How to sell design
This article is largely based on a master class I held for the entire team at Flying Bisons, an amazing agency in Poland with whom I’ve been fortunate to collaborate on a couple of occasions, most recently on eobuwie.
The original title of this talk was "Storytelling and Selling Concept Designs for Digital Experiences." As designers, a crucial aspect of our job is to simplify and distill ideas down to their essence. Therefore, the new title for this talk is simply "How to Sell Design."
As designers, we may shy away from the idea of "selling," but ultimately, it's necessary. One effective method of selling design is through storytelling, as demonstrated in Apple Keynotes, where fantastic design is presented through captivating stories. Concept designs can be particularly challenging to sell because they are often vague and open-ended. At times like these, it's easy to question why we agreed to give a talk on the subject.
When I was a fresh-faced teen, I started my design journey by creating fanzines and demo sleeves for bands. Imagine my surprise when I later found out that this was an actual job I could make money doing! Not wanting to miss out, I pursued an internship at an ad agency while still in high school to grow my skills and learn anything they would let me.
Soon I learned that a client of this agency had been hearing about the benefits of the internet and wanted a website of their own. No one at the agency had a clue about how to even start, but since I knew Photoshop I was able to mockup a design and use some very basic HTML coding skills to get them launched. Through my conversations and research (a lot of IRC chats!), I found that almost every link shared pointed to people studying at a single school in Sweden. This school was Hyper Island. So after high school, I excitedly applied, was accepted, and made the move from Finland to Sweden to shape my mind around all things design.
Fast forwarding ten years, I gained experience working at agencies in Sweden, Denmark, and the UK. You see, I come from an entrepreneurial family. I knew I had to branch off and build something of my own. I needed my own practice where I could work with a ton of different agencies and clients to build products, mostly digital, that would serve them well.
I now live in the south of Sweden in a town smaller than a Warsaw suburb (only about 900 people!) dividing my time between my dog Taylor (Swift), my girlfriend, a garden and, well, the work I want to do.
I typically lead teams in design and collaborate with companies on product design and design systems. All of this requires the skill of selling design.
Before we begin, a final caveat: I have been giving talks since 2003 and I am a recurring speaker at Hyper Island. However, I am still terrible at estimating time, so this presentation may be over in 20 minutes or we could still be here at 8pm. Buckle up!
Understanding what I don’t know
So now that you have an idea of my history and what got me all the way here today, I think it’s valuable to give it a little more context. I AM a designer first and foremost, but the skill I rely on the most in my design process may surprise you. No, it’s not my skills in Figma, Miro, or Sketch. It’s actually my writing.
You see, when working with concept designs in particular, I find it extremely valuable to differentiate between what I know and what I don’t know. To understand what I don’t understand. My first step when I start something new is I type out what I know. This might be a bulleted list, a script from a user’s point-of-view, or something close a blog post - it doesn’t matter what form as long as it is clearly lays out my knowledge. Once I’ve detailed the most obvious facts I can rely on, I start to detail what I assume. Obviously, these are close to facts, but technically something I don’t know.
As an example, let’s say I’m working with eobuwie. A fact that I know is they have more than 10,000 pairs of shoes available. Now that’s a lot. A lot a lot. So I can assume from that a user’s point-of-view, and my own shopping habits, it can be tricky to find the one pair that I’m looking for. I can’t even be sure they have exactly what I want! Now I’ve identified one thing I know and one thing I don’t. I try to continue this flow for as long as possible to get an extensive list. During this process, it’s essential to not go back and edit, not to solutionize and, well, not to get stuck. Just keep it flowing as long as I can to get as much as I can.
"Writing is the process by which you realize that you do not understand what you are talking about. Importantly, writing is also the process by which you figure it out. Writing about something teaches you about what you know, what you don’t know, and how to think. Writing about something is one of the best ways to learn about it. Writing is not just a vehicle to share ideas with others but also a way to understand them better yourself." - Why write
Paul Graham put it this way: “A good writer doesn’t just think, and then write down what he thought, as a sort of transcript. A good writer will almost always discover new things in the process of writing.”
This process inspires reflection. When approaching a complicated matter, or even this talk, I choose to start by just typing. The challenge is to let the words flow without going back to what has already been written, and to start with as little thought as possible. It may sound illogical, but writing like this takes you down paths that you wouldn’t have explored otherwise. You won’t arrive at the same space by starting in Figma or even using pen and paper. This is how our brains actually work!
Once I am satisfied with my list, I try to draw out some common topics and, just like how you wrap up a workshop, I begin to group things and look for patterns. Returning to the eobuwie example, that may be related to filtering, but what if it’s also related to navigation? Or maybe the product card itself? At this point, you can see that we’re starting to define a good story. Every story has struggles, joys, failures, and solutions. It gives the listener hints of what might happen, but never explicitly tells them exactly what is going to happen. That would ruin the story, right? So, just like us needing to keep our minds open to all the different directions and paths, we want to keep our listeners minds open. The greatest stories have the best plot-twists. That turn that you weren’t expecting.
When working on a concept design - and let me just highlight that while designers tend to use the analogy of concept cars - concept designs should not be like a concept car. A concept design is really something that will eventually happen in full. It may not have all the pieces in place now, but it shouldn’t be visionary in the sense that it will just remain a dream. This is more like a 3d image of the house we’re building! You want the future homeowners, our clients, to deeply understand the house, what it will look like, but paint the picture with their own future memories. “This is where I’ll have my morning coffee” is an image you want them to see themselves in. It’s your job to set up that context and communicate it to them in a way that is easy for them to visualize it.
