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Dan Mall Teaches

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Published 3 months ago • 7 min read

Reading time: around 6 minutes

A few years ago, a company hired my agency SuperFriendly to create a new marketing site for one of their products. Some snippets from our Statement of Work:

Key Outcomes. SuperFriendly shall design and build a new marketing site for Client with the goal of creating a relevant and attractive marketing and communications plan for Client’s Product’s business. Client agrees that it is hiring SuperFriendly as an expert with appropriate experience and ability to perform actions in a workmanlike manner.

Deliverables. SuperFriendly shall deliver the following deliverables (each a “Deliverable”) according to the work plan described in Section 6 of this SOW (the “Work Plan”):

  • Up to 3 distinct design directions
  • Up to 2 conversations with stakeholders to communicate and defend design directions
  • HTML, CSS, and JavaScript for up to 6 pages
    • SuperFriendly will test pages in the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, IE11, and Edge as of the Estimated Completion Date
    • SuperFriendly will need access to a PHP/Apache server provided by Client in order to deploy the final site

Payment Terms. Client agrees to pay SuperFriendly $32,500.00 USD (the “Fee”). Client agrees to pay the Fee in the following installments and in accordance with the schedule below:

  • $16,250.00, invoiced upon signing, due upon signing
  • $8,125.00, invoiced November 1, due December 1
  • $8,125.00, invoiced December 1, due January 1

I signed up to creative direct personally, and I hired a designer, engineer, and producer to work with me. We were off to the races!

I facilitated a few workshop sessions with the client team to understand their process and pain points, and I did interviews with a few customers to get their perspectives too. Our team brainstormed a bit, and my designer and engineer put together some of the most beautiful and coolest designs and prototypes I’ve seen to this day. We narrowed it down to our best idea that we felt solved our client’s problems most elegantly, uniquely, and creatively.

We presented our direction to the client and had a great conversation about it. At the end of the meeting, they softly hinted that they’d have loved to see another direction as a point of comparison, and I softly countered that we felt great about this concept hitting all the marks they needed it to in a new marketing site. They thanked us and promised to get back to us with consolidated feedback after discussing.

A few days later, I received their feedback over email from our main client, the VP of Design. Some snippets from the message:

First and foremost we appreciate the thoughtful exploration. We want to acknowledge that you’ve absorbed the brief and the interviews and generally everything you discussed came from a considered point of view.
In sum we think there’s a lot of possibility in the direction you presented, and it could be iterated on further, but even with iteration, it commits to a certain kind of boldness mixed with a bit of hubris. That may be the right approach, but we do see value in showing a contrast, a direction that maybe feels more inviting and still confident.
What that will do -
- Provide the proper context for evaluating the pros and cons to different approaches in voice and tone
- Give people a frame of reference to make a decision and move the project forward
- Help achieve consensus faster by inspiring the confidence that different approaches were considered
In consideration of that and the timeline, we’d like to prioritize a second distinct direction over iteration of the first one if there are trade offs to be made. Ideally we can achieve both but we understand the time frame and there may be some easy lift updates to the current direction that would make it more bullet proof.

(The rest of the message contained specific feedback about what they think worked and didn’t work about the concept we showed, the details of which I very much appreciated.)

I talked with my team and confirmed that none of us wanted to explore other directions just for the sake of it. It’d be one thing if they thought the direction was bad. But they thought the direction was good and still wanted to see something else anyway. That hinted at the fact that they didn’t exactly know what they wanted but also didn’t trust us our suggestions, which didn’t fare well for the rest of the project. We decided to stick to our guns, even knowing that it was a possibility we may get fired for it.

I replied via email. I started my reply with thanking them for their feedback, asking a few follow-up questions on some small details I needed extra clarification on, then eventually got to my main point:

We’re definitely gonna iterate on the first one. We think there’s enough great things that came out of the conversation yesterday that deserve at least another look at it.
Regarding doing another direction, I’d still prefer not to, for a few reasons. I’m speaking candidly here, so I hope you don’t take any offense at these:
1. I’m not sure we have any ideas for another direction. We really believe in the one we’re working on—“Bold! With a pinch of hubris.”—and think it’s a great vehicle for doing the jobs we intend for the site. Doing another direction would really be for the sake of it, and I don’t wanna sandbag with a direction we think is garbage. I’d totally have a different tune if there was another idea we feel strongly about that we want to explore, but that’s unfortunately not the case right now.
2. Again, no offense intended, but I’ve seen multiple options culture tend to lead to picking “the best one of the bunch,” as opposed “one that’s good.” I think that’s a slippery road to travel, and I’d prefer not to accidentally end up there.
So, that’s not to say we’re opposed to another direction. Perhaps we could use your team’s previously explored directions as points of comparison. Or, perhaps maybe some of your designers can take a crack at something new, if that’s more preferred. Totally open to that, so happy to talk through that if it’s helpful.
If neither of those are feasible for any reasons, here’s what I’d like to do: we’re gonna do a bit more audience research so we can be more confident in our approach than we have been previously. And, like you suggested yesterday: we’re gonna absolutely kill it. In our next conversation, we’ll tell you why this will work for you. And you all can decide whether or not you believe us ;)
As always, happy to get on the phone to talk through any of this if it’s easier.
Thanks friends!

He replied quickly:

I’m at an offsite so I cannot fully respond at the moment, but I have to say this is disappointing. I’m not sure we’re on the same page in terms of how we want to work together on the project. The inflexibility in terms of exploring other directions is not building confidence with the team.
This just doesn’t really cut it frankly. While we brought up several times wanting to have more than one option to explore, were open to letting you prove out a single idea and then “go from there” and make a decision if we needed to see more exploration. We’re at that point and we’re asking, rather politely, to see further exploration.
This isn’t our first rodeo. We’re all accustomed to making considered decisions based on the right criteria.
Dan, if this isn’t the way you prefer to work, that’s fine. Let’s have that discussion. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to talk till end of day tomorrow, but I’ll make time if necessary.

I took him up on the offer to chat, as I’ve learned that a phone call is a much calmer way to have these kinds of conversations most of the time. I gently doubled down on the idea that we’d only show directions we’re confident about and didn’t feel good about doing other directions for the sake of it. He was a bit taken aback, as I think he expected that I’d acquiesce on this call.

He confirmed. “Dan, are you really willing to walk over this?”

“Yep.”

“Wow. Well, I guess that means it’s the end of our project.”

I proposed that since they had paid half up front as a deposit and we were about halfway done the project, that we call it even. I’d package up our work-to-date, and they’d own all of the rights to it to do whatever they pleased. We wouldn’t owe them any more work, and they wouldn’t owe us any more money. He agreed, and I was ready to end the call and part ways.

Then he added this.

“You know, Dan… Even though I don’t think this project went the way that either of us would have wanted, I do wish more people like you worked here. I haven’t worked with many people who are willing to stand by their principles to that degree, and I think I and the company would be better for it. One day, I’d love to buy you a drink and tell you about how, in a lot of ways, this project is how we do everything here, for better or worse.”

I thanked him for the kind words and told him I’d look forward to that.

I told my team the bad news, and they handled it graciously. I paid them all in full.

A few months later, I saw that their new marketing site had launched, created by another agency. It looked exactly like their old site.

—Dan

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Dan Mall Teaches

by Dan Mall

I teach designers how to get the respect they deserve. I share tips, tricks, and tools about design systems, process, and leadership.

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