It’s crazy how often I work on a project where the specs change, are unclear, or don’t even exist.
It’s a big percentage of my projects—even though I’m perhaps overly thorough when planning my projects and defining their scope. I tend to be that stubborn person on every project asking “where are the specs?”
If there are no specs, I volunteer to write them. If people say no, I write them anyway, put them in my contract, and reference them during the project. Yeah, I told you I’m stubborn about specs, but I do this because leaving details to be figured out later can have disastrous consequences.
But sometimes project details still change, no matter how hard I work to make those specs and stick to them.
When I have a good relationship with the client, changes are not as big of a deal as they sound. We trust each other and can limit the fallout of these kinds of scope changes because we understand one another.
Other times it can be pretty frustrating. As a designer, I want to have all the info I need to make a great design. And when I find a great solution to the challenge, I want to defend it. It’s just my natural instinct to fight for the best idea (and it doesn’t necessarily have to be my idea).
But I’m realizing that there’s often a pretty good reason why the specs end up changing. No matter how clearly you describe the thing you’re going to design, many people just don’t get it until they see it. Sometimes our job isn’t to go design something specific—it’s to figure out what specific thing we need to design.
Research, specs, etc are supposed to help us determine what the object we’re designing is, how it should work, and provide constraints for how it looks.
But, seeing the object is often the only way some people will understand what it is. Descriptions aren’t enough. Research, specs, and all the artifacts we produce during the early phases of the design process aren’t enough for non-designers to understand what the hell we’re talking about. They need to see it first.
It’s endlessly frustrating to realize there’s new information after I’ve already created the design. The realization that my solution is wrong because I was given the wrong problem is frustrating.
But I’m starting to realize that part of my job is to figure out which problem I’m solving. And sometimes, that means solving the wrong problems a few times before I figure out the real issue.
And yes, sometimes that means I produce designs I end up throwing away. I’ve written a lot in the past about how to avoid “design waste” and fight against needless revisions (I even wrote a whole damn book about it).
No designer wants to be a mindless graphics production machine. And we need to set clear boundaries and expectations about what our jobs are.
But I’ve begun to see my designs differently; not as rigid plans to enforce but as malleable approximations of what I want to create. I’m opening up to the idea of changing my designs at more points during my process.
I’m even exploring alternative design tools that have collaborative features by default, which I never would have considered before. I’m even building a new tool for improving design implementation.
I have also cautiously tested other techniques to get input on design direction much sooner—like sketching alongside clients or developers, sending examples, and even wire framing (which I’ve always been very hesitant to do because it seems like needless extra work).
These techniques and opening up my process to input so far have allowed me to avoid the doomsday scenarios of projects becoming twice as large, getting delayed by months, or crashing and burning because of unclear specs. Using exploration as part of the process and writing specs later on, even after the contract is signed, has actually kind of worked. (Can you tell I’m hesitant to admit that?)
A crazy thing happens after you move past worrying about change requests and start to view the design process as an opportunity for exploration—you realize that opening up the design process to be more flexible is better for the design. Because sometimes the problem isn’t obvious. Sometimes research doesn’t reveal everything and you don’t know what the specs should be. Sometimes you need just any starter design at all to show people, test it out, and then create a real design you’ll actually use.
No designer wants to hear this. It’s a bitter pill. For me too.
I still catch myself getting frustrated when I have to change directions during a design project. And while it’s tempting to try a little trick of self deception and say my personal satisfaction in the project isn’t as important as the outcome my work delivers, I know that when I’m personally invested my designs deliver better outcomes. So we can’t tune out that inner voice telling us it sucks when we have to scrap a design. That voice is important to listen to.
And frankly I don’t wanna play the empathy card and say how other people feel about the design is more important than how I feel about it. I made the damn thing! It’s MINE! 😅
When I examine that feeling of frustration and ask why I feel so stubborn and protective, usually the underlying reasons are that I feel embarrassed that I made the wrong design, angry that someone wasted my time, and/or disappointed that something I’m really proud of won’t get used.
But on the other hand, there are times where I have gotten my way. Where I pushed a design through and convinced everyone to use it anyway—when we followed the original plan no matter what.
And you know what usually happened? The design was kind of a dud. And the disappointment of seeing that design fail was greater than the disappointment I felt about other designs I never got to use.
While I care a lot about the designs I create, I also care a lot about them working well. I might even care more about seeing my designs accepted, appreciated, and used than I do about using the first idea I fell in love with.
And that changes how I see projects that don’t have specs or how I feel when I have to scrap a design concept.
Because when I really think about it, making a great design that people love—even if I have to throw away some work I’m proud of to accomplish that—IS getting my way.
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
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