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Presenting Design Like You Get Paid For It


In my last post, I wrote about buying design. That was mostly for potential clients, but a designer might learn a thing or two from it as well. Now, let’s imagine that you’ve been lucky and good enough (It takes both, chum.) to sell your services to someone. You’re now in the position to solve some design problems and present those solutions like you’re getting paid for it (which you are).

I’ve been presenting design to clients and internal teams for a long time (Bush senior in the White House when I started), and I still get anxious about it. It may have been a while since I’ve thrown up in a client’s bathroom and washed off next to the person I’d eventually be presenting to, sure, but I still get nerves. The only thing that’s changed is I’ve gotten through enough presentations to I know I can do it.

Along the way I’ve picked up a few helpful tips that may help designers as well as clients to know what to expect during a presentation. Bear in mind that this works for me. It’s A way and not THE way, and all dogmatic systems that suggest the contrary are bullshit. Happy place.

Don’t Fake It

Early in Mule’s existence, I learned an incredible lesson from a client. He cancelled an hour before we were to give a presentation, because a job they’d been preparing for one of their clients wasn’t up to his standard of quality.

Be ready to impress. If you aren’t ready, postpone until you are.

Yes, rescheduling is a pain in the ass. But it can be handled properly and is much easier to recover from than walking into a presentation with anything less than quality. Could you wing it? Possibly once or twice, maybe more even. Every good designer should be a little Don Draper in the boardroom. But your clients aren’t paying you to wing it. Treat them with more respect than that.

So what do you tell them? Tell them the truth. “I need to postpone this presentation because the work’s not at the level I’d like it to be and I don’t want to waste your time.” Then buy your project manager a really big fucking cookie. In the end, it’s easier to recover from rescheduling a presentation than from bombing. If you have the right sort of client, you may even gain more of their respect. You know…the first time, which is best if it’s the only time.

It’s Not Going to Sell Itself. Ever.

The biggest myth ever perpetuated in the design field is that good design sells itself. Design can’t speak for itself any more than a tamale can take off its own husk. You’re presenting a solution to a business problem, and you’re presenting it as an advocate for the end users (we hope). The client needs to know that you’ve studied the problem, understood its complexities, and are working from that understanding.

Stop trying to get your clients to “understand design” and show them that you understand what they hired you to do. Explain how the choices you’ve made will make them more successful. This isn’t magic. It’s math. Show your work. Don’t HOPE someone “gets it”, and don’t blame them if they don’t — convince them.

(Related: Stop complaining your parents don’t get YOU, and attempt to understand them. That is the sort of empathy that will help you as a designer.)

Present Your Own Work

Being able to present your own work is a core design skill. If you’re working at an agency that won’t let you present your own work, get the hell out.

Don’t Let It Get Subjective

Before presenting your work, reiterate the goals of the project. Reiterate the research findings. Reiterate how you agreed to solve those goals. And explain how what you’re about to show does that. Structure the discussion so that it’s about how well the proposed solutions work, whether the client’s voice is coming through, etc. Who cares if someone “likes” it? That’s not going to sell pants. We don’t even care if the target audience “likes” it. In fact, avoid the word “like” completely. Save it for middle school crushes and focus groups (which are equally applicable to design.)

Give The Client Permission To Go Negative

We all suffer at the hands of the current cult of self-esteem. When clients really like you—and particularly when they have demonstrated so with their checkbooks—they can be loathe to say anything negative about your work. Something about “upsetting the sensitive, talented creatives.” This is terrible. Unspoken expectations unmet lead to seething unspoken frustration which ultimately bursts forth in an ugly mess when you’ve run out of budget.

Let them know that negative feedback is an essential part of the process. We prefer constructive and well reasoned negative feedback, but even an outburst of “Never show me that puerile crap again!” saves everyone a lot of time.

At the beginning of every visual design presentation, particularly in the early stages, we give a little speech, some variation of, “Today, we are going to show you some things that may not be right. If you see something that isn’t working, you need to point it out. If you don’t tell us what you think isn’t working, we will show you the same thing again and again until we are out of time and money and you are stuck with it.”

