Designer breakfasts: E is for Empathy

As part of our series of writings inspired by a Designer Breakfast featuring Joe Ferry, SVP, global guest experience & design, Intercontinental Hotels Group, Tom Faulkes, global head of marketing, Land Securities and Amanda Francis, MD at Alchemis, Nathalie Hourihan reports on what clients really, really want from designers.
Did you know that designers are more autistic than the rest of us?

That’s what the panel of clients seated before this morning’s audience of designers seemed to be saying.


What was actually said was “designers lack basic EQ.” And if the remedial nature of most of the advice on offer that morning was anything to go by, our panellists shared this assumption.

If you’ve heard of the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, then you know about the connection between emotional intelligence (EQ) and autism. The professor’s research supports the idea that autism and empathy (a whopping big part of EQ) are opposing ends of a single continuum.

In addition to reminding the audience to prepare, prepare, prepare for that all-important first meeting with the client that might or might not hire them, our panel offered cautionary tales about designers who’d got it wrong. Like the agency that asked if they might expand on a pitch to cover “the trains too”. Seeing as they’d been asked in to discuss the brand strategy of Virgin Atlantic — which happens to be an airline not a rail service or a credit card company or a music label or any of the other 400 businesses that are a part of the same group, this wasn’t the smartest move. It was directly after telling this story that the panellist sharing it summed up the problem with his EQ comment.

It doesn’t seem far fetched that in order for designers to do good design they might be really good at spotting patterns and understanding how parts (not people) interrelate. These are some of ways in which a brain with a tendency towards autism excels. And according to Baron-Cohen, the trade-off is that these sorts of thinkers aren’t the sharpest empathisers on the block.

I’m not a designer and I haven’t spent enough time with them to have a view about their quirks, but I found myself perplexed by the sheer obviousness of the advice from our panel of clients. I stared out the window wondering whether designers really are as clueless about clients as the morning’s discussion implied. And if they are and Professor Baron-Cohen is right, might the explanation be that designer brains and autistic brains share similar wiring? It wasn’t until our final panellist, Tom, took the helm that the answer to these questions emerged. Here’s what he told us:

Designers need to understand the role that they play. There was a time when Tom’s colleagues suspected that he was continually (and unhelpfully) trying to re-brand the business (which he was.) So Tom outsourced a piece of work to an agency that technically his in-house team could’ve handled.

This story struck a cord with me. While we might like to believe that designers (or writers) bring an expertise absent inside an organisation, that’s often not the case. We get away with things that a member of staff might not and sometimes that’s exactly why we got hired.

Clients want to know what designers do on the weekend.

Tom wants a copy of the article you published in Design Week. He wants to know about the project in your basement for the visually impaired. He pleads, ‘I want to say to my colleagues, “these guys are really interesting.” So tell me about the extracurricular stuff, help me evangelise you.’
Clients want to believe that even if a designer won’t die for their art, it’s still more than just a job, it’s an adventure.

But, designers that are too creative fail the exam. “Let’s say I was a designer,” Tom suggested, “if a client said that he wanted me to present my credentials, explain how the design process would work and talk about how best to work together …well, maybe I’m too damn practical, but I would arrange my material for the meeting so that I was ready to a) share my credentials, b) explain the design process and c) discuss how to work together! Too often designers opt for the free-style jazz approach to a meeting.”

While it’s hard to argue with Tom’s logic, I couldn’t help but see why a designer might be tempted to stray from a literal interpretation of the agenda – especially a designer perfectly aware that the client is on their fourth pitch session. But Tom was right — clever is rarely smart.

Like most of the audience, I’d been writing down everything that Tom said when suddenly he stopped, took a sigh and came to the conclusion, “You guys just need to be more confident.” Given that the gist of the morning had been do more prep work and stop being so cocky, this landed in the room as a welcome back-handed criticism.

If I haven’t spent enough time with designers to have my own opinion, I have spent an entire working life serving clients and what I’ve observed is that clients aren’t here to empathise with us. They’re not empathetic because it’s not their job to be. Despite this, Tom had flashed the only real moment of empathy I witnessed that morning. He talked about how hard the recession had hit small business. He was gentle in his suggestion not to be intimidated by big clients, not to exaggerate by “totting up all the freelancers you’ve ever worked with to claim you’re an agency of 200 when in fact you’re an agency of two.”

When he spoke like this, the energy of the room changed. Maybe it was a loosening of shoulders as the panel came to a wrap or maybe it was what Tom had told the room. Relax. Be Yourselves. Tell the Truth. Or maybe it was the way he’d said it. Like someone who could empathise.

The morning’s discussion hadn’t succeeded in revealing anything about designers that I could believe for sure. Maybe designers are more autistic than the rest of us, I don’t know. But I did walk away viewing clients in a fresh light.

If you’re in the business of serving clients, then you’re in the business of empathising. More than that, you’re in the business of empathising with people who are not empathetic to you. They don’t want to understand you; they want you to understand them. But ironically clients often make that difficult. They hide the very pieces of information (things like the project’s already past-due or over-budget or popular with only half of the key stakeholders) which are more instrumental to the success of the project than any of the details of the brief.

Why do they do this? In part because information is power and they may not trust us yet, but more often it’s no more sinister than the fact that clients – like designers – get lost in their own worlds. And because of this clients are a bit autistic. They forget that we don’t know what they know. And all we can do is empathise with that. In addition to doing everything our panellists suggested: preparing more than we’ll use, asking more than we tell and listening more than we talk. Sounds easy, but it never is.

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