Bad Collaborators! They just don't get design & designers

Hey Designers!

What are your best stories about working with engineers, clients, marketers, manufacturers, CEOs, etc. where it is obvious they just don’t get design, designing, or designers?

Share your experiences so that others don’t make the same mistakes–help educate your future collaborators and clients!

I will be teaching a new course at the University of Michigan geared towards graduate-level engineers, business students, and other technical disciplines that is centered on how to understand and work with designers. Sharing real world examples and stories of what not to do is the best way to do this. I need your help and wisdom!

Do your clients claim to want research insights, but refuse to pay for it or allow time for it? Do the engineers across the hall want you to make their (horrible) idea pretty in hopes that the next focus group may like it after all? Did a client recently watch an IDEO video and decide that they need more design thinking–and they need you to help transform their corporate culture (in a month?) What’s your best ‘lipstick on a pig’ story?

Feel free to post or email me directly at bmtharp at umich dot edu…

Pedagogically yours,

The best ones usually come from entrepreneurs that recently watched Shark Tank or are enamored with Kickstarter campaigns.

  1. Usually they call asking for a prototype. After a few minutes of painful questions you realize they need the product designed first before doing the prototype. After explaining the design process and a rough ballpark figure they go away.
  2. When a client says, “the design is done, I just need it to work well and look good”. Back to item #1.

Or when established companies ask for a new/better/improved product but expect you to re-use 90% of existing components.

Also, it is better to engage ID at the beginning of a project. Sometimes clients show up with working prototypes and obviously tens of thousands of dollars spent in engineering and prototypes. They have spent so much time and effort on a solution that is not correct or is not working the way they wanted it and then they expect designers to magically come in at the end and fix it. At that point is hard for them to understand that it is better to start from scratch.

So why not add best stories where Designers don’t know how to collaborate… i have seen and experienced many times where the ID person was just not flexible in any way shape or form… and just didn’t get big picture at all. example a) designer wouldn’t approve a spline variation that varied by .005" in one spot over a 6"span.

Understanding how to deal with those behaviors or finding a common ground can be invaluable.

We have also worked with some designers that refuse to work with reality or the fact that components need to fit inside their concepts. There’s always the question “why did it change so much”. At that point you just have to show them why with overlays and before and after screen shots.

That’s why I often tell students/new grads…if you don’t think about or make design/manufacturing/engineering/assembly decisions throughout your design process; somebody will make them for you at the end.

cwatkinson (and FH13)

Point taken. Good collaboration is indeed a meeting in the middle–where designers understand the perspectives, needs, measures of success, etc. of their partners and vice versa. All stories from any side are welcome! (My sense is that some of the class participants, being grad students with work experience, will be able to provide their own challenges of working with designers, and as the lone designer in the classroom I need to make sure I have enough design ammo). Thanks for your input! (Certainly in the name of compromise and collaboration a designer could approve a .008" variation : )


Great, much thanks. I am right there especially with your third example, especially from engineers. Recently someone had spent 4000+ hours on a technical solution that created far more problems than it solved. “Would you consider stepping back and considering another direction?” “But we already have 4000+ hours in this, there is just no way to backtrack now.”

Not to be disrespectful, but no, no it’s not. Meeting in the middle, AKA compromise, is the recipe for mediocracy. Sure, everyone feels like they had a say and if everyone’s say is weighted equally then ideals are compromised for the sake of the “collaborators” feelings, not the customer/end-user’s needs or wants, resulting in something less than the ideal. Most good designers can come up with ideals, and ideals will usually challenge what stakeholders think that they can actually achieve. A good ideal is something that everyone can agree is a good or great goal, that’s when you know it will delight the end-user, but it’s when team members/clients begin chipping away at that ideal that mediocracy or flat out failure begins to take hold. Since many designers speak in terms of ideals others assume they are ignorant of the “reality” of manufacturability, engineering, costs, business practices etc. And I think this is why designers sometimes get a bad wrap and why they get frustrated. The thing about ideals is that they challenge others to suspend reality, but the reality is that ideals are actually realities that have yet to be achieved, and that scares people because they’re afraid to fail, afraid to work hard, or afraid that a competitor is going to achieve the ideal first. I think that’s why a good leader is needed to inspire them with the vision to pull it off, and by good I mean someone who can maintain the vision and challenge the detractors to become contributors. In my experience it seems that leaders with design backgrounds tend to excel at this.

