Getting better at explaining

So much has been written about clarity and why humanity-centred design relies on good communication skills.
Ability to translate concepts into language easily understood by others is vital for designers.

That’s why analogies are so valuable.

Following is a great example I heard last week at The Design Conference in Brisbane.

Pillars of excellence

Greg and I often talk about identifying pillars of excellence. Many designers are generalists, but commanding high fees demands subject-matter excellence.

Excellence in any subject is difficult – excellence in all subjects is impossible.

That’s why choosing three or four pillars of excellence – client sectors, services, or products – is important. Pillars where your depth of knowledge makes you and your skills, distinct.

Getting the balance is important: one pillar of excellence is too perilous. Eight pillars too arduous. Three to four is a perfect balance.

Explaining the same but different

In her presentation* at The Design Conference, Michaela Webb compared running a design studio to farming – and it made perfect sense.

Here’s some of her points:

  • Farming is hard.
  • Planting just one crop is perilous – if those seeds fail your farm fails.
  • Sowing a small number of different crops will avoid everything maturing at the same time.
  • Diversification is an opportunity for cross pollination and biodiversity.
  • Tending a limited number of crops leaves time for research and specialisation: like organic farming.
  • Too many different fields, and too many crops to tend, can lead to failure.

All of these points translate perfectly to a managing a design studio.

So what?

The moral is, take time to choose your words (and your pillars).

Too often designers spend an inordinate amount of time on strategy, concept and design only to consider how they will explain it to the client on the way to the meeting.

Choosing your words well is part of your onlyness – what makes you distinct. That’s important because when we pitch we’re often part of a posse of designers pitching to solve the same problem to the same client.

Really, that was the scenario at TDC. Michaela was describing her process and her studio to a group of designers and studio owners who most probably had previously heard a similar presentation.

That’s why Michaela’s analogy was so good. It was a fresh, innovative approach that immediately captured the audience’s attention.



*Ironically, there is a very good chance I’ve not explained this presentation well. It was the first of three days of great presentations and I’m relying on my memory and a few notes. If you can, watch it on TDC’s streaming platform.

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Carol Mackay

Design Business Council : business advice for creatives.
We help designers build better, stronger, more sustainable, businesses.

Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

Want more?

These articles talk about challenges of managing a studio:

      1. Use LinkedIn to explain yourself to clients
      2. What clients want to hear in a pitch
      3. Another way of explaining design

About Carol

After 30+ years running a design studio, I accumulated a pretty special network of fellow designers. One thing most have in common: a need for more information about the ‘business’ side of design. Most are impatient with any task competing for time spent doing what they love – designing so they wanted more info about how to work more efficiently and effectively.

Not me. I love that intersection between design and business. I built a career working with Ombudsman schemes, the Emergency Services sector and the Courts. My special power has always been an ability to use design to translate the difficult to understand or the unpalatable message.

I now use exactly the same skills with creative business owners. I translate the indigestible into bite-sized chunks of information. I share insights, introduce tools and embed processes to help others build confidence business decision-making skills. More confidence makes it easier to grasp opportunities. More confidence makes it easier to recognise a good client from the bad.

Outside DBC I have mentored with Womentor, AGDA and most recently with The Aunties.
And I’m a proud board member of Never Not Creative. Ask me about internships 😉

Always happy to chat, I can be contacted here.


For a short while, an archive of my design work at
My current work can be viewed at and

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