Somewhere in between straining my back in the attic and feeling like I would lose my mind if I heard one more 'meow', I realized that experience is paramount. It took me twenty-five years to understand that "because I said so" really was a good enough reason. You see, my dad would get livid after finding his tools missing from the toolbox, but somehow his rants never seemed to change my behavior. His toolbox was my toy box, and accordingly, I never remembered to put the tools back.
Yesterday I found myself frantically looking for the flashlight in my own toolbox, but it was missing--and I had the strange feeling that my four-year-old might be the culprit. After twenty minutes of digging through my toolbox, I asked my wife if she knew where it was. And her reply?
"Have you tried looking for the cat flashlight in the toy box?"
Grrrrrr... The cat flashlight? After another ten minutes of tearing apart the house looking for 'my' flashlight, I gave in and went straight for the big pile of toys in Parker's room. More than a little frustrated, I tossed toys aside until I found the object of my search: the cat flashlight, a contraption that did produce a working light beam but simultaneously emitted a scratchy, repeating "Meow. Meow." Not exactly ideal, but it would have to do.
As I sat on a wooden beam in the attic, listening to the 'meow' chorus and looking through boxes, I thought of my dad. And thinking of my dad's "because I told you so" refrain rekindled childhood memories of stubborn arguments—it also reminded me of Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation, but then I didn't fall through the ceiling (but that's a different story, right Dad?). It occurred to me at that moment that an experience is hard to value unless you have it. And then things clicked.
The Value of Experience, and the Reason You've Got to Prove it Again
So what does this have to do with design? Well, I've been designing my whole life—whether it was creating a house out of a bunch of Popsicle sticks in elementary school or a web site for a pop diva in my adult life. And while experience plays a huge role in my design career, clients don't necessarily accept its value right away. Like it or not, experience is one of those things that has to be earned anew with every client engagement. It's a downside of being a designer, but it can be overcome with education and positive attitude.
So why do coworkers and clients downplay (or ignore) the value of design experience when it comes to tackling tough business decisions? I think it comes down to three misconceptions:
- Design skills are a God-given gift. It's a popular belief that you either have design talent or you don't. While there is some truth to this, it also propagates the myth that design can't be learned. If we are to believe this notion, than it becomes harder to accept that experience is extremely important for guiding design decisions.
- Everyone *can* design. Really. How hard can it be to place text and images on a page? True, but the tough part comes in when you want to create a design that is *effective*. Designers typically do a horrible job of presenting the business impact of their work, so if it's just about getting the text and images on the paper, perhaps Bob in accounting *should* be the designer. Persuasion is an important tool for designers to sell their work, but designers also need business metrics to build confidence and validate the experience.
- We had a bad design experience. You've heard it before, "Can't we just put the brochure together in Word? If we send it to the designer it'll take forever to get it back." Or, "He's too difficult to work with."
Some clients hold the belief that working with designers will always present problems because they've had problems in the past. Most of these problems can be attributed to two things: 1) "Creative and visually inclined with Photoshop/Dreamweaver experience" on a resume doesn't necessarily translate into relevant design experience. The fact is that lots of designers really suck- the barriers to entering into a design career are not great, but the responsibilities can be deceptively overwhelming. 2) Some designers are prima donnas who would rather be 'right' than anything else. In other words, the ego gets in front of the client's needs.
It's clear that the cards are stacked against designers and that "because I said so," while effective for four-year-olds, may not be the most effective tactic for convincing clients of the value of your experience. So how can a designer share your experience to help clients and coworkers solve their business problems? We'll talk about that in a future blog post... stay tuned.
On a side note, as I started typing this post tonight, my eighteen-month-old turned to me and handed me my flashlight. Really. Maybe experience is overrated.