Why Designers Don’t Talk About Design (And Why You Shouldn’t Either)

What’s the point of a design project?

To make something that looks good? To make something you like?

Not really.

The purpose of any design project is effective communication.

It doesn’t matter what you’re designing: a presentation, a résumé, a poster, an annual report, a web site… you get the idea. If you have something you need to say to an audience, your goal is to get your point across in a way that gets things done.

Mike Monteiro and Katie Gillum from Mule Design talked about this on a recent podcast. Here’s the conversation, slightly edited for readability and highlighted for emphasis.

You can listen to the podcast here. This conversation begins around 14:30.

Katie: This is a question from a person [Kathleen] who’s not a designer by trade and works in a nonprofit that doesn’t have the funds to get a designer. She is wondering if we have some suggestions for someone who’s interested in learning some fundamentals of design without making a career of it. And whether there’s anything you think she can do to help her nonprofit do a better job of not picking clip art. What can she do to make herself more well versed with design without going back to school and leaving her job at the nonprofit.

Mike: Well school’s a horrible place to learn anything.

Katie: So, Kathleen, don’t go back to school.

Mike: Yeah.

Katie: She doesn’t want to leave her job so do you think she should read? Do you think she should look at sites that she likes? Is there a way to be a guardian of design without being a designer?

Mike: Go look at things that are great. Go find them out. Go read about them online. You’ve got incredibly vast resources of this stuff. You’ve got blogs that talk about good design. Go to the museum bookstore and look at design stuff. And practice. Until then do as little as possible.

Katie: What do you mean?

Mike: Keep things as simple as possible is what I mean. The biggest mistake that I see when people don’t have a sense of design is to throw the kitchen sink at everything. They try to mask their inexperience with complexity.

Katie: We’ve gotten questions before about how to talk about design. This person is particularly interested in finding out how to do a better job of talking about design, as a non-designer to non-designers, and how to do a good job of explaining why something might need to change or how something might need to change. She should learn a lot of design language or just talk about things the way they’re already being spoken about? Is it better to set up best practices?

Mike: The problem is the whole “let’s talk about design” thing. It’s never “let’s talk about design.” You’re designing something for a reason so talk about what that reason is. If you’re designing a lost cat poster, you shouldn’t be talking about the design of the lost cat poster. You should be talking about whether this poster is going to help people find the cat. If they find the cat, is there an easy way to contact the person who lost it?

Katie: Right.

Mike: So talk about things in terms of goals, not in terms of design.

Katie: So let’s say that this nonprofit is a cat-finding nonprofit and they have lost the cutest cat of all. They want to make a border of the cat’s face. And she thinks, “That’s actually not a great idea. That doesn’t actually help people find the cat. What it does is make a really bad border.” How would you respond to that?

Mike: That’s not going to help people find the cat. That’s just extra stuff there that’s not helping people find the cat. It’s unnecessary. Get rid of it.

Katie: So she could say something like, “anything that’s not necessary to the ultimate goal.”

Mike: Right. Get rid of everything you can. What you’re left with is right.

Katie: What about classics like, “I like it.” What do you say to that?

Mike: Is it going to help you find the cat?

Katie: So you just repeat that?

Mike: If you like it, take it home–I don’t care. But that’s not the goal of what we’re doing here. The goal here isn’t to do something you like. The goal here is to find the d@mn cat.



  1. Natalie says:

    I agree with your main point about communication, but I disagree with the headline. I think designers do talk (a lot!) about design and such discussions are important… to a certain degree.

    I am currently working as an intranet administrator, making changes to the architecture of the company intranet so people will be able to find things more easily. I’m no web designer, but I have been researching a lot about web design and how it enhances communication (especially articles about UX Design.)

    There is a wonderful article named “In Defense of Eye Candy”: http://www.alistapart.com/articles/indefenseofeyecandy. It has some fascinating stories about how great design actually helps get your content across more effectively. There is an oft-overlooked aspect of design which has to do with emotion: asking “do people like it?” has value. You remember things you like, whether it be a website or presentation or resume or app. Although these are geared towards web design, the principles in these (two more favorite) articles can apply to other forms of communication:


    I think people do get carried away with adding way too many elements, which ultimately distracts from the true purpose and frustrates users. (And I do think that minimalistic sites are generally more user-friendly — when you go to Google, there is no question about the purpose of that site.) The problem comes when designers start to design only for themselves and forget to test the usability of their site. Other forms of communication suffer from this too — it all comes down to not keeping your audience in mind. The best way to find out if your communication is effective is through user testing — ask somebody what the key takeaways are (or observe them navigate a website) and you’ll get a fairly good idea of whether or not you communicated what you wanted.

    Visual representation is powerful, as well as the content of the message. They play together wonderfully and when used correctly, they enhance each other. To communicate either one effectively, focusing on clear goals and your audience is key.

    • michael says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Natalie, as well as the links to the articles. Those are great.

      When I design a presentation, I certainly want it to have aesthetic and emotional appeal. Otherwise I’d just use a lousy stock PowerPoint template and Times New Roman. Why bother doing anything different if design doesn’t matter?

      I think the point Mike and Katie are making is not that designers shouldn’t talk about design at all, but rather that they shouldn’t talk about technical designy (if I can coin a term) kinds of things with clients. The client may say, “I want this to be purple and orange.” The designer’s first response, I think, shouldn’t be, “That would look bad,” but instead, “Why?” What goal is the client trying to achieve with purple and orange? If there is no goal other than “That’s what I like,” then there’s room to talk about whether that will meet the objectives of the project.

      Michael Beirut makes a similar point about talking about design vs. goals in this Creative Mornings talk:

      So, yes, you’re right–keeping communication goals and audience needs front-and-center is the key to good design. Thanks again and make good stuff!

  2. Ahh, thanks for the clarification – that makes a lot more sense to me. Great discussion!

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