A solid question came across the desk at Dear Design Student this week that brought back a few unpleasant memories: “How do you deal with decision makers not being present in the design presentation?”
Dear Lord in Heaven. I’ve been through the absent decision maker situation one too many times to know nothing good comes of it, and I’ve got the scars to prove it. I’ll share a few thoughts based on two decades worth of lessons learned the hard way.
Alright, so here’s what happens when the decision maker is not present for a design review. They will either send someone in their place to take notes so said someone can represent the design later or ask for the Keynote deck that the decision maker will use to provide feedback in a complete vacuum. And nothing good will come from this. The intent of the decision-maker is to do what they can to keep the project moving forward for the sake of forward movement, but the likelihood is that this intention will lead to category five failure (Especially when the assistant is sent to take notes so they can “present” your design work later. When that happens, take a hostage. Take two. Pull the fire alarm on your way out to the car. Drive towards the border, any border. And when the US Marshals ask what in the hell you were thinking, you can say, “You wouldn’t hire a designer to hang drywall, so why in the hell would you send a secretary to present design?”Remember to duck your head as they put you in the back seat.).
If the decision maker cannot attend a design presentation, then do everything in your power to prevent that meeting from happening. Cancel immediately and ask the client/stakeholders to reschedule as soon as possible. Go into hiding if you have to, to avoid the original meeting.
Having said that, we can’t always just up and disappear to force a meeting with decision makers. The sad reality is that if you go dark, the decision maker will follow suit and blame you for it later after the project is on life support. The next step may be uncomfortable to you, but it’s necessary.
Contact the decision maker directly. Do not post a passive aggressive note to Basecamp in an attempt to shame them into rescheduling. Be professional!Put your empathy hat on and start with an email. For example:
I canceled our design presentation once I learned that you are unable to attend. For the project to move forward successfully, I need to present the design direction, get your feedback, and review next steps with you.
I understand you are very busy, and I’m willing and able to meet you when and wherever is more convenient to your schedule. Please reply with a time and place or call me directly so we can schedule a meeting.
Approximately one hour after sending the email, take out your phone and use the Phone app to call the decision maker. Leave a voice mail message if they do not answer the call. Repeat this step as often as necessary, but be mindful of the balance between being a nag and a good project partner.
If you still have not found a way to reschedule, then it’s time to consider other options that should only be used as a matter of last resort.
Chase Them Down, Chase Them Down to Chinatown
Offer to meet the client/stakeholder when and wherever so that you can present your work in person and have a meaningful, productive conversation. You may be surprised by how willing and thankful they are for the gesture, and buckle up because you might be in for a surreal experience.
True story: I once met a client in a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD — think text-based World of Warcraft) because he was not able to talk to me on the phone. I don’t recall why, but I think it had to do with his discomfort in having to talk to humans. After I had logged in, my character was transported to a chamber, and thank God for that, because otherwise I would have had to enter directions like “go north, go west, go north, go north, go east…” you get the idea. While we chatted about the design, he responded with in-game emotes (e.g., “Wizard waves hello” or “Wizard nods in approval”). Unorthodox doesn’t even begin to describe that situation, but we had a productive conversation, cleared up a lot of ambiguity, and kept the project on track. Then I logged out, pushed away from the computer, and took a long drive to consider what in the actual fuck just happened.
Years later, I had a project that was about to go thermonuclear. Our client disappeared off the radar, galavanting around the Western United States in full OCD-style trying to save the planet ten eco-projects at a time. Since none of his employees could reign him in, they asked if I would be willing to fly to an area he was currently saving. Two days later I found myself in Reno, Nevada camped out in a late 70’s swanky room at the Golden Nugget Casino (it was nautically themed, overlooked the Interstate, and featured a large, classy painting of a clipper ship fighting against rough seas). Eight hours later, I got the call that his jet landed, and he would meet me at a private board room in thirty minutes. We met, discussed the work, and got the approval we needed. When I got into the cab, the driver asked if I wanted to go to the strip club, mall, or airport because those were the most popular destinations—in that order. Thankfully, I made my flight.
It’s not every day that a client will fly you to a D-class casino where everyone who walks through the door gets one free game of keno. You must be prepared to do what it takes to avoid the white-hot-category-five-mess that is the third party design presentation.
Help the Blind Lead the Blind
First, let’s be honest with each other. Let us have a tender moment. This is going to happen! And it will hurt, but you will survive, and work through the pain just as thousands of designers have done before you. You will not receive a badge of honor, but you might get a good story out of the experience.
So. The decision maker is a no-show and in her place is someone sitting awkwardly, possibly someone you’ve never met before, and he’s there to take detailed notes. This proxy’s job is to guide the decision maker, at a later time and date, through a review of your design work in a vacuum.
Hopefully, you have prepared a script. Having a script with prepared questions will help guide your presentation, shape the agenda, and provide the right context and constraints for a response. This needs to be in the form of a physical document — do not rely on anyone’s note taking ability.Consider even recording a video if you want to control the presentation, but don’t forget the questions: Why you are presenting design, who needs to respond to the work, what type of response you need (spell out your expectations as if you were talking to a five-year-old, leave nothing up to interpretation, and provide rationale as to why you need that type of feedback), and how the decision maker’s response will impact the project.
With this in hand, it’s possible for the decision maker to listen, review, and provide their feedback without any outside interference. Sure, this isn’t as good as presenting to them in person, but it’s sure of a hell a lot better than leaving your good work in the hands of a third party. I was born with a lot of empathy, and I feel for the assistants of the world, but I’ve also been a victim of their incompetence, unwillingness, personal opinions, or worse, politics. Nothing is worse than a third party using your work for political gain. There is a special place in hell for these people filled with paper cuts, 404 pages, and non-stop Nyan Cat, The Cursed Pit Lord of Hell’s Rainbow Room.
Carry On My Wayward Designer
Like sands through the hourglass, so are design presentations without decision makers. In all situations, it’s important to channel empathy for everyone involved. I’ve never had a decision maker bail on a presentation because they thought it was worthless. In fact, that’s why they tried to send someone in their place, in an attempt to try and keep the project going, but not everyone understands how and why this can be a negative against the health of the project. Finding a way to make this work may require a lot of effort, but there’ll be peace when you are done.
Decision makers are likely very busy and overbooked so get creative and offer alternative ways to meet them where it’s convenient. Clients, stakeholders, and decision makers are always (well, mostly) appreciative when you work with their schedule. Then you can go home and, knowing you did what it took to get the job done, lay your weary head to rest.
When all else fails, and your work will be presented without you, do all that you can to prepare for a review without you. If you did things right, then you’re in good shape to prepare a third-party to walk through the design and follow up with the right questions. Always provide the proper context and constraints for the presentation and don’t you cry no more.
A design presentation without a decision maker in attendance sucks, but there are worse hells to suffer on this planet.