We’ve found this exercise makes everyone a lot more comfortable with the process and saves a lot of time wasted by clients saying “Yeah, that seems fine.” when they’re thinking “That is a pile of puerile crap for our customers to poop on.”

Don’t Give a Real Estate Tour

The most obvious sign that a designer is nervous is the real estate tour. You’ve seen this. The presenter will start by telling you where the logo is, describing how it “pops” and then taking you on a guided tour of every element on the page, winding up at the copyright notice in the footer.

Just as you should never spend any energy undermining anything that’ll eventually collapse on itself, don’t waste a client’s time walking them through what they can already see. Your job is to explain how what they’re looking at is the best way to achieve their goals.

Never Embarrass Your Client. Ever.

Chances are your direct client reports to someone, someone who may be present for your little show. (Make sure you know this in advance!) Whether this is the CEO, or one of 32 “Executive” VPs, not only is your work under scrutiny, but also your client’s judgment in hiring you. Do your clients a favor. Make them look good. Be prepared. Be honest. Engage them in the conversation and listen to their feedback.

And for the love of God, respect that these are the people putting your kids through orthodonture and put on a clean shirt.


Would you care to elevate the discussion?

12 thoughts on “Presenting Design Like You Get Paid For It

  1. Kristine says:

    I found this post to be thought-provoking. I routinely present IA, and it always feels awkward when I point out boxes on the wireframe. Do you have an example you can give? I would be interested to hear how you approach detail pages. It seems easy to me at the home page level, but more challenging by a few pages in to stay at a strategic level (and not resort to giving a tour, as you say).

  2. The J says:

    “Stop trying to get your clients to “understand design” and show them that you understand what they hired you to do. Explain how the choices you’ve made will make them more successful. This isn’t magic. It’s math.”

    I totally agree with the approach, but unfortanately it definitely isn’t math.

    A stubborn client will not get your same math, instead they will keep insisting on whatever they are convinced of because they saw it on tv/heard it from a friend/read on a magazine/misunderstood a concept/think that what they know has to be right and you are wrong.

    Even if you are the best at selling, even if you bullet-proof your concepts, there will always be someone, at some point, that won’t see it that way. And it might just happen that it’s actually your client.

    Nice post though :)

  3. Diana Howard says:

    this is a great post. I wonder if there are any designers who don’t respect their clients any more. This economy certainly has gotten rid of a lot of that sort of bad behaviour!

  4. Ben Crothers says:

    Brilliant. The part about design not selling itself is a cracker, too. Reminds me of a Howard Aiken quote, that “if your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats”, or a nicer way of saying this: be compelling.

  5. thruflo says:

    “Your job is to explain how what they’re looking at is the best way to achieve their goals.”

    Precisely, plus bear in mind if you don’t know how your design helps them achieve their goals you’re not a designer.

    Reading may help.

  6. Richard says:

    This is great, Mike, especially “If you don’t tell us what you think isn’t working, we will show you the same thing again and again until we are out of time and money and you are stuck with it.” All too true, and it happens too often.

  7. well well says:

    I don’t suppose you think that the gratutious use of foul language is a good carrear stratagy but maybe you do. – made the mistake of reading this at work as well. Lets hope your clients don’t.

  8. Sol says:

    I love your foul language, and your insight. I’m a design student and you are my guru. Thank you.

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  10. Melody says:

    Thanks for this post! Very useful. I particularly like the part about good design not being self-explanatory. In school they told us it was, but in actually working with customers that has never been the case.

    I don’t work anywhere nearly as fancy as the audience you seem to be aiming for (I’m out in the country – we wear jeans and tees to work and so do our clients…if they’re not Amish), but I think I can put a lot of what you said into practice even in a more casual working environment.

  11. Fox says:

    Bullshit, Fucking, and Ass appear once each in the article. That’s pretty far from gratuitous. Unless you include crap which appeared twice. If you can’t handle three curse words in a(roughly) 800 word article you really have no business being on the internet at all.

  12. theguyintheback says:

    @ well well

    You should look into correcting your spelling in your next rant so others will take you more seriously.


    I am a new fan of this blog! I love reading all you provide…even with all the hilariously positioned curse words!

    Thanks so much for the helpful insight!

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