On Confidence in Design

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We really need to talk about your insecurities, pandering and committee decisions.

Confidence is the manifestation of agency. The lack of confidence kills design. It kills all art. Because art requires us to suspend disbelief and explore a new narratives—to be open to surprise and completely novel possibilities. If we sense any lack of confidence, we doubt the destination and we can’t give the journey what it requires: the trust to continue. One can fail at much in design and still succeed, but fail to provide solid confidence and nothing else matters. You can’t simply yell at a design team to simply do things more confidently. But there is a solution that is just as much fun.

Corporate art and design suffers most commonly from lack of confidence, as mundane commercial and petty political purposes compete with a more true aim. Or more to the point, if the aim is just money, we are reluctant to invest our imagination in such a predictable trek. Sure, there’s lots of bad art that lacks purpose and should be ignored. But then, it usually is ignored, and we aren’t exposed to it en masse. Commercial projects get massive audiences – not by earning it, but by sheer force and blunt repetition.

All good design, art and story is a journey. It’s never a simple static snapshot in time.

And this lays out a simple foundation for why confidence is such a key player in what we do. The artist or designer presents us with context and clues in a deliberate sequence – a story. Enough is left to interpretation so we can make the story our own. And enough is dictated by the artist to ensure that the story will complete fully: that it leads somewhere that is both inevitable given what we have been told, and at the same time genuinely surprising. Just inevitable is predictable. Just surprising is random and lacks meaning. Confidence is the promise to your audience of a journey worthwhile.

[Related: On Disruption and Complacency in Design Today | Storytelling & Design: On Finite Plots and Narrative Essentials]

Inevitable and surprising, at the same time.

You can’t fake confidence. Humans have evolved as social animals, and picking the right people to work and trust is key. Our ability to detect bullshit is how we got to the top of the food chain. And picking up on sincerity and confidence is how we know the experience will be worth the energy. Overconfidence of course, isn’t going to fool anyone.

Can’t a purely commercial proposition like an ad or TV commercial hold plenty confidence? It can, no doubt. But if the intent is as predictable as commerce, the intellectual reward for the audience is significantly less, and so we are not willing to invest as much of ourselves. You need art to enlist hearts. And you need confidence for art.

Being nice is not being good.

Telling a team of designers or a company to simply do things with more confidence is going to have the reverse effect. Now, it is often the case that individual designers, teams and clients have plenty of confidence to spare. The problem is how we manage that confidence and avoid strong voices working against each other. Art has a clear tendency to require a single and clear voice.

So let’s talk about what really stands in the way of design feeling fresh, sincere and with the promise of something surprising.

1. Leadership insecurities

When priority is internal politics, not the end product. Politics require careful hedging to keep options open, so all those decisions throughout the design process are constantly diluted with cowardice and anxiousness. Will the final audience ever know? Absolutely. Remember, humans are masters at detecting lack of clarity or confidence from the subtlest of clues.

2. Committee design

Yes, large scale projects have many stakeholders. But instead of letting everyone be heard as part the solution, process with multiple stakeholders should instead ask for each to own the problem that is within their role. And with that, we don’t have to broker between someone who likes red and another who feels strongly about yellow. The actual design leader then uses all the listed priority problems as suggested narrative plot-points – creative work can focus on sequencing the problems in the order best suited for great story. Nothing is standing in the way of confidence. The final story is left up to you. And there is hope for a single voice.

3. The story is no story

Your clients don’t like to talk about problems. And nice people tend to hire even nicer people that don’t like conflict. They prefer to stay focused on vague and shiny solutions that can be offered with minimum risk. But without problem or conflict, there is nothing to give your narrative a clear sense purpose and direction. Without conflict there is no story to tell.

4. Pandering

Knowing your audience by looking at them as a target demographic or through research isn’t bad in itself. But that knowledge should be used to capture problems to solve, not popular solutions. We want the journey of a story, not just the ending served up loudly. Without journey we have nothing to engage in, and nothing to invest in and make our own. If you don’t trust the audience to make the story their own, it will be assumed that you are loud and shallow to compensate. Pandering, predictability or preaching—anything formulaic—will look like insecurity on your part. No one likes anxious.

All endings need to be both inevitable and surprising.

Looking at design through a narrative lens helps define and to broker the Chinese-puzzle of seemingly competing goals and constraints into a coherent story. It will embrace problems and stay clear of the biggest pitfalls to present confidence. Nothing does this better and with more fluid grace than story. And with a good narrative foundation, the creative work can focus on choosing and sequencing real problems to build a sincere story we can’t resist.

There is no story without conflict. If there is no problem there is no reason for our hero to be brave and to swing his shiny sword. The bigger the problem, the bigger the story. But remember, that the hero is not you. It should be your audience. Trusting them with big problems shows that you trust your solution. And that, shows real confidence.

Learn more: Principles of Advertising Design