On "Shit Design"

Hella Jongerius, an acclaimed industrial designer, has called for a “new holistic approach to design.” She says bluntly that there is “too much shit design,” and has launched a new manifesto urging designers to create thoughtfully and with purpose. She reminds designers, particularly industrial designers, of the original intent behind their profession—“to connect cultural awareness and social responsibility with practical economics”.

Is there a lot of shit design? Yes. Is there a lot of good, subtle design that serves a purpose? Yes. We’d like to think we fall in the latter category, and while we’re product designers, not industrial designers, Hella Jongerius’s message is still relevant.

So, how do we make shit that matters? The answer is simple. We don’t operate within a vacuum. The need for a more holistic approach to design doesn’t lie solely with designers. It lies with everyone on the team, from the product owners to the developers. That’s the only way to produce products with value that solve consumer needs. That’s the only way to produce products with soul.

Understand client needs

Communication with the client is key. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of knocking out specifically what the client requests and leaving it at that. If the Account Director says, “the client would like a safari inspired design” for a pharmaceutical diabetes campaign, the team can execute that design without question and cash the check. Is that good design? No. That’s feeding into a marketing gimmick without asking the necessary questions to create design that’s relevant. In order to produce good design, the entire team needs to take responsibility for understanding not just the client’s surface request, but their ultimate goals, their pain points, the purpose for the redesign, what didn’t work in previous versions and what successes they’d like to capitalize on.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the client is wrong. The client will have an overall business strategy that will, without a doubt, be heavily researched. But in order to execute a sound design strategy that aligns with the client’s goals, the entire team needs to understand that objective and from where it originated.

Our team spends time researching the brands we work with and talking to our clients to truly understand the desired outcome. If the client asks for one thing, but our team has identified that the true pain point hinges on a different design element, we share our observations with the client, discuss the effect our observation has on their larger goal, and ensure that together, we’re working towards the right solution. Our designers are an active voice in these conversations. They’re not order takers, they’re part of the collaborative process and invest the time necessary to create thoughtful and successful designs.

Checks and Balances

At Tonic, collaboration between designers, developers, and the client services team helps to ensure that the designs created serve a greater purpose. It’s the developer’s job to not only say what’s feasible within the intended sprint, but to also identify what features are necessary through prioritization. As a result, there are frequent discussions about intention. Why should this animate? Is it a nice-to-have or a need? What style of animation will get this across? When the entire team understands the rationale behind a design, they’re able to ensure that it’s built to perform exactly as intended.

Our designers don’t just make things that look good. They work with the team to create thoughtfully, and there are checks and balances in place to ensure that the product strategy remains at the forefront of the work, and isn’t undermined by anything unnecessary.

Clients as core team members

Open and frequent communication with the client is key to ensuring that our designs matter. For this to work, our clients have to be an integral part of our core team. Beyond scheduled check-ins, the client is part of the ideation process. We bounce ideas off of them. They share long-term goals, and we work as collaborative partners to ensure that our work and our product aligns with their strategy. The hours spent conducting research and identifying pain points would be meaningless if we didn’t have this relationship with our clients. As we complete design sprints, we get client approval so that we can react to any feedback early. We work lean, and we work as partners, and it helps us to produce efficiently.

What if your client doesn’t want to be part of the team?

Then, you’re working with the wrong clients. Any brand that believes in what it’s trying to accomplish wants to be your partner. They want to see the effort you’ve put into making sure that the product accomplishes its ultimate goal and strengthens their brand’s relationship with its consumers. If your client doesn’t care, you’re bound to create shit designs because you won’t have enough guidance to create and execute upon a sound strategy.

How does your company make sure that designs are both relevant and successful?