The power of ‘I don’t know’

Mark Busse – No Comments

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way…” — Carl Sandburg, American poet

You know what graphic designers do too much? Design graphics.

Graphic designers tend to dive into projects without questioning or validating the problem at hand, as though they have all the information and training needed to solve the problem and predict complexity and cost.

Hard to blame them though I suppose; they love creating beautiful graphics and why be difficult if someone is willing to pay them to design a logo or website that will make a great addition to their portfolio?

Ask yourself how many times you’ve tucked into a project without a comprehensive understanding of the history or context of the situation.

A lesson I’ve learned over the years that I certainly never learned in school was the power of saying, “I don’t know,” to clients before starting a branding process or creating brand identity pieces.

I found myself sitting in the boardroom of a large, integrated architecture company that was interviewing various design firms to update its website, logo and marketing materials, all of which were hitting the decade mark. The marketing team felt it was time for a refresh so the firm could be more competitive, attract better talent and win more business.

The marketing director and president asked me pointedly: “Do we need a new logo, and how much will that cost?”

“I don’t know,” I responded, “but we can figure it out together.”

Their logo was weak. It was dated and didn’t suit the company, and their tagline was confusing. Their website and brochure were worse; a classic example of the ubiquitous boxy style most architecture and engineering companies tend to employ. I had an opinion about what I’d recommend for them alright, and I saw an opportunity to do a large brand identity project. I wanted the work. But instead of prattling off a bunch of opinions, suggestions, or proposing budget costs, I chose to respond with “I don’t know.”

There is so much power in the words “I don’t know.” And as much as it may seem counter-intuitive for a designer whose training has been to be able to quickly assess a situation and generate ideas and solutions, I believe it is in that moment that trust is formed.

I’ve tried it the other way, making bold statements about the opportunities I observe and sharing ideas before preliminary foundational research has been done, but looking back I believe that approach failed more often than succeeded.

I suggest the smarter (and frankly more honest) way to approach these situations is something I affectionately call “phase zero”, as in the phase that precedes phase one where a project scope, costs and timeline are formed.

We have to look hard at a problem before we should suggest a solution. Canadian designer Bruce Mau once expressed this idea so eloquently that we include this phrase on the cover of proposals “The word ‘studio’ is derived from ‘study’. Our object is not to know the answers before we do the work. It’s to know them after we do it.”

Instead of jumping into discussions about the various graphic possibilities—tempting as that alway is—or even diving into long explanations of your design process—which, let’s face it, is boring rhetoric very similar to everyone else’s—you can point a prospective client’s attention away from potential tactical executions and instead toward the foundational research and discovery you’ll do on their behalf BEFORE you commit to anything.

In my years as a brand designer, I’ve come to appreciate that companies really are just people. And we’re not just creating corporate identities with our logos and website designs. In fact we are defining those people’s very identities.

When a company hires a designer to create a new logo for them, they are really most interested in finding a partner who can uncover and reveal their true identity—their essence—through visual (and written) language.

So to march into a prospect’s board room and start offering opinions and suggestions before you’ve even spent an hour in their office, let alone their shoes, is arrogant and disrespectful.

Be careful with this idea though. Remember that as designers we are uniquely able to endure the anxiety and stress that comes along with not knowing the way forward. Not possessing this “mojo” is precisely why clients hire us in the first place, so if you play too casually this notion of “I don’t know” it could backfire.

Make sure you can point to a case study of a project showing creative process that resulted in a positive outcome, and explain how you overcame the unknown so they have something they can refer to that will reduce their own feelings of uncertainty and stress.

In the story above, it turned out that the executive team, made up of partners (common in AEC firms), were cynical and unconvinced of the value of branding and marketing. So while other firms—major players we later learned—offered suggestions about new brand concept and directions they could take their marketing efforts (presenting preliminary budgets and timelines in their sales pitch), we suggested they engage us to begin a comprehensive brand audit, market analysis, interviews and surveys so that we could gain an intimate understanding of the company, its culture and audience, along with an understanding of the context, issues, needs, and opportunities before offering any suggestions or making any promises.

During the meeting I asked the president whether he would be comfortable supporting us if, after we had completed phase zero, our recommendation was to keep the existing logo if it turned out it was cherished and steeped with meaning in the organization and among its customers. You should have seen his face.

The fact is, by saying “I don’t know,” the relationship started in an honest place, and by offering them a smaller, much more affordable option BEFORE diving into opinions or graphics, we earned their trust and their business. And the project, which turned out to be a comprehensive rebrand from tip to tail that lasted over a year, was a resounding success.

There will always be clients who insist they know exactly what they need and prescribe a very specific project brief from the start, and clients deserve respect as experts in their business, but next time you are faced with a situation when prospects ask you what you’ll do for them and how much you’ll charge, try answering “I don’t know…but we can figure it out together.”