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What Designers Do

The other day, my buddy Nichole sent me a great quote by Jeffrey Zeldman that’s right on the money:

“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

This idea has been bubbling up for a while—probably since I started working for a decent-sized company with a lot of sales, field, and channel marketing people who are each working furiously on their own projects to create leads that convert to sales.

“Hey- can you make this pretty for me?” I hear that question almost every day. While I’m flattered that people think I can make something look good, there’s a bigger issue.

Designers (at least the ones I know) aren’t trained in “decoration.” We’re trained in making things work—weeding out the unnecessary, the confusing, and the vague. We specialize in creating the elements that tie communication together to make a compelling finished product.

But to be effective, this process requires involvement of the designer from the beginning. When a project is started by simply identifying a problem and then running headlong into the “obvious” solution, it rarely becomes more than a one-off piece with a short life and small impact.

Quality requires asking the right questions, playing devil’s advocate, and candidly exploring the problem with a full range of possible solutions. I’ll be first to admit designers don’t know everything—but they generally do have good questions to ask and good ideas about forming solutions that will connect with the customer.

If you’ve already come to your conclusion and just want it to “look pretty,” any employee with Adobe Creative Suite might be able to give you what you want. But be aware that you’re probably not giving your project a fair shake, and you’re not being as effective as you could be if instead you would involve your designer(s) from the start.

Designers don’t decorate—they make things work.

Mere decoration has no real power to improve sales or build a brand. Solid design strategy does. But if it starts at the last 10%, it’s not strategy—it’s an afterthought.