Selling Design

Before he retired, my dad was an orthodontist. When I was a kid, we often talked about his work. One such conversation was about advertising. The impression I got was that advertising was seen as something for shoe stores and used car salesmen, not service professionals such as dentists. Advertising left a bad taste in the mouth. (Sorry.)

So I grew up thinking that for some lines of work, new business comes through reputation and referrals. Anything more aggressive than that is tacky, perhaps even a sign that something’s wrong. (Desperation?) As a designer and a consultant, this perspective hasn’t served me well. There’s nothing inherently wrong with letting people know you can help them.

Still, I sense a widespread (if unacknowledged) understanding among designers that some aspects of doing business are “beneath us.” One such aspect is selling. The word “sales” itself is often met with contempt; for many of us (myself included), it speaks of deception, pressure, and manipulation. The image: Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross pushing hapless minions to ALWAYS. BE. CLOSING.

For professionals who center their identity on empathizing with others to create things that help them accomplish their goals, the idea of pressuring anyone into anything they don’t want to do is anathema. Repulsive, even. We come up with euphemisms like business development so we don’t even have to utter the dreaded “S” word. But as popular as the image of the high-pressure, less-than-honest salesperson is, we must resist the drive to see all sales in a bad light.

All of us are in sales. If you’re operating within any business context — in any role — sooner or later you’ll need to “move others” (Dan Pink’s phrase). This doesn’t mean you must mislead them or pressure them into doing things they wouldn’t do otherwise. It means you help them understand how you can help them, and then make it possible for them to let you do so.

This isn’t easy. People are busy, and they have many other things clamoring for their attention. How will they know you can help? To begin with, they must be aware of who you are and what you can do. Then they must be able to see how that can help with their problems. There are things you can do to move this along, and there’s nothing nefarious about this. (Actually, it’s a disservice both to them and yourself as a professional to not make your value clear and actionable.)

Designers are especially good at empathizing with the people who use the things we design. You can think of the sales process as empathizing with the people you can provide value to so you can understand their problems and concerns. Once you do, you can jointly design ways for them to engage you to help them. As with the design of a product, this calls for revealing the opportunities and constraints implicit in the situation. It calls for understanding context and developing trust. These things are central to design, and they’re central to selling design services.