What is a design consultant?

I’m Design Director in a digital transformation consultancy after having worked as a consultant for 10+ years and in-house since 2018. Being a designer in a consulting environment is pretty unique so I thought I’d try to describe it for others who are interested in moving into that industry.

  • Sometimes, the user is your client. The main difference between working as a designer in-house and giving your opinion in a consulting capacity is that you may be limited to what your client is willing to accept. You’re often going to be using your design skills to interrogate a client in the kindest way possible or convince them to shift away from their initial assumptions. You’re paid to try to get someone to eat their greens. But more often than not, you’ll have to hide the cauliflower under some cheese. You’re not going to be able to move them as far as you think they should go or they’ll move on to the next consulting partner. This happens a lot. Working as a consultant doesn’t hinge on your abilities as a designer but your salesmanship and relationship building skills. This isn’t necessarily a skill they teach you in design school but they probably should.
  • Don’t be too attached to process. The design process is sometimes that is fun to draw but difficult to stick to. Matt Jones once told me he thought the Double Diamond was useful because it created billing milestones clients could understand. Mostly, you’ll have to pause, start again and rush multiple times in any given project and that’s quite normal. You can’t get frustrated about it. A design process is a story you tell about where you are and where you’re going. But it’s just a story. It can and should change all the time. Principles are a better scaffold to build on rather than a process.
  • Never assume people understand you or know how to use your tools. The design world is full of specialist words and tools. There’s nothing more off-putting to a client than working with both new people AND new tools. So try to make yourself understood with simpler, clearer language. Russell would talk about presentation skills and so would Giles but I think this also extends to software tools. Miro is a cognitive hellscape which people rarely enjoy using for the first time. So maybe don’t use it unless you absolutely must.  And maybe try to stick to Plain English in your reports. You don’t get more work from sounding obtuse, you get less work.
  • Get good at deep listening. Being trustworthy as a consultant is mostly about being able to listen and show you’ve listened well. It’s not quite the same as user research. It’s about understanding the environment the client is and their ability to act on the change you’re going to be championing. If they have no money and little power, then your recommendations are going to be largely ignored (especially if they require too much buy-in from multiple stakeholders and are too expensive). The design skills you can deploy is to help a client see where they may want to head to one day but focus on what they can afford to do now. This is a kind of strategic future-casting that designers are great at if they really listen.
  • Work well with others and help them out. Another fantastic set of skills designers have is flexibility. Sometimes, someone thinks they want a designer on a project but what they actually need are project management skills and a little strategy to keep the project moving. Most designers can do this. They have built up the collaboration skills to support groups of people in working together for common outcomes. The myth of the lonely designer/architect/artist always hid the teams involved in doing the work. So get good at working well with others, helping them manage the project ups and down and make sure there’s good documentation throughout and at the end. Sometimes the best design skill is the one nobody sees at all.

As always, would love your thoughts in the comments. Happy Sunday.

By designswarm

Blogging since 2005.