Groupthink is the antithesis of innovation, and somehow it has become all so commonplace to be hoisted as the foundation of it. The old phrase, “None of us is as smart as all of us”, is exactly as true as the phrase “None of us is as dumb as all of us”.

I have seen some very motivated lone wolves with a vision achieve some very impressive and amazing results relying on others only for answers to questions that seem vague to those being asked. I think it is good for designers always have at least one project that they initiate and own, don’t ask for permission!

I believe the foundation of good collaboration relies on a team that knows and respects each others roles, knowledge, and expertise, and someone leading them who knows how to prioritize it in an order that results in the best solutions for the customer/end-user/goal. I’ve seen engineering leaders defer to engineer’s input over others resulting in working products that have no appeal and are not intuitive. I’ve seen marketing leaders defer to marketer’s input over others resulting in great looking products that function poorly, are not competitively priced, and are a manufacturing throughput nightmare. And I have seen design leaders put together well thought out and intuitive product proposals that challenge the status quo hit the waste bin and never see so much as a prototype.

In my experience I have found that some leaders and other disciplines don’t really understand what designers bring to the process, or that design is a process in and of itself. Here’s how I’ve seen others fail to leverage designers:

Determine the solution first, then ask designers to make it work/look good.
Shut designers down when they start asking “too many” questions.
Shut designers down when they start critiquing an idea or pre-determined solution.
Assume that they’re “artists” who don’t understand manufacturing, math, physics, business practices, customers, etc.

Good ways to leverage designers:
Present them with the problem, then shut up and let them look for ways to solve it.
Ask them how they would have solved something differently.
Ask them to do research and provide insights and recommendations.
Present them with your own research and let them riff off of it.
Enpower them as your gatekeepers of the project vision with the veto power to maintain that vision.

Maybe this all goes down the rabbit hole further than you’d hoped, but I was a little surprised at the lack of responses on this topic, but to be fair there are quite a few threads related to this, some are just rants through.

That’s just silly, was that designer challenged to explain why the variation was unacceptable beyond how they wanted it to look? If not they just helped fuel a negative perception. That designer needed to explain why and how that variation forced the project vision to deviate from the ideal to the project leader.

Next time, propose a .01" variation and then appear to “compromise” by coming back with .005".

That’s when it’s time to consult with a post mortem!

Were the designers presented with the components the were required to design around up front? No? Shame on you.

Did they ask what components were required? No? Shame on them.

Did their design have more value in achieving the ideal than the size of the components? If so then the challenge would be to design smaller components.

Did the cost of designing smaller components outweigh the value of the ideal? Then change the design.

We were subcontracted through an engineering firm for an ID project a few years ago. The client, who was financing the project himself, led off every meeting with, “My goal is to have a billion dollar valuation” and ended every meeting with, “I’m just the idea man. You are the do-ers.” So…basically he was a rich asshole.

I once watched an EE spend 30 minutes describing how circuit boards are designed because the client could not accept that it would take longer than a week to have a fleet of working circuit boards, for a product that didn’t exist yet, designed and built from scratch. Later, one of our designs for a wearable product was declared an “miserable failure” after he broke a $2500 appearance model trying to wear it. We had specifically instructed him no fewer than a dozen times the day before not to put it on. Other gems included asking for a 2-minute commercial to be boarded, shot, and produced in “a week or two” and telling me personally I had “no taste” because I was not a woman.

Needless to say the project fizzled out after a few months. Funny thing is, he had a pretty solid idea. A couple of products have launched successfully over the years that encapsulated ideas similar to what both the engineering firm and we were trying. Had he been able to get out of his own way, it really could have been something great.


But the most critical step is defining the problem.

Designers typically fail with this objective. The majority of “bad” collaborations I have had with designers stems from this failure.