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Leading Design Through Active Listening and Contextual Translations

As Graphic Designers, we are often the first bridge between a project’s concepts and its earliest visual assets, and because of this, we must be completely mindful of our client’s goals. The easily overlooked second point is that understanding the capabilities of our own team — and how this translates into time, effort, and resources — is just as essential.

Of course, getting used to this only comes through time and experience itself, but there is one key skill we can cultivate to ensure we’re all on the same page: Active Listening helps us understand what others are thinking, not as words forming sentences, but as concepts building ideas. We can then translate these for everyone involved in the process; the white space you just described to your client is best understood by your team’s Frontend Developer as a 250px padding on top of a new section and as a consistent breathing space for QA to keep an eye on every new page of the App.

That’s where Contextual Translating comes in. Translation entails not only knowing multiple languages but also understanding multiple contexts. This is why learning a thing or two about HTML, CSS, and other coding languages is always a bonus for designers: experience in various environments is key to fully understanding the meaning of what’s being said and implementing the correct translation.

It may appear simple as all you have to do is learn and listen. In practice, it gets tough because you might have to deal with multiple translations at once, and you can end up thinking of solutions midway through instead of actually paying attention to what is being said — but don’t fret! That’s part of learning. Knowing when you’re slipping is one of the steps towards improving your Active Listening skill, too.

Here are a few more tips to get there:

Get a coffee with a friend — then actually listen to them while drinking it.

Talk about any topic with your friend, then make a brief explanation of what they just said using your own words, trying to match their ideas. It doesn’t matter whether you have it right or wrong; what’s important is that you practice listening and rewording, which you’re going to be doing a lot in this scenario.

Talk design to people who don’t do design.

Find ways to describe common design concepts without using niche-based words, such as typography, image ratio, or even pixels. Your average client may not be aware of what these words mean, so you must describe them in a way that they can understand — that, without misleading them. A common example happens when discussing the “size” of an image: you may be referring to its dimensions (height and width), but the receiver could be thinking about the amount of data it takes up on a hard drive (kilobytes, megabytes). In the end, they are both “sizes,” so which one are you referring to? This same idea leads to a third point…

Don’t give ambiguity a chance.

Paraphrasing is not a bad practice. In fact, it is often encouraged in many contexts to welcome expansive writing in order to explain the information being conveyed more thoroughly. (See what I did there?). Talking with clients and teammates is not one of such contexts, though, and relying on terms that are far too open to multiple interpretations can and WILL lead to inexactness, which is the first step down the dooming “redesign tunnel.” Try rehearsing what you’re going to say while paying attention to the words you’re using: is this the right way to describe what you’re trying to explain? Use Google to find meanings and synonyms, and most importantly, don’t place the entire weight of a sentence on a single term; make sure to spend some time describing and contextualizing keywords so that when you use them, there are already many hints of what these words mean, leading to an easier understanding.

Even though correct communication is a crucial component of efficient design, you’d be surprised at how often we struggle to consciously incorporate these fundamentals into our work. These tips act as small shortcuts we can easily keep in mind to ensure we convey the correct message, but there are numerous books out there that explain these and many more concepts in greater detail. There’s no reason not to learn about communication; it’s one of those all-around, super-effective skills that everyone should hone, regardless of their occupation.

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