Designers: You’re not an artist, you’re a translator

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When you imagine a designer, I’m sure you have a very specific picture in your mind. Maybe it’s someone hunched over their beloved Mac laptop, hard at work creating layouts. Or maybe they are surrounded by swatches or type specimens, agonizing over small details that most people hardly notice. Perhaps they are drawing, erasing, and recreating logo concepts in a well-worn sketchbook, curled up on their favorite IKEA chair.

Most designers think that way about themselves as well. Too often, a designer thinks that their real job begins when pencil meets paper (or cursor meets pixels). In fact, you are hardest at work designing when you are acting as a translator for your client.

Perhaps you have heard a client say something like, “My logo is ugly,” or “Our website just isn’t working for us anymore,” or “We want to do something different.” These are feelings – a gut sense that there is something definitely wrong, but they’re not quite sure what it is or what needs to be done. It is important to note that these feelings are not design direction. These are instincts, based on a fear, worry, or need in their business. But instincts are not achievable or measurable, and many design projects can get derailed or snowball into endless subjective arguments if the designer does not do one of their most important jobs.

Translation is defining the problem

Before approaching aesthetics and layout, a designer must be a translator. But what exactly are you translating? You are translating your client’s abstract instincts into design goals that can be implemented, measured, tested, and refined. Put simply, you are defining the problem for your client.

Designers solve problems, but you can’t solve a problem that hasn’t been defined. And this is exactly why the initial exploratory phase of a project is so crucial, and can save hours of agony down the line. So don’t skip this step! There are many tools available to help that fit all budget levels: anywhere from small-scale surveys, questionnaires, and one-on-one client meetings and discovery sessions, all the way up to large-scale formal market research and analysis.

It is the result of this translation that builds the strong foundation of design strategy, and enables designers to get to the Pantone-swatching, pixel-manipulating, pencil-sketching part we all know and love, all while knowing that they are doing what is best for their client.

What is your favorite translation strategy?

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