Why Designers Need Interfacers

Of the many things you work through as a designer, determining how to structure roles around a design function seems to be a perennial struggle. Truth be told, most structural problems occur by letting growth (adding people to the operation) happen to you. And you let it happen to you because you might misunderstand what it means. Here are three quick points to make about growth.

First, it does not necessarily mean that you'll make more money if you are a firm with more employees. In some cases, there is actually an inverse relationship between size and net profit.

Second, growing does not always mean that you'll be able to snag larger client relationships. There is some truth to this, but it's not absolute. We all know of very small shops doing great work.

Third, what growth always means is that someone's role should change, and if you are a manager, your role must change. You have suspicions in this regard because some of that change has been forced on you. You will know for sure that it's true if you examine the source of some of your frustrations: what you should be doing, how you wish people were more responsible, and what kind of accountability you long for at the studio.

In a minute we're going to look at how the role of “Designer” and “Interfacer” needs to be pulled apart and focused in different individuals, but let's paint a tad more background first.

Unique temptations of the design profession

Look back for a minute. You started your career as a designer. You even began your firm in that role, since there weren't enough bodies to require your full-time supervisory skills. All this was probably welcome to you, since you were most comfortable in the designer role. You touched the work directly; there was nothing between you and the activity of design, or between you and the client. This illustrates how design firms face some unique temptations that make this issue of structuring roles even more difficult than you would expect from firms that size.

Higher interaction level.

The level of access you are granted to your client is far higher than for nearly any other service firm your size. You are typically working with the top executive team and brand managers, and in their most critical communication channels. The other firms that serve your clients are not given that level of access. This includes the firm that leases the door mats, does the landscaping, or repairs the copy machines. The work you do is far more important, and it requires an appropriate level of interaction between your firm and your client's principals. Because of this, it is natural to expect that your personal presence will be required at the client level. It is tempting to stay too involved in client affairs. If nothing else, it is more difficult to know when to remain involved and when to delegate.

Smaller firms.

In contrast with other types of service firms, many of you run companies that are relatively small. Whether your firm has five or fifty people, that's still out of proportion with the amount of influence you have. This smaller size is an internal matter, though, in that it creates a greater temptation to be involved in the Doing (see above). After all, you know how to Do, since that was your entry into this field. This is especially true if you've hired the wrong people, since they'll need training, and in many cases it's just easier to step in and fix what went wrong rather than train someone. In the short term, anyway.

Deliverables that are less tactile.

The substance of what you offer is advice (or at least it should be). Sure, you might be doing implementation work, but whether it's bundled or unbundled with the advice you are giving, providing advice is the core of what you do. The easiest things to delegate are physical activities that can be replicated, such as building an electronic file or asking survey questions. High-level thinking is difficult to delegate because it is not tactile. Even high-level contact is difficult to delegate because any representative of your firm must be able to think on his or her feet. So, it's no wonder that designers struggle with their role, right? You've made yourself believe that you are indispensable, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when you hire the wrong people. “See, I told you they couldn't do it.” And the cycle repeats itself.

Emotional connection.

Designers want an emotional connection with a solution, demanding direct contact with the client. They don't know why, and they can't explain it rationally, but they start to quiver with fright at the mere thought of not having direct access to the client. Some seem to think it would be like Mozart composing for the King without even meeting him. They are fear irrelevance and can't get past their own control issues. In the typical firm, this translates into designers lacking the sort of skilled support staff that would otherwise be present in a consultative service industry setting. Specifically, you seldom see account service people (what I call Interfacers) in a design firm.

What clients prefer

So far, we've just talked about what you as a designer may prefer. How does the experienced client react, though, when told that they “get to work directly with the designer?” Keep in mind that we're talking about sophisticated clients who have not been unduly influenced by your promises of direct designer interaction. Obviously any change in that arrangement would alarm them, but that's just because they were attracted to your promises.

The more sophisticated client wonders several things:
First, will this designer be so close to her work that we won't be able to discuss it calmly without it becoming too personal? Will he feel like I'm criticizing him if I don't like a particular direction?

Second, will this designer be organized? Will they be buttoned up? (Let's face it: how many designers are known for this.)

Third, will my stuff get done? I like the accountability of someone else knowing the budgets and schedules. I want someone looking over this designer's shoulder.

Fourth, in my career I've worked with great designers and great Interfacers, but I've seldom seen both in the same person. So which is going to suffer?

All this points to a plea that you consider professional account people, or “Interfacers.” Interfacing is the function that connects your firm to the client. Whether they are called “account something or others” or not, the function they perform is to interface with your clients, handling communication both ways. They are a client's “account person.”

Using professional interfacers

Here are a three suggestions on how to make this work so it benefits both you and your clients:

  1. Hire someone with the appropriate personality profile. It could be someone with a strong design background who has an aptitude for customer service, or it could be someone who already has related experience in your industry. The right person will have the right personality. That is more important than their knowledge, though both are assets. We've discovered that the best Interfacers fall somewhere between the Di and Si profiles in the Indra system).
  2. Hire someone who has more experience in managing a customer than anyone else at the firm. In other words, this person should have something to teach you. This is not the time to hire a blank slate and indoctrinate them with how you think it should be done. Hire an expert out of the gate.
  3. Wherever possible, let the Interfacing role remain pure. If you combine it with finding new business, they'll eventually get busy and the new business activity will stop. If you combine it with traffic, the various skills required for those two functions will not allow them to do a good job at both.

What will happen at your firm
Well, let me state the obvious: these benefits will only accrue if you have the right person and you are committed to the process. But if you are?

First, you'll get better information from the client because the Interfacer will know how to draw it out.

Second, the project will be more organized from the start.

Third, your edgier solutions will get a better selling job back to the client.

Fourth, you'll really know what the client thinks because they won't hold back.

Fifth, prices will be higher, and scope creep will be kept in check.

Sixth, you'll grow existing accounts from the inside out.

That list is formidable enough to at least give this serious consideration, right? Remember, too, that it's not so much a plea to limit designer/client contact, but to consider a system where the designer is not primarily responsible for that relationship.

Maybe this is worth another look. I think you'll find that even your best clients will notice unprofessional interfacing long before they recognize substandard design.