I know nothing
— J. Snow (or agnostic approach in design)

This article is a cheat sheet. A simple step-by-step guide that will help you design and transform you into (forgive my French) a living bullshit detector. “Design what?” you will ask. “Design whatever” I will reply with a smirk. A poster, a chair, a company, your house or even your love life. Not bad for one, humble post, huh?

Amongst our weaponry…
Monty Python was right. Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as (…) surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical … DESIGNER! In some of the previous articles, I’ve already deconstructed a couple of harmful myths. Just to remind you quickly:

  • Real designers are not pixel-pushing prettifiers (but they do need to know their craft).
  • Real designers are also not those useless, mythical, creative creatures, that live in a beautiful Neverland filled with a scent of Starbucks coffee; among unicorns, lollipop-trees and ambient jungle soundtracks (but they do need to be uber creative).
  • You don’t need to be a designer to use “our magic” for your business or life improvements.


STEP ONE: Be like Jon Snow

Even if you were living under the stone or in your grandma’s basement and haven’t seen any episodes of Game of Thrones so far – you’ve probably heard that Jon Snow knows nothing. And guess what! Sometimes nothing is all you need!

It is a mistake to think that to design something for a chair factory you need to be a chair expert beforehand. Did you know, by the way, that NIKE doesn’t really want to hire trained shoe designers? They prefer product designers – because their agnostic, unconventional approach and knowledge of materials can deliver brilliant solutions that shoe designers with diplomas could dismiss with a simple: “that’s not how shoes should be done”.

During my career so far I’ve designed branding systems, websites, animations, campaigns etc. for museums, city councils, artists, other designers, advertising agencies, public transport, charity, hipster food businesses … blaah, blaaah bla… damn! I’ve even designed a “granny flat” for my friend. You’ve got my point? I’m not a car expert nor an architect and believe me – I kiss better than I cook. But the fact that I knew nothing about those things allowed me to REALLY LISTEN to my clients. Listen and learn. And unleash my empathy.

Ask your client to explain and demonstrate everything to you – just as you were a 3 year old toddler. Even if you DO know everything (or you think you do) – let them speak and demonstrate. Wonders will happen when we truly listen and empathize. This is agnostic approach in the design process. Start without an assumption that you know better already. Actually, start without any assumptions.

💩 BULL**IT 💩 to avoid:

Avoid people that always know better. They already know what needs to be done – before you’ve even articulated the problem. There is rarely one and only perfect solution and behind each choice, there are different reasons.

STEP TWO: Research 

Now, when your client showed and explained you their process – it’s time for research. You need to figure out the structure and the aesthetic make up for your solution. You need to know how your Client looked and functioned so far as well as their competition.  But hey? Maybe we can get rid of this phase? Cut the cost and a waste of man-days? The short answer (after deleting all the naughty words) is NO. To help you understand why I asked Mike Monteiro to tell you a story about chairs:

Imagine two chair shops across the street from each other. One shop takes the chair’s design into consideration from the start. They hire the best chair designer they can. The chair designer researches other chairs on the market to figure out where they’re lacking. They ask people what they like and dislike about their current chairs, research materials, consider the chair company’s budget and profit margin, and source materials and manufacturing to make sure the chair is built right. They test different designs. They make adjustments. They test again. They come up with a solid design that meets both the company’s goals and people’s desires. The chair goes into production. It sells well. Everyone is now rich.

The people at the chair shop across the street also make a chair. They select adequate materials and make a seat, some legs, a back. This is definitely a chair! Then they hire a designer and say, “Make this a comfortable chair!” The designer adds a sad little foam rubber seat cushion. The chair bombs. Everyone dies of dysentery. 

(M. Monteiro, You Are My Favourite Client, New York 2014)


STEP THREE: The rule of three

Back in my heyday at university, while I was studying anthropology of culture, in all the sources I knew three was the number to which the meaning “all” was given. It is The Triad, the beginning, a middle and the end. The meaning of three is quite universal and visible in almost all religious systems (tripartite construction of the Universe: heaven /above/, earth /in the middle/ and some sort of underground). Same with a human constructed out of body, soul and mind. Want some more examples? No? Let me ignore you by mentioning only well-known patterns from the fairy-tales and myths. Three sisters, three trials, three little pigs… the rule of three is all over fairy tales and folklore originating from various regions. I will explain to you why another time. For now, just remember that three is your new number one.

So how to incorporate The Rule of Three into your design presentation? It depends what you’re designing. When I’m working on a new branding identity – I will present:

  • a first solution that will be a perfect answer to a Client’s brief
  • a second solution that will push concept a little bit further; explore some unexpected areas
  • third solution: completely unanticipated and the most adventurous option that tackles the problem from a completely different angle

If that approach is impossible or unnecessary I will simply present 3 aesthetically different concepts.

However, here at Grypp, I use The Rule of Three in a third way:

Phase 1: Based on cooperation with a Client, research and your craftsmanship build a Design Proposal. Very important document with the wireframe and look and feel of the system.

Phase 2: Unleash developers. Build Alpha version of the system. Get an opinion from the Experts. Present Alpha to the Client along with the Expert’s suggestions.

Phase 3: Incorporate relevant Expert’s suggestions and Client’s feedback. Release Beta version of the system.

💩 BULL**IT 💩 to avoid:

Don’t let people mess with the process. Don’t implement costly improvements before you present Alpha to the Client. Don’t fight with the Client – incorporate them into every step of this process. Even though sometimes you really should fire… the Client, but in 95% of cases, all the problems come from a lack of information and cooperation.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST: Humanity over talent. Every time.

No matter how good process you have, at the end of the day, somebody needs to roll up their sleeves, follow that process and make all the stuff happen. Sometimes things will go bad. Sometimes you will be working until the very last moment with a huge risk of failure. In such moments you will appreciate one more piece of this puzzle – your team.

As Thomas Kail (successful and good looking American film and theatre director) said: Humanity over talent. Every time! I don’t want to be around a negative energy. This thing that we’re trying to accomplish is already hard enough so I really need to protect the room. It is my decision, who is going into that room and they rely on me that I’m going to build a team with some sort of relationship and connection. So I don’t want to be around people that are not kind and thoughtful.

💩 BULL**IT 💩 to avoid:

Be careful who you’re hiring because the success of your project relies heavily on those individuals. Find problem solvers – instead of troublemakers.


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