Metaphor for the Design Process

Originally posted on March 7, 2013 Filed Under:

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A successful project starts with a complete understanding of the design process on both sides. If you’ve ever had trouble explaining your design process to clients, using a metaphor will help you get to a deep understanding quickly, without having to go into too much confusing technical detail.

So far I’ve only found one metaphor that fits. When explaining the design process to clients, I begin by telling them, “We’re the race car, and you’re the driver.” This establishes our roles early in the discussion. The details follow from that.

To swiftly reach a deep understanding, nothing is better than a good metaphor.

Don’t Bore Them with Details

In the past, when I wanted to explain the design process to a new client, I dove straight into agile methodologies, the iterative process, personas, wireframes vs. mockups, frontend vs. backend, bla bla bla. I could barely listen to myself talk without nodding off!

Now, when a client asks about our process, or what to expect when working with a design studio like The Phuse, I start with the metaphor.

“We’re the race car, and you’re the driver.”

One short sentence acquaints them with their role in the process. We can then use that as a jumping-off point to elaborate on their understanding.

“We’re the race car.” We keep the project on course. The studio’s purpose, as the vehicle of the driver’s success, is to move us swiftly towards the finish line.

“You’re the driver.” You define the goals. The client’s duty, as the driver of the vehicle, is to define the rules and milestones of the race.

The Race Car and Driver Metaphor

To further flesh out the metaphor, here’s a little sketch. I hardly ever repeat this story in its entirety, although I may use a sentence or two as appropriate. Good communication is about going with the flow, not reading from a script.

For the purposes of this article, however, I find it educational to see how well the metaphor matches up with our process.

“We’re the sleek exterior, the power steering wheel, the curving headlights illuminating the road’s next bend. We’re the anti-lock breaks, the record-breaking response time, the suspension that absorbs any imperfection in the road.

This automobile is smart. It’s made of many moving parts that all work together. It’s also adaptable—it can change directions with ease and stop on a dime.

But we’re nothing without our clients. Without YOU. You’re the most important part. If we’re the race car, you’re the driver. You tell us which track to drive on and how far to go. We can tell you how many miles (hours) we’re getting per gallon (out of retainer), but it’s your job to put fuel in the tank, turn the key, and step on the gas pedal.

Your goal as driver is to get us to the finish line. We’ll get you there in record time—and with style—but it’s up to you to determine where the race starts, and how to tell when we’ve reached the finish line.

What’s at the finish line? Good question. Your users are there, waiting to admire the work we’ve done together.

And at the finish line, when the MVP meets your users—that’s where the team finds its glory.”

Completing the Circuit

Nothing beats that car metaphor to convey a full understanding of our respective roles and responsibilities in the project. We want to empower clients, to work with them as a team, which is why the race car metaphor works for us.

We put the client in the driver’s seat, and our job is to take them swiftly and safely to their final destination, but we work best as a team. The best car in the world won’t win the Indy 500 without a capable driver behind the wheel. Similarly, the driver needs a top-notch machine that can handle the curves and carry them across the finish line without breaking down on the way there.

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Matt works from coffee shops and coworking spaces in Austin, TX, where he likes to bike around the city after lunch. When he's not shooting emails for The Phuse, you can find him breaking in the bindings of used paperbacks, or exploring the wilderness.

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