requirements might fall short of the goal of getting everyone on the same page.
Does the site you’re designing require deep thinking on all of the cross-navigation? Would a system map help you and your devs align on the movement of data across a complex application? Are you sure you and your client know just how many different templates you will be creating?
Frauke Seewald gives a thorough overview of systematic wireframe mapping, which is a great thing to keep in your design toolbox. Using visual maps like these help you avoid unpleasant surprises along the way, and can make the difference between a relatively smooth project and one that crashes on the rocks.
Back It up with Data
Design is creative problem-solving. Design patterns practiced now are informed by validated design precedent spanning decades. There are tried-and-true methods for approaching navigation UI on mobile devices. Form field design is an entire discipline in its own right with metrics-based best practices covered in countless articles.
Draw from user research, established best practices, and data when presenting design solutions. Chances are, someone else has looked at a design problem similar to the one you have in front of you and may have insights into possible solutions. Use research to validate your assumptions, and also give your collaborators confidence in the foundations of your concepts.
Even the most carefully-planned projects can hit snags, and people can get frustrated and hard to work with. Did the project hit a wall with funding or some other business concern? Are external pressures pushing on the deadline? Does the project need to adapt to a new roadmap? See what you can propose in order to move things along faster and what you can salvage that’s already been worked on.
If the scope or direction of the project changes drastically, you may need to reorient. When these situations come up, consider drawing up a new or amended contract to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
Don’t forget to manage your own ego in design! We all have egos to an extent—you need to believe in your own intuition and abilities to work in design. But even the best of us can succumb to ego monster behavior from time to time.
Even the most seasoned design professionals can fall into any of the ego monster traps. Are you hell-bent on a particular solution because it’s the best solution to the problem, or just because you like it? Are you getting annoyed with your client because they are being stubborn and nitpicky about something, or is it you who has failed to bring them up to speed and explain your reasoning? Are you taking critical feedback too personally?
Avoid Emotional Reactions
If a client or collaborator gets upset or angry, stay calm. Even the most zen professionals can lose their cool now and again. Is the person reacting to personal or professional pressures entirely unrelated to the project? We all have lives outside of the work we do and sometimes there’s crossover. As a designer, it is not your job to divine what’s going on in your client’s life, (unless you have a particularly friendly relationship), so be sure to keep things professional.
One of the worst things you can do is to meet emotion with emotion. Being reactionary not only comes off as unprofessional, but can stir a minor tiff up into a destructive storm. For catharsis/comedic relief, I recommend browsing Clients from Hell. Take a deep breath and a step back—your positive attitude is likely to be contagious.
III. Know When to Abandon Ship
No one likes to say it, but there are times when a client and a creative team reach a point where the ship has run aground and there’s no path forward. Maybe no one can agree on the design solutions you’ve proposed. Maybe a stakeholder has crossed a line. Either way, it takes a level of professional maturity (and sometimes stoicism) to see the signs and to communicate with your client/collaborator clearly and without undue emotion, that the relationship has run its course.
I always have a “kill” clause in my contracts for this contingency, and you should, too. Decide from the beginning what should happen at what stage if the project needs to be aborted. Outline who owns what design artifacts from each phase in the process. If you only get to the sketching phase before the plug is pulled, you should have agreed in advance if those can be used by the next designer or if they’re yours.
Agree on a “kill fee” so that you’re not ¾ of the way into a project when it’s abandoned by the client and they don’t want to pay you beyond the initial deposit. Knowing these things up front helps mitigate the fallout should things go south. Design leader Mike Monteiro wrote a great piece on what details to include in your own kill clause.
IV. Be a Good Shipmate
In the end, you are principally responsible for your own contributions to a project. Of course, that means delivering a successful design that is great for your clients and their users. Beyond that, however, you are also responsible for your human contribution.
Even extremely difficult personalities begin to soften in the face of sustained pleasant professionalism. A good attitude and positive approach to working with your clients and collaborators goes a long way. Practice empathy and patience and you will be surprised how much of an effect you can have on other people’s moods!