In Defense of Defensive Designers
I presented some case studies to an agency that was considering me for an open position. I was pretty excited about them and chose some of my strongest work. I was about 10 minutes in when I got a clear vibe that I was not doing well. I knew hiring managers make up their mind pretty quickly, and this guy didn’t seem enthused. At this point I just wanted to make sure I didn’t waste their time, but I gave up any expectation of being invited back.
After I presented my first case study, one of the other designers asked me a question that directly pointed out a flaw in the project I had just presented. I was stumped. Without getting into details, it’s safe to say she was right. I had no good rationale for why I would do it my way in light of what she asked.
I knew the interview was going poorly, and I also knew she was right. I had nothing to lose, so I chose to concede rather than defend. I let my guard down and told her she was absolutely on to something. I got more candid and simply admitted that as the solo designer for this project, I was missing that kind of feedback from other designers when I was working on the project.
The room sighed with relief. Everyone’s perception of me changed 180 degrees, including the hiring manager. They saw it as a clear sign I was receptive to feedback. They had come into the room trying to find out if I was good at taking feedback, and finally got that confirmation just as they started to lose hope.
While I was relieved they liked me, it really surprised me. It made me think of how many interviews I may have bombed by taking this approach in the past. When I present my work in an interview, I treat my evaluators like they’re my client. I’m presenting work I’ve already thought about, gotten approved by clients, and in most cases assisted a team in implementation. When I’m defensive in this context, it’s very deliberate. If the interviewers, in this case my clients, see a flaw in my rationale or thinking, they’ll wonder why they hired me. So it was quite a paradox to me that the strongest thing going for me in the interview was my concession of making a flawed design.
Designers, by their very nature, value other designers who admit their blind spots.
Why Designers Especially Value Humility
From my experience, it’s critical for designers to receive and incorporate feedback well. Good designers listen more than they speak, and don’t get attached to their first draft of a design. Great designers go out of their way to get feedback. They know the first draft is never right. They know their work needs the input of other designers and iterations before it’s going to be good enough to present to a client.
From experience, I agree that designers who don’t take feedback well can be toxic. I would never work with those designers again. We fought, and our meetings dragged on unproductively. This type of designer would prefer to spend an hour defending why they did something right, rather than admit they have room to improve it. At first, my interviewers were afraid I was this type of designer. They were relieved when they found out I wasn't.
I’m a huge believer that being receptive to feedback is the most important soft skill a designer can have. But I also think there’s a context in which it’s desirable and undervalued for a designer to be good at defending their work.
I think when designers gripe about defensiveness, they assume the context is one in which work is still being developed. In this case, the team has days or possibly weeks until the work needs to be shown to a client. There’s an implicit understanding that after this meeting, there will be time to polish the work and incorporate the feedback. In this context we all picture a room of designers ideating or working amongst themselves. Maybe there’s post-its or sketches all over the walls. Designers primarily operate here, or at least it’s the setting we romanticize. This is the setting where good designs are actually conceived, and we are correct to look for people who thrive within it.
However, that’s truly only half of the context of designing. In the other half, designers are compiling work and getting ready to present a case to clients. They meet with those clients directly at various points, and show them work. Designers then work with developers and other stakeholders to incorporate requirements and get a final product built. Designers wear multiple hats.
There’s two main stages of design, and two forms of operating for each. There’s an expectation that work shown to the team is a draft. There’s an expectation that work shown to clients is water-tight.
Design Process is Law and Order
Maybe it’s because I love true crime content, but I think this analogy works nonetheless. When a crime is being explored, we need detectives. When someone is being charged, we need a prosecutor.
A good detective (in TV shows) follows their leads and never commits to conclusions early. Their job is to connect the right dots and keep an eye out for new evidence. They are constantly thinking critically about new evidence, and evaluating how that new evidence might inform the big picture. They connect the dots, find the right suspect, and hand the case over to the the district attorney.
A prosecutor assumes the detective did their job right. All of the leads and evidence has been explored. They study the case front and back, and identify the pieces of evidence that sell the narrative most. Their job is to convince a jury that the evidence points to one, and only one conclusion. Once the charges have been filed and a court date has been scheduled, the prosecutor’s job is to squash any doubt, especially their own.
Designers are similar. We do both jobs and switch between working like detectives and working like prosecutors* at various points.
We are responsible for showing our clients designs we know will solve their problems. Our design is our case, and the clients are our jury.
I think we often conflate the detective work of design with the whole process, and miss the fact that half of our process is about convincing clients or stakeholders that we explored all of the options and decided on the best one(s). As designers become more senior, they’re expected to become better negotiators and defenders of design. They know how to present their work to the business and get the best designs approved. They are prepared to answer questions the clients will ask. The result is that the client doesn’t doubt their decision to work with them. As we become more senior, we get better at preparing client presentations and facilitating them. We learn to do this in a way that protects our credibility, and inspires confidence.
I think designers are so alert to the red flag of defensiveness within a team that we might be unfairly evaluating candidates from time to time. When we ask candidates to come in and present projects to us, we should be asking ourselves if the candidate is merely being defensive, or presenting their work as if we’re a client.
If we think of ourselves as merely designers, we’re annoyed that our candidate is unwilling to point out flaws in their work. However, if we think of ourselves like a client, then it may become clear that the candidate is being a steward of their project, and assuring us of its credibility. Let’s not undervalue that. That skill will protect our bottom line, and the ability of our operation to thrive. Perhaps we can flip the script on our candidates and be transparent with them. Tell them when we’re evaluating their work like colleague designers seeking to improve it in good faith, and when we are evaluating their work like a client deciding on opening a contract with them.
As a candidate I’ve learned a valuable lesson too. UX designers know they aren’t their user, and never design for themselves. Similarly, when you present work to other designers, it’s important to know that they aren’t your client. Their expectations and needs are different. While they most certainly want to see that you have credible work and experience to present, they aren’t buying your project. They’re buying you. So, it’s important to search for opportunities to show the humility that is central to the process of design. You can’t assume that they think you’ll be a humble colleague. You’ll have to prove that. That’s the first thing they want to find out, preferably in the first five minutes of the interview.
If a designer can’t receive and incorporate feedback in the creation process, it’s very bad indeed. However, if a designer is guarding the credibility of their work in a presentation, it could be a very deliberate stance taken with good intentions. It’s also true that every designer has worked in different contexts and with clients that have varying tolerance for incomplete work. Perhaps more than anything else, this will shape the stance of the designer. A defensive designer might just be used to working with really tough clients. This could mean they’re thorough and check all of their corners better than most designers. As interviewers, and as candidates, we need to be good at distinguishing what mode we’re operating in, and what mode other designers are in. When designers can’t switch defensiveness off, it’s a dealbreaker. When they can switch defensiveness on, it’s an asset.
*Of course, we’re not quite as strict as prosecutors. We’re allowed to show some alternatives to clients usually. We don’t have to be convinced there’s only one solution.