Design Your How: ‘Because I Want It To Sell’

One of my first jobs as a young designer was for a company you’ve probably never heard of called “The Walt Disney Company.” Pretty small digs.

I’m kidding.

It was stressful as hell.

Not only did I not know how to use the Adobe programs correctly, I also had no clue about office etiquette or politics (“Why can’t we all just get along, man?”), and I was still too fresh out of taking design courses to care about things like ROI, and time management (“But look at all the pretty grids, man!”).

I was a design hippie.

Peace, love, and Swiss typography.

Shortly after joining I became pretty good friends with Disney’s vice president of publishing (we’ll refer to him as “The VP” in this article). He was genuinely interested in music and so was I, so we would stand in the hallway between our two departments and talk about Ryan Adams, or Tom Waits.

One day, we were in the hall talking when his Blackberry (remember those?) beeped to alert him that he had a meeting. Instead of just dropping the conversation, he invited me into his office so he could finish his story while the conference call was getting started. You know how conference calls go: 20 people get on the line, everybody talks, and very little that applies to you is actually said.

Anyway, we were talking about Wait’s album “Rain Dogs,” not paying attention to how much time had passed, when Mr. VP realized that they were talking about the release of his next book. And the conversation wasn’t pretty. They were unhappy with the art direction, the illustration style, the typography, the layout — even the cover.

It wasn’t going well. Not at all. And by the time we realized they were talking about his book, he was unaware of the context of the discussion.

I was biting my fingernails in suspense.

How was this guy going to respond? Could he respond? Was he going to hate me (or, worse, fire me) since I was in the room distracting him from his call with my opinion about Waits’ “Downtown Train”?

Finally somebody on the line spoke up and said, “Well, what do you have to say about all of that?”

Without hesitation, he un-muted the speakerphone and said “Thanks for your feedback. I hear what you’re all saying, but I’ve made the decisions I’ve made about the art direction and the design of the book because, well, I want this book to sell.”

Then he muted the conversation again, and went straight back into his conversation with me about why he loves “Jockey Full of Bourbon.” I quietly peed my pants and sighed a huge sigh of relief as everyone on the conference call moved on to the next topic of discussion.

It was a masterful performance. One that I’ve gone back to again and again. First as a designer at an agency, then as the owner of a small design firm, and now as a manager at a bigger firm.

I keep going back to it for a few reasons:

1. He was confident.

It takes guts to have your product or design critiqued. And it takes guts to respond to the criticism. The VP had every opportunity to ask for a re-cap of everyone’s concerns, to make something up and say his secretary had come into the office with an emergency and that’s why he wasn’t listening; he could have made any excuse he wanted. If I were him, I would have launched into a lengthy defense of my decision-making process to try to reassure everybody about the direction of the product. A good old-fashioned filibuster, if you will. Instead, he took control of the conversation by broadly acknowledging everyone’s concerns, and then re-asserting himself as the managing head of the department by simply stating that he had made his decisions for a good reason.

If you’re confident about what you’re doing, it makes it harder for others to doubt your decisions (just make sure you’ve actually thought through your decisions).

2. He was decisive.

Context is important. In fact, I might go so far as to say that it’s the most important thing when it comes to inter-personal dynamics and decision-making. If you understand a decision’s context, it’s easier to understand how and why the decision was made. Unfortunately, business (in general, and the design business specifically) is a fast-paced world and, in the case of this conference call, nobody cared about context. They wanted decisions to be made on the call, or to hear that decisions had already been made before the call. Since they weren’t there to play games, everyone on this call took The VP’s decision as just that: a decision. They understood that since he didn’t waver in his ability to communicate the decision, he had probably thought through it. So they dropped the topic and moved on to the next thing.

Making decisions isn’t easy. So once you’ve done it and communicated it with some authority it’s unlikely anybody else is going to try to reverse it.

3. He understood the company’s priority.

If you know anything about The Walt Disney Company, you know they like to make money. Sure there’s magic and Mickey and yada, yada, yada, but, really, they want your cash. In producing the book they were discussing on the call, The VP had undoubtedly made a thousand art and design-related decisions. Some large. Some small. But he didn’t focus on those. He focused on what he knew his ‘client’ wanted to hear. He understood Disney’s business goal, and he communicated that his design decisions had been made to help them meet that goal.

That last section is really the point of this whole story.

Your ability to land that bid, sell your client on the logo you think is best for them, or steer them clear of making a bad design decision ultimately comes down to you understanding their goals. Once you understand and can communicate that those goals informed your decision-making for the design of the project, it’s usually an easy sell.

Oh, and for the record The VP’s favorite Tom Waits song is “Jockey Full of Bourbon.”

Jumpstarting a Design Community

Understand Your Compensation

Designer Monoculture

The State of Design Leadership

The Science of Product Design

Interview with Michael Flarup: Co-Founder and Lead Designer at Robocat

The Importance of Design Conventions