Communicating design

Creating confidence through design communication

Author Johannes Ott

As a designer, it can be tough to communicate your expertise if all involved project partners have a different understanding of what design actually is. Without a common language, it is difficult to receive understanding and recognition of the effort made. This can result in designers feeling misunderstood, which leads to less willingness to cooperate from all parties.

Like the terms ‘art’ or ‘culture’, ‘design’ has disparate definitions, adapted by different social groups to their own understanding. To break down the resulting barriers, it is important to focus on the essential job of the designer. Designers are visualizers. My understanding of design is the sketching and anticipation of the future.  The very essence of design is a learning-based approach to open problems with the help of visualization. There are, of course, many ways to communicate ideas. Beside sketching, renderings and mock ups, it is extremely important to communicate using visual language that touches on the points of interest of the relevant professional or social group.

Designers should always work with others. Today more than ever it is important to work in collaborative networks that bring different disciplines together. I have made the experience that when an effort is made to moderate between all involved parties in a way which is understandable for all, it is possible to come to the right compromises without destroying the overall concept. How you talk to your partners defines the relationship and the quality of communication. It also motivates people and helps them accept different positions. Engineers understand projects differently than marketing specialists. With the right words, it is possible to show what is important and why, in order to communicate your ideas and create confidence. Cooperative development in a design process only works with understandable language.

Describing the undefined and communicating confidence

Designers sometimes tend to use strong positive words, like ‘authentic‘  or ‘aesthetically‘ to underline their arguments. These terms may sound impressive but using them does not help to achieve a higher understanding with project partners or achieve project goals. Never try to hide behind hollow words. Always stay focused on your central message.

Starting with vague words like ‘pure‘, ‘urban‘ or ‘sporty‘ that are not distinct in their meaning could be enough when communicating with other Designers, but vague language shouldn’t be used when communicating with other professionals. It is necessary to translate vague terms into structures and shape elements that can be evaluated and compared. For this reason designers should learn and mix the terminologies of different disciplines such as biology, art and engineering to develop an understandable, precise communication style. Words like ‘amorphous‘, ‘graphical‘ or ‘clearance‘ are generally understood by all and allow for better communication and a more effective design process.

Convincing design tells a story

While working as a lecturer at HfG Offenbach, we would often start to create first concept sketches by showing pictures of context related products. This helps to find an aesthetic but it also supplies a good basis from which to find the right terms to describe a concept. A convincing design always tells you more than just how to use it; it also tells you a story about its context. Combining images with key words is a powerful tool in the design process. Start with the properties and end with the actual materialization.

Using images of context-related products is an effective way to define the central message of a concept but aesthetically it could limit you to unoriginal ideas. Make sure you understand what your costumer wants to achieve with the new design. Should it create a new design language? Should it reinterpret a strong brand identity or should you continue on previously defined paths? To adapt to what is needed, it is important to stay open minded and be prepared to leave your aesthetic comfort zone if necessary. Try to work with inspiration from different fields and look at how you could connect this with given values and the particular context of the project.

Tough design requires tough communication

When we started working on Beolab 90 we visualized a diverse range of inspiration and terms. These lead to very different concepts. We combined iconic shapes with the main function of a moving 360° sound and tried to reinterpret the brand identity. For a company like B&O with a wide range of shapes and elements in their portfolio, it is surprising how well the companies’ DNA can be read and understood in every product. It was important to communicate our concepts on many levels to a many different people in order to create a successful design.

We achieved an acceptance of an outstanding design from brand management by arguing the functional advantages combined with a strong design story that is also related to the brand. We could convince engineering by diving deep into and developing an understanding of the manufacturing process. Continuous discussions and workshops involving all stakeholders helped us to understand how they think and how they talk. This is indispensable for the design process in general, not only for such a polarizing design.

As a Designer, you are on the control panel that balances the parameters of a product. Your job is to find solutions that balance budget, construction, aesthetics, function and values without destroying the overall concept. This is not possible if you stay isolated in your ivory tower. Make sure to communicate with all involved parties. Visualize your ideas not only in mock-ups or renderings, but also in your words. Adapt your language to your partners and don’t hide behind hollow words. Tough designs require tough communication.