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Design, Clairvoyance, and IKIWISI

Design, Clairvoyance, and IKIWISI

Photograph by Thomas Hawk. Some modifications to original were made.

If you’re a designer, you’ve heard the phrase, “I’ll know it when I see it,” a phrase sometimes used by a client or stakeholder to suggest that the designer is failing to meet the mark with their designs, without describing what that mark actually is. Such boundless project parameters can add unnecessary cost to a project, as repeated requests for design revisions are made without bringing the project closer to a desired outcome.

Here’s how I’ll Know It When I See It (or, what I’ll call IKIWISI for short) can impact both designers and their clients, and what you can do to stay free of IKIWISI’s clutches.

The phrase I’ll know it when I see it  can be fun to use, as it makes the user feel powerful and in control, almost god-like as the ultimate judge of everything laid before him (her). It is sometimes used as a mask to cover an unfamiliarity with the language of design, other times used when a designer is commissioned to freely use their talent and run with it. In either case, the process is more expensive than one that has clearly-defined goals and parameters and which uses an iterative design process to narrow in on a solution.

The phrase was made famous when it was used by a supreme court judge determining if a particular movie should be deemed pornographic. In essence, when Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court said “I’ll know it when I see it” he prefaced it with “I shall not proceed to list everything that pornography is, but this is not it.” And the remark was hailed as gallant and clear.

The important difference between this usage and how the phrase is used by design clients is that Justice Stewart was starting with a vaguely-defined category and stating that his sample was not similar to the many things that were possible subsets of it, whereas design clients are actually looking to reach a particular result and asking designers to find it without first having it defined.

Similar to the situation of a lost dog, your chances of having someone find it for you would depend on your ability to describe it as fully as possible.

Advice for the Design Client

Peter Connolly, Technical Director of KP Direction in Roy, Utah, warns clients that the IKIWISI approach is the most expensive way to run a project, and steers his clients back to an examination of the underlying strategy of the project to avoid getting mired in the subjective. From here, it can be determined who the audience is, and how best to speak to them. Connolly puts it succinctly by asking “Will your customer know it when they see it?”

“Feedback is crucial”, insists Kevin Bradford, owner of Aspen Digital in Boise, Idaho, “And so is client involvement.” Many clients struggling with the language of design, find it difficult to give useful feedback, but requiring clairvoyance from the design team does little to help them create their best work.

Bradford goes on to say that “while not giving feedback is a definite red flag, it doesn’t always necessarily signal a doomed relationship.” Clients who are able to at least point out that a particular element in a design doesn’t feel right, are participating in the process. The more information that is provided, the more useful the feedback becomes, and if you’re able to work through these moments of discomfort with your designer, you’ll likely emerge from it with a designer who really understands your needs.

One last piece of advice for the design client. If you’re struggling with something that just doesn’t feel right, try to avoid the temptation of directing the design yourself. Instead of saying “I don’t like all this empty space – can you make the logo bigger to fill it?” ask your designer what they intended with all that empty space. Perhaps they were trying to draw the user’s attention to a particular point on the page. Tell your designer how something makes you feel, then ask for recommendations.

Advice for the Designer

Try to keep in mind that your client is most likely not trying to be difficult, suggests Joshua Woodroffe, of PixelMIGHT in Philadelphia, who uses this position to help him look for how the design might be improved. Simply because a client lacks fluency in design speak, doesn’t mean their uneasiness with a project’s direction is to be dismissed. If upon further reflection, Woodroffe determines that the design is indeed meeting the objectives of the project, he’ll communicate this to the client and continue the conversation from this new reference point.

Be Proactive

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say, and this is true in working with clients also. Educating your client about the design process at the beginning of a project, explaining in the proposal how many concepts you’ll show, how refinements are made, and what the client’s role and responsibilities are throughout the process, can help prevent IKIWISI even arising.

Fresh, new, groundbreaking design is not always what is being asked for. Often, what is desired has already been created. Clients have their marketing budget and they can’t afford to take any risks with it. They see something that another company did, that everyone loves, and they want one just like it. In these cases, you could ask your client to show you examples of styles they like, or colors, or functionality. Then you, as the designer, can translate what you see into something that fits your client’s messaging, their brand, and their audience.

Be Patient

Remember that clients such as these do not necessarily lack sophistication, taste, or even moral fiber. They know their business, and they are relying on you to know yours.

As a designer, it is part of our job to figure out what a client is looking for, says Katelyn O’Brien, a Marketing Communications Specialist at Naviant in Verona, Wisconsin, who uses incremental questions to help stakeholders get their ideas across: “I find it effective to break it down into smaller questions that they can answer, and slowly you will start to get a better idea of what they are looking for without them realizing it.” O’Brien reminds designers that it all comes down to good communication and patience with understanding the client’s needs. “The worst thing you can do is get frustrated and irritated with a client”.

Peter Barker, Proprietor of Peter Barker Multimedia in Sydney, Australia puts it this way: “At the end of the day, it’s very rewarding to be told ‘You’ve visualised exactly what I had in my mind.’”

I have to agree.

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