4 Tips for Communicating with Non-Designers

Requisite to the work of a designer, whether in-house or for an agency, is communicating effectively with teammates or clients who are not fluent in design. Bridging this communication gap can be difficult, and when done poorly, results in compromises that decrease the quality of the project. When done well, those involved can each feel a sense of pride in their contribution to the project.

In working with all sorts of clients, marketers, and product teams, I’ve developed a few strategies that make communication more effective:


  1. Truly listen to their concerns

  2. A project manager or marketer will have goals that are not related to design at all — for example, lead generation or revenue. Nevertheless, it’s important to try to truly understand them and be a partner in helping them achieve their goal. A design which doesn’t do that isn’t serving its purpose. Instead of becoming frustrated by constraints, work to understand as much of the context as possible. When explaining your design choices, you should be able to justify how those very choices are accomplishing your partner’s goals. Framing them in this way, as a means to an end for the project goal, creates a greater sense of collaboration. When contradictory requirements are manifesting themselves in a confusing design, raise the issue in terms of the overall goal — how the contradicting requirements might be hurting the project, not just your design.

  3. Distinguish problems from solutions

  4. Steer conversations back to the goals or problems and away from specific suggestions for how you should fix them. If your design isn’t supporting the goal yet it’s important to fix it — let your partner know that you’re committed to supporting the goal. But let them know too that it’s your expertise for how to achieve it visually.

    If they have a lot of specific suggestions try to get to the bottom of why they think those solutions would be best, and talk through ways to get the project where they want it. If they are asking for the text to be bigger, or for more energy, ask what the underlying motivation or thought process is. Then, try to accommodate that.

  5. Learn their language

  6. It helps to learn non-designer visual vocabulary. If, for instance, your partners give you feedback like, “make it more fun,” ask if they have examples of “fun” — paradigms through which you can better understand their critique. This can be helpful in both communication and revision. Alternatively, with concrete examples, you can explain why the “fun” aspects of that design would or wouldn’t make sense in the context of your project. Learning what each person’s vocabulary is can help find a solution that best solves his or her problem.

  7. Respect their first impression

  8. When the design is finally out in the wild, you won’t be there to answer questions about it. If a non-designer finds something difficult to understand or unintuitive, don’t brush that aside. Not every non-design opinion will merit a change, but hearing those opinions helps you understand what the trade-offs of each decision are. If the trade-off is too great, it’s time to revisit the design.

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