How can a designer explain their work to non-creative people?


One issue I face personally is how can I, as a designer, effectively explain my work to potential clients or people that do not have a creative side. I know how to explain what software or process was used but what is a way that a designer can explain the mind-set to someone that has no clue? I've thought about implementing a bullet list when I'm going through the project and jotting down key phrases, similar to how some people come up with a logo design. Is there a study or metric that can be used to say x, y and z should be included, like:

  • Color
  • form factor
  • target audience

The closest solution I've found via Google was an article by Design Tuts titled "Preparing and Talking About Your Graphic Design Portfolio"

It's not easy

The art of talking about your work is not something that comes naturally to designers – I know I didn’t find it easy in the beginning. But it's a good skill to learn, and learn as early as you can. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and look upon each meeting as an opportunity to develop this skill. Not only will this make it easier to talk about your portfolio, it will also make you better at presenting concepts and design work, both to your colleagues and to clients.

The simple rule here is engagement. Your aim should be to arouse interest in your work, not give a speech or lecture. Remember, showing your portfolio to people is also about them, not just you.

When you come to each project, talk about it briefly to introduce it but don’t talk at length. See how they react, let them ask questions or let them simply look. If they are looking at you rather than the work, talk some more about the project – tell them what interested you about it. Look for signs that it's time to move on to the next project.

To help you get used to talking about your work, try it on other people whenever you get a chance. If they are non-designers it will help even more, as you will practice not using designer lingo to describe each project.

So my question is how can a creative designer explain a portfolio project to a non creative person?

3/30/2015 3:37:00 PM

Accepted Answer

I will start by saying I have negative social skills with a seasoning of Aspie on them. So, taking that into account, here I go.

Based on my Spock-like field work, I have learnt that my non-creative clients (I have creative clients as well) tend to be problem solving oriented. They tend to focus on the problems they have and are very interested on how you can help them solve them. They are also fascinated by metrics. In particular: time, number of clients, and money.

I have also learnt that they have the simplified idea that they need my assistance because I will make their products, business or software "look nice". They have the prejudice that I am obsessed with beauty just for the sake of it and that I am incapable of any objective reasoning whatsoever.

So, instead of getting angry at the stereotype (I tried that for a while, it did not work) I try to present myself as their "creative allied". Since they have assumed already that I create "pretty things" I use that to my benefit. Admiring the "look of it" is almost taken for granted so I try to educate them, with a smile, just as a comment, on how my "pretty creations" were also great business tools for my previous clients.

When I explain my projects to them I try to focus on what problem I was trying to solve and if I did solve it. Sure it looks fabulous, but I try to explain how the design decisions I made helped improve a specific business to achieve a specific goal. I still talk about the design decisions but I try to emphasize their objective and functional side.

If I failed on achieving a specific goal I explain that as well. It makes me sound objective and destroys the other stereotype they usually have in mind, that I am a diva. It also makes them realize I have been around the block several times so they don't fear they are hiring a beginner.


When I present packaging design, for example, I might explain:

  • How the design improved product recognition by the distinctive use of illustration
  • How my choices of Pantone colours over CMYK, even when they are slightly more expensive, will ensure a stable image for the brand
  • How the copy size is easy on the eye so the client does not have to strain to read it reducing product rejection
  • How the colours will make it stand out from the competitor boxes sitting on the same shelf
  • How the small footprint of the box will allow them to boast about eco-friendliness and to easily squeeze themselves on tight retailer niches; how I managed to make it "look attractive and different" but still follow all the industry standards even with a wink.

I try to keep in mind, though, that they are talking to me because they have decided they need a creative person, so even when I try to sound as objective and goal oriented as possible, I try to flaunt, in a friendly way, my creative side which usually I translate for them as "beauty inclined, detail oriented and market savy".

It is a performance, like any other business transaction, that I try to tailor for every client. As in any other cases, I try to be their allied, to be on their side, to nod at their sorrows, to grief their griefs and to show them how I might have expertise (and experience) that might help them with their problems.

4/5/2017 8:36:00 PM

For me, it's always the why.

I've run into many situations where a client is initially uneasy about my work. Not because they outright dislike it, but because they don't think it fits with "what they've seen." When clients are accustomed to seeing the same thing over and over from themselves as well as any competitors, it can be a challenge to get them to break their mindset and look at things from a different perspective.

What I've learned to do is to walk a client visually through any piece and vocalize my choices in clear and specific manners.

So, in short you have to be able to explain your design choices in a manner the client understands, using words that the client will "latch onto" as "yes, we want that." It is sales. And you have to often sell your designs in way the client can see as beneficial. And you have to be prepared to do this selling at any point during a client conversation. Answers such as "It's orange because I like the way it looks" will never go over well.

Some general ideas....

  • I made this blue because blue promotes emotions of safety, security and helpfulness - think of Hospitals, Police, and banks
  • I chose this typeface because serifs often lend to a perception of friendliness, elegance or high-end products where sans-serif lend to a perception of informational or official notices.
  • This type size is better because the audience viewing the piece is older. Providing larger type might seem out of place, however if the piece is easier to read for the target audience it will do nothing but increase retention.
  • I replaced this model photo with a younger model. Studies show people generally se themselves as roughly 15-20 years younger than they actually may be. So Since we're shooting for an average age-range of X I used a model that looked closer to 15 years younger than that. (doesn't work if the "15 years young" breaches teenager or child age ranges).
  • This image is specifically facing left. This controls how the eye moves across the page. When you read, you read top to bottom left to right. Having this image facing left encourages the user to follow it back to the top left side of the page once they hit the bottom right corner.
  • I put the contact information and logo here because it's the last thing you'll see on the page and will be in a better position to help the reader remember the company, if not the contact information itself.
  • I removed the animation for this because it did not contain any absolutely necessary information and was a visual distraction on the page. It unconsciously pulled the eye to it and made reading the text less imperative.
  • I placed the navigation across the top of the page because drop downs are necessary to condense the wealth of pages present into a simply two-click maximum tree. This allows the user to get anywhere on the site with only one or two clicks. Sidebar navigation would be so long it may extend past a user's screen height necessitating scrolling to view all the navigation.

These sort of things. They are generally very specific to a project so it's difficult to give broad sweeping answers other than learn to explain the work you are doing..

You don't need to automatically launch into this sales pitch. In fact, I'd suggest you don't go into at all but rather answer any questions or wavering with targeted answers like I've posted above. Don't just start spouting off the decisions you made. Let the client absorb the piece and react. From their reaction you can explain the areas they may be feeling uncomfortable about.

In my experience, I absolutely need to have explanations loaded and ready and be conscious of the decisions I made while designing. Or at the very least be able to explain on-the-fly when dealing with the client.

Anecdotal: I once worked at a place where salesmen were the middlemen to relay design ideas to and from clients. I had no direct client contact. This was challenging. However, if salesmen were good they would often listen to me regarding how to talk to clients about my designs. Often this lead to quicker client decisions and less creative head-butting with clients.

I recall one instance in particular where a salesman saw my design and before showing it to the client commented, "They aren't going to like this. It's not like the stuff their competitors are doing and it's not really what they are expecting." I asked him "why" and he explained 4 or 5 things that he thought they'd kick-back on.

I sat for 5 minutes with him walking him through the design, explaining my design choices and why I think my treatment of those 4 or 5 items was better. He reluctantly agreed to show it to the client.

When he returned from the client meeting, his first words to me were, "I'll never question you again. I was right that they initially weren't fond of the design. However, once I explained things to them the way you explained to me, they were 100% behind the design and were so happy that actual thought and care when into the project." (I'm paraphrasing.)