Five Things to Avoid Saying

Whether you are a consultant working with a client, a designer trying to integrate with a team of developers, or a creative director managing teams made mostly of designers, working with other humans can be messy or magical depending on the communication. Saying the right thing can inspire and motivate those around you. Saying the wrong thing can suck the energy out of a room and the life out of a project.

Here are a few common easy-to-avoid energy killers:

“That’s not my problem.”

There are two times when this phrase is commonly used. Perhaps you simply don’t want to do something. You might think that it’s beneath you or that it’s not your job. Even if the request doesn’t fall squarely in your realm of responsibility, supporting the team does. Accept the request understanding that your flexibility will be recognized by those around you.

Or perhaps you’re asked to do something outside of your sphere of influence. It’s not always easy to take on more responsibility or to tackle the new, but the designer who does will get more opportunities. Be honest about the situation and the request, and focus on getting what you need to conquer the problem rather than on making it someone else’s.

Try instead: I might need some help with that.

“Just tell me what you want me to do.”

This phrase often slips out when a designer is frustrated, and it usually comes with the unmistakeable overtones of belligerence. Perhaps you’ve been asked to solve a problem that you just can’t figure out, or perhaps everything she comes up with is met with a negative reaction. Whatever the reason, reducing design to its execution is a dangerous move that could leave creative directors or clients thinking of you as a production designer. Instead of requesting explicit instruction, try asking questions and seeking examples for more clarity. If there’s somebody else who has more confidence, ask for their support in finding a solution.

Try instead: Could we work through this problem together?

“It’s done.”

The ability to see flaws in anything is often referred to as the designer’s curse, and it’s what keeps us striving to always make things better. Claiming that a design is “done” communicates not that there is nothing left to explore or improve, which is rarely the case, but rather that you cannot see anything left to explore or improve. When tackling a challenge, always have an idea of what finished is as well as an idea of what you’ll do to improve the design should you have extra time. And if you find yourself stuck, seek input over approval.

Try instead: I feel confident about the work, but would appreciate a fresh pair of eyes.

“I didn’t know.”

This phrase is commonly used when the designer is hit with a critique or requirement that she didn’t see coming. While it may be true that she didn’t know, phrasing it this way also abdicates responsibility for knowing. Take an active stance towards knowledge. Ask questions and confirm your understanding, and the focus will move from the potentially embarrassing thing you didn’t know to your ability to understand and accommodate new constraints.

Try instead: Could you tell me more about that?

“That’s how it’s always done.”

This phrase often comes after questioning a specific decision in a design, and when it is uttered without any hint of sarcasm, the speaker is usually peddling in bullshit. While it may be true that something is usually done a certain way, this defensive phrasing comes across as an excuse rather than an explanation. Bring your audience along for the ride and talk about why something is done the way it is, why the convention exists, and why you chose to implement it that way in your design. And if you don’t have any of that, have a laugh and offer to try it a new way. After all, we should never resist trying new things.

Try instead: I’ve never done it that way before, but let’s see if it works.