When it all gets boring

Sick of sitting around the table hearing the same opinions from the same people? Apart from being boring, it doesn’t make for a very diverse opinion. The root of the problem is that not all creatives are created equal. Not everyone likes to voice their opinion.

Many times, often with the best of intentions, designers decide it’s just easier to stay silent than add to the discussion.

It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for their studio. The more voices and the more diversity of voices, the more robust the design solution.

It was made top of mind this week when a designer in the Design Studio Management program raised an interesting problem: two in her design team of five are reticent to share their opinions in group discussions.

We all want to belong…

Harvard Business Review research found the tendency to remain silent happens when people fear a loss of status if they differ from the group. Most adults have a compelling desire to conform – they want to say what they think other people want them to say. That’s not great for a studio. It gets boring hearing the same voices all the time, and besides, who wants to go to a brainstorming session with people who have the same views and tastes?

It’s not that they have nothing to add…

The most vulnerable are the most likely to stay silent, and in a design studio that could mean the newer team members, junior designers, finished artists and coders – team members that see themselves lower in the pecking order. It means WIP meetings, brainstorming sessions and presentations can be filled with the same voices, often saying the same thing.

The problem is, not having their voices heard can often push differences beneath the surface, and often they don’t disappear, they just simmer.

The thought of being embarrassed or rejected can lead to mentally opting out, and that’s not good for anyone. We’ve all worked with a team member that merely does what they are told and contributes little. It’s a bit like playing tennis against a brick wall. It fulfils a need, and it’s OK for a while, but not half as good as having a hit-up with someone else.

To build collaboration, it’s important to identify designers naturally reticent to speak up and help them have a voice.

Perhaps they’re too busy to speak up?

There are right and wrong times to share your opinion. And it is better to stay quiet in the shadow of a looming deadline but the problem is, in many studios there is constant pressure to work fast. That can become a viscous cycle of no ‘right’ time.

I do like a good fable…

A farmer was taking a full wagon of fruit to market.

She stopped to ask a fellow traveller how long it would take.

The response was: ‘it is an hour away if you go slow and steady, if you hurry it will take all day’.

The farmer hurried on her way and sure enough, as soon as the wagon hit the first bump in the road all the apples fell out and she had to spend time picking up all the fruit. 🙂

Sometimes the pressure of shorter deadlines ends up perpetuating an internally-generated and self-destructive, ever-increasing need for speed. Within that pressure many designers silence their opinions, and that may lead to a less than best quality studio output.

And sometimes that pressure doesn’t even come from a client, or a studio-owner, it’s self-generated. A good studio manager works hard to identify designers that constantly put themselves under pressure.


Design studio leaders need to mindfully create conditions where different opinions are valued.

Serpil and James from Written and Recorded run workshops aimed at creating conditions where the more reticent can flourish. In their experience designers that don’t speak up aren’t necessarily shy – they may have received an unpleasant reaction the last time they said something. As James says “It’s important to listen to them and respond mindfully, especially when there’s constant pressure to work fast”.

One of the gems I heard from James and Serpil was to help those unsure of voicing their opinion by giving them a framework: help them think about how they can offer their opinion. A favourite tip they share is the importance of including ‘ethos’, ‘pathos’ and ‘logos’ in presentations.

Ethos is about credibility. A client is more likely to listen to a designer’s opinion on design than their opinion on accounts.

Pathos is the emotion of your message, and it’s important to include a real-world perspective to any presentation.

Logos is the logic, the facts of your argument.

The value of collaboration.

Breaking the silence can bring an outpouring of fresh ideas from all levels of an organisation – ideas that might just raise the studio’s performance to a whole new level.

But it doesn’t mean you need to invent a new avenue for voices. You could just do existing tasks differently. It could be through ‘standing’ or ‘walking’ meetings that break your ‘traditional seating’ hierarchy. It could be using a role-play format to test an insight.

I researched a few different ways to run a WIP meeting for the design studio management program. There’s a few innovative processes that don’t take any more time but actively involve everyone in the studio.

Whichever way you do it, it’s better for the studio, and the clients if everyone’s voice is heard.

Carol Mackay

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This illustration is from a walk we did earlier this year through the Cataract Gorge in Launceston. Everyone we passed was dressed in leisure gear but not this dude. This dude was dressed like a farmer … he looked like he had hopped straight off his tractor and turned left instead of right. 

It’s coming to the end of a big year for Carol. Thirty-three years after founding Mackay Branson design, she transitioned from client-focused projects to use her skills with the Design Business Council, and The Design Business School. Her skill has always been using design to translate difficult to understand or complex messages into bite-size chunks of information, more palatable and easier to digest. She did to do that for government organisations, ombudsman schemes and the judicial and finance sectors.

Now Carol uses the same skills to translate business concepts into practical tools, resources and skills designers can use everyday.

Carol has co-founded Clear Communication Awards, and the 2019 Business of Design Week. Both will be launched early 2019.

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