Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

What’s Your Suggestion?

Things I Learned the Hard WayIn this series, I’m exploring some of the stories I find myself coming back to for reminders. I call them Things I Learned the Hard Way.

At heart, I’m a designer, and designers care passionately about making sure the details are right. If you spent any time in an art-related education, you’ve experienced critique sessions. For the uninitiated, a critique is when you put your hard work on a wall in front of your teacher and peers, and they all rip the living shit out of it.

Critique sessions are rarely about suggesting solutions. In fact, to suggest alternatives would be insulting. It’d be like someone telling Picasso to make all those brush strokes blend in more. Sure, it happens, but it’s not the point. A lot of the criticism in these sessions boils down to “this isn’t working for me. Push harder.”

That’s why most designers make awful team members. It’s why, when the biz dev guy says “this is how our startup is going to make money,” our first inclination is to tear down the idea. We’re in critique mode and that’s just what you do.

If your organization is comprised of people with exceptionally thick skins, this can lead to great products. But most teams are not, and it leads to hurt feelings or worse. In many cases, the designer is seen as a negative blocker, and excluded from the decision making process (which, of course, leads to alienation and attrition).

What team members have to know is that this is just how designers think. We come up with a million ideas, and our work is a constant stream of “no that’s crap” self-messages and iteration, which leads to, hopefully, a better design.

But what designers need to understand is that nobody likes a negative blocker, and when we attack an idea, it feels personal to the guy with the idea, and invariably leads to us being left out, which is that last thing we want.

Fortunately the solution is simple: just force yourself to come up with an alternate solution.

I really learned this when I was working as a Creative Director at Technorati. The then-CEO and founder David Sifry had a great way of redirecting complaint with one simple question: “So what’s your suggestion?”

It’s fine to list all the ways an idea is bad. But you have to immediately follow it with a suggestion. For example: “I agree that we need to make money, but I’m concerned that the current proposal of implanting chips in all our users brains will be difficult to implement and lead to widespread privacy concerns. So I suggest that we instead simplify our user experience here and here which will lead to the same result without the risks.”

Then the conversation can continue on the merits of the ideas. By having two solutions on the table, it encourages others to toss in their proposals. Before you know it, you’re working with many ideas, and the winner may be some combination of the best. Vetting competing proposals is always easier than fighting just to prove something’s bad.

It’s also become a great mental exercise. When I’m tempted to write that piss-all-over-it email, I think to myself, “so what’s the solution I want to see?” If I can’t come up with one, I won’t send the email. Better to be quiet and see how things progress than to be the negative blocker guy.

(Aside to any of my former coworkers reading this: Yes, I know I’m absolutely guilty being the negative blocker guy. Sometimes the best way to learn a lesson is to do the wrong thing long enough to figure out why it doesn’t work. A guy can learn, right?)


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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.