Utilizing storytelling allows us to sell the dream. However, it is vital that we stay mindful in keeping it close enough to reality while still allowing for big, bold dreams. With a concept design, it's important not to show too much, so we don't “paint ourselves into a corner” that we will struggle to get out of later. As you can see, it’s a balancing act hinged on what we know and what we don’t know.
While our visual designs should feel pixel-perfect and well thought out, keeping concept designs vague allows for flexibility. We may not know all the use cases, edge cases, or contexts the design right away. Only thorough stress-testing make those plain.
When I present a client different types of designs, it’s actually part of the process… it’s utilizing the different stages of the design to further define the design. Let me explain:
Page briefs help me focus on ensuring I have the right sections, actions, and goals for each section.
Wireframes then help me focus on ensuring the hierarchy and visual real estate between each section is appropriate. Wireframes tend to go into more detail on each section and may even contain copy.
Visual design then showcases how those wireframes come to life. It demonstrates how we ensure an optimal balance between different types of content and how it should be clear, attractive, engaging, and informative.
A concept design wraps is typically an MVP blend of the three above. It could be a visual design of a single page to showcase a style direction, wireframes to showcase how navigation could work within a design framework.
So while the goal of a page brief, a wireframe, or a visual design mockup is often to get a sign-off, the goal of a concept design is quite different. It’s, in my opinion, a better option that invites collaboration by welcoming stakeholders into your process. The only thing better than a dream is a shared dream.
Storytelling is something we are all exposed to daily. It’s what every book we’ve read, movie we’ve watched, and tv-show we’ve binged relies on. The concept designs we have been talking about are absolutely sold using storytelling and it won’t cost as much as filming a movie. It’s good to follow a set of ‘guidelines’ for the story we are creating though. You don’t need to check all of them off, but the more you can lean on them, the stronger a story you’ll have.
Effective storytelling involves a deep understanding of human emotions, motivations, and psychology in order to truly move an audience.
Luckily, most of us do this naturally, starting at a very young age, but there’s a difference between good storytelling and great storytelling.
Great stories are universal
Because they are universal, someone from Sweden can tell a client in Poland a story and chances are they will be able to relate. See a bit of themselves in it. Pixar, one of the companies that really excels at telling entrancing stories, director Pete Docter: ”What you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.”
Your story needs a clear structure and purpose.
One of the formulas often used is known as the The Story Spine. It goes like this: Once upon a time there was [blank]. Every day, [blank]. One day [blank]. Because of that, [blank]. Until finally [bank].
Sound familiar? Of course it does. Nearly every story we know follows this formula. Now, when presenting design there’s no point in writing a story using Cinderella’s formula. It wouldn’t make sense. But if we change it just a little, it will serve us just fine:”We are all familiar with [blank]. Every day, we use [blank] to [blank]. But what if we could [blank] to [blank]?”
That’s obviously very, very shortened, but you can see how it follows a structure that can be adopted pretty naturally. This structure then helps use to define our the purpose…
Why must you tell this story? What greater purpose does this serve?
I have surely done my fair share of work that I was… euhm… less passionate about (like that Google Ads Reporting tool) and I’m fortunate now to be able to spend most of my time working on things that give me more satisfaction - giving more parents access to healthcare for their newborns, for example. For me, it’s far easier to craft a compelling story about something I’m passionate about. So, as Ted Lasso taught us to do, we need to believe in order to achieve. I think this is something that gets lost a lot of the time.
Surprise and delight.
We’ve all seen the classic fairytale stories… A helpless princess in need of help and a conveniently placed prince charming poised to swoop in and saves the day.
Boring and predictable - not to mention outdated. If you look at modern stories, they follow a different pattern which makes them surprising and, as a consequence, far more delightful! Win-win! This highlights how we need to give just enough about the story, but also inspire the audience to think about the it many days - or weeks - afterwards.
Great stories are simple and focused
It’s easy to make the common mistake of adding to many variables to your story. You might think that the story has too little to it. That it’s too simple. You get caught in the trap of adding more and more small things that you think will get it some more flavour. Well, just like with great design, the key is actually to do the opposite - remove as much as possible!
Great stories are:
Universal, something everyone can relate to.
Clear in structure and purpose, with a theme that's easy to follow and understand.
Surprising and delightful, with unexpected turns that enhance the story.
Simple and focused, ideally with one storyline at a time (although Inception is one movie that gets to break this rule).
Great stories are like great design
If you take a closer look, you will see that great stories are much like great design.
Great design is universal. Most UX patterns and UI themes are universal and work all over the world.
Great design has a clear structure and purpose.
Great design offers delight.
And great design is simple and focused.
Just like great design principles, stories follow similar patterns and guidelines.
As a designer, one of the most important things we need to learn is how to sell design. Selling design is not an easy task, but we can use storytelling to frame and contextualise our designs.
It allows us to sell the dream while keeping it close enough to reality, allowing for big, bold dreams. When working with concept designs, in particular, storytelling can help differentiate between what we know and what we don’t know.
As a designer, I rely on writing as one of my most important skills in my design process. Writing allows me to identify what I know and what I don’t know. It’s the first step I take when starting something new.
Effective storytelling involves a deep understanding of human emotions, motivations, and psychology in order to truly move an audience. Just like design!
Great stories are universal, have a clear structure and purpose, offer surprise and delight and are simple and focused. Again, just like great design!
In conclusion, storytelling is a highly effective tool to use when selling concept designs. While it may take some time to find the best process for you, I highly encourage you to give writing a chance, especially as a designer.
Writing about something is one of the best ways to learn about it. There’s something magical that happens when you change the way of communicating from visual to vocal. It inspires thought and takes you down paths that you wouldn’t have explored.
Now, I’ve always been a bigger fan of discussions than speaking, a listener more than a talker so I’m dying to hear your questions.