This post was written by Alex Guevara (remember him?), the Director of Brand and Experience at Design Pickle. Alex formerly served as the Head of Customer Success and Director of Training before moving into his current role. Alex was a teacher before joining the Design Pickle team 3 years ago. He currently resides in Phoenix, AZ.
WHY is communication so difficult sometimes?
Last night, I misinterpreted something my wife said to me. This almost led to a fight. Once the misinterpretation was cleared up, however, everything was back to normal.
Does this experience sound familiar to you?
It’s amazing how often bad communication can affect and potentially ruin relationships. Think of a bad relationship you’ve been in. Chances are, communication was likely one reason it was trash.
The same thing is true in the workplace. Unclear, poor, overly aggressive communication can derail a project, stifle innovation, or even destroy company culture.
I was a middle school and high school teacher for more than 10 years before joining Design Pickle. I know full well how important great communication is. Ultimately, a great teacher is a great communicator.
Ever see Kindergarten Cop? In it, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cop, who – you guessed it – goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher. He’s not even supposed to be the teacher! His partner gets food poisoning at the last minute, leaving the gruff and grumpy Arnold to take over.
As you can imagine, it’s a shitshow.
He SUCKS at communicating with his students. He sets unclear expectations, assumes they will listen to him, and reacts a lot. When it goes sideways, he resorts to anger, scaring his kids, getting a very temporary, unsustainable kind of control (total disclaimer, my first day of teaching was pretty similar). After some feedback from fellow teachers, hard work, and tough love he slowly turns it around, regaining control, clearly communicating, developing relationships, AND he catches the bad guy.
Where did this turnaround start? With proper communication and clear expectations. OK, I’ll admit, being the size and stature of Arnold didn’t hurt.
While Kindergarten Cop is funny, communication is a serious matter, and the better you are at it, the better those around you will be at communication and performance.
Since our business is Graphic Design, we will use Graphic Designers as the example. However, this can be applied to your management team, your intern, your 3rd party service provider.
Here are five ways to improve your communication skills:
1. Backwards plan.
This is an old teacher trick. START with the END in mind. What result are you looking for? What is the product, metric, or sales goal you want to achieve? If you don’t know what you want, it will affect your ability to clearly communicate it to your team. Remember, your team will work hard to achieve what you ask of them, make sure you’re asking the RIGHT thing.
2. Don’t assume anything.
Plain and simple. Even with basic, rote tasks that you assume can be executed with little direction, do not assume your team knows what you’re thinking. This is especially important for new team members or with new projects.
Don’t assume they know the backstory, or that they know every acronym. Before a meeting, try sending out an email explaining the backstory, some of the common terms used in the meeting, previous performance, etc.
It will go a LONG way. We tell our clients to give EVERYTHING to their designers: old logos, inspiration, work they love, work they hate, sketches on a napkin, half-baked ideas, etc. All this information helps their designer create the framework they work within. With all this information, the design process is much smoother.
3. Don’t just tell, show.
I’m from Kansas City, MO.
Missouri is often called “The Show-Me State”.
The origin story varies, but the basic gist is this: a politician from Missouri while giving a speech in Philadelphia says “ I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
I’m not sure what a cocklebur is, but this man had a point. Words, either flowery or simple, can only do so much.
When I send a request to my designer, I don’t just tell Meg “I need an infographic. This is the copy.” If I did, she would have so many questions, and I’d give her all the room to make assumptions, and you know what they say about assumptions right? (Seriously, what do they say about assumptions?)
Most likely, even though she knows me, she will end up producing something I don’t like. Because of this, when I ask for an infographic, I give her the copy, ideas for color, font, I find examples of infographics I like and hate and send them to her as well.
All that information helps my designer hone-in on exactly what I’m looking for.
4. Get their back, with FEEDBACK.
There is nothing less productive when someone gives this kind of feedback: “This sucks. I don’t like it”. While you clearly are stating your feelings, it gives your designer nothing to work from.
When it comes to design, no one ever gets it 100% right, the first go around. It’s just not how the creative process works.
Even when you provide a ton of inspiration as mentioned above, there is still a chance your designer doesn’t NAIL it the first time. That’s ok.
However, what is NOT OK, is leaving feedback that is useless at best, and mean at worst. There is nothing wrong with expressing unhappiness, but if it isn’t followed up with SPECIFIC feedback, it ISN’T going to get better.
Your designer will just get more nervous and feel unsure about what to do next. “This sucks” is wayyy less effective than saying “I’m not loving this. It’s too aggressive. Let’s go with a lighter shade of blue, turn the copy font white, and take out the orange highlights”. The second set of feedback is strong and clear and gives your designer a clear direction to head.
5. The power of positivity.
This may be the one tip that some folks may struggle with the most! There is nothing wrong with positive feedback. Even if you’re not happy. WHY? The old adage “You get more bees with honey than vinegar” is true. A positive word or 3 won’t hurt the process, in fact, it can only help.
Let’s not get carried away, the reasons you do this isn’t about feelings or making someone feel better (that doesn’t hurt, btw), it’s simply the best way to get what you want and maintain a good working relationship.
There’s nothing worse than scaring away a great designer because they didn’t enjoy working with you. It goes both ways. Being positive doesn’t mean you can’t be critical. In fact, in my experience, critical feedback is often absorbed more effectively when paired with some positivity and encouragement.
“Hey Meg, really liking the direction you’re going with this infographic, especially the font and the arrows. However, I really don’t think the color scheme works, it won’t look great on print. Let’s try this again.”
See? Easy peasy.
I try to live by these rules every day. Am I perfect? Far from it. However, the effort shows in the results: the work we produce and the culture my team has built.