Designer Diplomacy

So if you have been a follower of mine on Twitter, perhaps you know that I recently came back from a (business) trip to Germany. I wrote some other thoughts about my trip earlier, but now I want to talk about something more specific to design. When I came back to the office, I made a remark to a coworker about how I felt like some kind of a ‘design diplomat’, in the sense of having to negotiate design stuff with our colleagues.

I made the remark in jest, but in thinking more about it, the idea of a design diplomat actually makes a lot of sense!

Negotiate Peace Collaboration

If you work on any projects of a certain scale, you’ll understand that getting things done is not as easy as just walking over to someone’s desk and talking about what needs to be created for the next sprint. It takes a lot of planning and preparation, not to mention collaboration and communication. Tons of other words can be thrown in there to describe the complexity. So why would a design diplomat be a valuable thing?

Nurturing collaboration with people and/or teams is one of the chief ways of combatting the inherent complexity of large-scale projects. Unless you’re the CEO, no one individual can really own the whole process end-to-end. Designers especially are often caught in between different sides of the implementation coin. But even worse is that in the tendency of people (usually middle managers) to try and keep control over their territory, like fiefdoms in a feudal system.

But we, as designers, can play a much different role in this type of scenario than just being human mockup generators…

Like a true diplomat negotiating peace treaties, the designer diplomat can play the role of a facilitator, someone who can negotiate the open collaboration between groups but from a design perspective. We know from our own experience what things we’ll need to help engineering teams do their jobs. We also know how to help product teams be more effective at what they do. So being able to bridge this chasm is a unique and important responsibility.

Come down and work

Designers sometimes want to stay cooped up in an ivory tower, raining proclamations about typography and user-centered principles down upon other people, as they toil away in secrecy on the latest cutting edge graphic designs.

This is generally a bad idea.

It is far better to leave the tower and work closely with people who need your support. And playing the role of a facilitator between different company factions is what designers are particularly well-suited to do.

Let’s face it. There are no roles quite like being a UX designer. On the one hand, you have to be acutely aware of what the customer needs and balance that with business requirements. On the other hand, you have to know whether something is actually feasible with the technology and be able to work within some difficult constraints. It is a great responsibility, and if you are not ready for it, it can become a very difficult burden to manage.

We talked about negativity and designers becoming jaded on the podcast, and this is one possible outcome if the burden of responsibility becomes too great. But to clarify even further, practicing design diplomacy, especially in the beginning of a project, can help alleviate some of the load simply by helping organize a project. And I don’t just mean prioritized task lists, we’re talking assigning responsibilities and owners for things. We’re talking about defining what not to do along with what we will do. We’re talking about timetables and deadlines. All of this should be done as a whole team, working as a tight knit unit.

You need to do this anyway

In researching the recent podcast on negativity, there were a lot of comments we saw that described the difficult relationships designers have with people outside of the design industry. These are perfect opportunities for designer diplomats to take action.

As a working designer, you’ll always struggle if you have a hard time building relationships. You end up fighting process issues, instead of just focusing on solving design problems. This sort of stuff almost always leads to unhappiness. I mean, how can you reasonably expect to do your job when there are so many interpersonal issues to deal with?

And staying up in your ivory tower doesn’t help.

So you’ll need to do this type of thing anyway or at least work with someone who can. Being a designer diplomat means being able to negotiate with people who may not know or even understand what is important to creating good design, and instead of being upset and annoyed that people don’t get it, you’ll have to work extra hard to practice diplomacy to bridge the gap. Negotiating things is not easy, but not negotiating important design things makes everything much harder!

Don’t stay a diplomat for long…

The interesting thing is that you don’t need to stay a designer diplomat for long. The role of a diplomat is generally only needed at the beginning of a project. So if you’re the type of designer that gets more out of kerning than discussing why we need better letterspacing with external colleagues, you’ll eventually get to go back to the studio and mess around with type. Or if you work with someone who can handle the diplomat duties, then you can focus on the parts of the design process that you love most!

Swanky diplomat Mercedes-Benz image is courtesy of

In the end, I was just kind of goofing around (as I usually do) when I first talked about being a diplomat. I imagined myself one day rolling into the office with a special car, with flags on the outside, maybe the symbol is a t-square or something. But as I thought about it more, I realized there actually was a need for designer diplomats, especially in larger organizations or for projects that are complex with lots of moving pieces (not necessarily physical pieces…). Negotiating design issues is not easy, but is certainly an important part of doing great design work!


What do you think? I’d like to hear from you on this. Add your comment below, or just ping me on Twitter!

Designer Diplomacy

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