Listening Is A Design Skill

Listening is related to empathy. Empathy is valuing another's experience, and keeps the designer from creating something that is self-expressive.

Most of us would consider ourselves to be good listeners. However, most of us remember only 30-40% of what we hear. When we’re working with clients, this percentage is less than sufficient to frame design problems well enough to create viable solutions.

Listening is a required skill for designers who want to develop successful outcomes. Everything the client says about their needs and goals is relevant to the design solution in some way, and we need to sift through the information, separate fact, inference and meaning, and discern what to work with.

That first meeting with a new client sets the stage for the relationship that follows. Listening puts your focus on the client and their needs, removing the need to convince them that you’re the right designer for their project.

Listening is related to empathy. Empathy is being able to put yourself in the “shoes” of another, to understand their experiences and see things from their point of view. Empathy is valuing another’s experience, and keeps the designer from creating something that is self-expressive.

Listening is not simply receiving words. It’s an activity requiring focused attention, not just on the words you hear but the unspoken aspects of communication – body language.

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When discussing a project with a client, here are five things you can do to remember more more of the conversation and engage fully with your client:

  • Stay quiet. While your client is speaking, focus on what they are saying. Write down key words you hear, especially ones that are repeated or paralleled. Try not to interrupt, but let them complete their thought. When they say something that sparks a question, draw a question mark next to the word or statement you wrote down, and ask about it later.
  • Pay attention to the client. Maintain eye contact and take notes. Lean toward the client and indicate that you’re engaged in what they’re saying by nodding or providing feedback.
  • Watch the client’s body language. Are they sitting back or leaning forward? Are they making eye contact with you as they speak? How are they using their hands? Do they sound excited or frustrated? Are they speaking cautiously or are their words flowing?
  • Listen for ideas. What you want to discern is the big picture – the client’s primary concerns. The primary concern is not that they need a logo or a web site. It’s what the logo represents and what the web site will do.
  • Ask relevant questions. Asking questions indicates you’re listening and engaged, and that you’re able to understand their need. Questions will help you clarify the problem (the need) so that you can frame it into a workable idea: The client needs a fill in the blank that will fill in the blank because fill in the blank. Once you have a problem statement consisting of the who, the what and the why, you have the starting point for concept development and the foundation for a good solution.

The client who feels “heard” is the client who will trust you. Trust is the basis for good relationships. A client who trusts that you have their best interests in mind is more likely to be persuaded to consider new ideas and is easier to negotiate with. They will value you.

Finally: follow up. Send an email that summarizes the conversation, or a creative brief that restates the client’s goals and concerns, and outlines how you will address them in the design solution. The creative brief is proof that you’ve listened and understood their needs.

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