Good designers ask good questions

There is a lot that goes into being a good designer. It’s a complicated profession. But I’ve come to realize that there is at least one characteristic that is true of any good designer: good questions.

Here are some essential questions that any good designer will ask:

What are the business goals?
For any commercial project, a designer needs to understand how you make money. Experienced designers take time to get to know the client and understand the business goals. Are you selling individual products, or is it a subscription service? Which sales are the most profitable? If a designer starts a project without an understanding of what your business goals are, it is nearly impossible to help you achieve them.

Who is the audience for the work?
The audience is a huge determining factor for the best way to make something. To be clear, many aspects of good design are universal, and it is also a mistake to cater too much to a narrow audience by making too many assumptions. The exact balance between specificity and universality will depend on the project. But the intended audience, no matter how general, is always a critical factor. Failure to establish the target audience will likely result in work that address the needs or tastes of the primary stakeholder, who is usually not the target audience. There is very little correlation between what makes sense to the owner of a business and what makes sense to the customers. So a good designer will find out who they are.

What is your budget / resources?
Many designers avoid talking about money until the very last minute. But this doesn’t work very well. The main problem is that it wastes everyone’s time. Design projects are defined by constraints. One of the most important constraints is the budget. No one benefits from an elaborate, well though-out proposal for a $9000 project if the client’s budget is only $600. The exact same logic applies to the timeline. Experienced designers will ask about these constraints very early in the engagement.

What is the measurement of success?
It might seem obvious how the work will be evaluated, but a good designer doesn’t guess. The client’s time and money is at stake, and so a responsible designer finds out exactly what defines a successful project so there are no surprises at the end. What is the client’s primary motivation for redesigning the website? What factors will be considered at the end of the project to determine whether it was a success? Does the site need to load faster on mobile devices? Does the site need to provide more information so the staff spends less time answering questions on the phone? Does the site need to work in older browsers? A beautiful website could easily fail to address any one of these criteria. A good designer won’t wait until the end of the project to find out.

This list just scratches the surface, and every designer’s discovery process will differ. But this is a taste of the kinds of questions you should expect from a good designer. Hopefully this also demonstrates some of what separates an experienced designer from some kid with Photoshop.

PS: Right after writing this, I stumbled across this article which is addressed to designers. It reiterates much of what I’ve said above in more depth.