Marketers often find themselves making decisions related to design concepts. Here are four strategies to make the most of the process.

By Jeremy Alexis
Marketers and brand managers often find themselves responsible for giving feedback on, and making decisions related to, design concepts. But these skills are not usually taught in business school or as part of typical corporate training. And, most traditional ROI decision-making metrics are difficult to apply when guiding early-stage design concepts.
However, there are a few simple strategies that marketers can use to ensure they are getting the most from their design team and making informed design decisions.

“They just didn't get it…”

The few minutes following a review of design concepts are often chaotic. The meeting was supposed to follow a simple agenda-the designer would present a set of concepts; the marketing team would give feedback and select an option moving forward.
But in reality, after more than an hour of presentation and some feedback, the group has not reached a clear decision. The scene often resembles the following: the meeting has ended 10 minutes late, so the marketing team is rushing to another meeting, trying to clarify next steps for the project while checking e-mail and returning missed calls. The design team is scrambling to collect their boards and notes and clean the room. (Meanwhile the group that has the room next hovers near the door looking impatient and angry…)
If you were to ask each group (the designers and the marketers) to summarize the outcome of the meeting, you might hear: “They just didn’t get it….” The designers would say that the marketers failed to understand the approach they took and did not provide constructive feedback on the concepts. The marketers would say that the designers did not translate the strategy into tangible concepts, and did not seem to understand the business issues.
The marketing team is forced to make a decision based on which concept seems to be the “least bad” since there was not enough time for feedback and iteration. And, each side’s view of the other (at best incomplete, at worst negative) is only reinforced.

Failure modes of design decision-making

To avoid this situation, it is helpful to first identify the common failures of design concept review meetings. Understanding these can help both designers and marketers avoid the common traps of review meetings.
  • The marketer: “I need to say something negative”. For example, the design team from a large beverage manufacturer would tell new hires that they should expect the marketing team to start each meeting by identifying the three things that are wrong with the current round of concepts. The new hires were coached to sit and listen, but not take the criticism too harshly since “that marketer will be moving to a different brand within the next year anyway”. Due to the contentious environment, there was little collaboration between the groups, and the team acknowledged they were not doing their best work.


  • The designer: “The brief was too generic”. The design team at a large point-of-purchase manufacturer jokes that design briefs are “shelf-ware”. The design team is very experienced; they have been in the industry often two to three times longer than the marketing team responsible for preparing the brief. So, they rely on their experience instead of the brief. “We don’t read the briefs, but I have so much experience in this industry that when I deliver concepts, the marketing team thinks I have memorized their strategy…”

  • The marketer: “All presentation, no time for decisions”.  A large CPG company’s packaging design team has a habit of scheduling 90-minute decision-making meetings, and then taking almost 80 minutes to get through their concepts. The marketing team is uncomfortable asking them to rush, leaving virtually no time for interdisciplinary discussion. Follow up is through e-mail and voicemail, and the design team is often delayed in starting revisions as they wait for the marketing team to reconvene.

Four strategies for improving design decision-making

These failures have been observed at both agencies and large companies. As noted, they lead to inefficiencies and a lack of trust between the design team and the marketing team. There are, however, a small set of strategies that can help the marketing team improve overall decision quality when selecting and refining design concepts.
  • Have a clear point of view. Design briefs often suffer from having numerous insights but no insight. Strategy is often messy, and needs to include multiple points of view and numerous design principles. Unfortunately, this often leads to briefs that do not have a single, driving insight or framework for making compromises. Instead, great design projects are often grounded by one single, powerful insight about the customer need or the product function. When preparing a brief you can include other elements in the brief to ensure that the larger enterprise is satisfied with the strategy, but to activate the design team, provide one driving insight for the project (this can be the point of view).

  • Organize the decision. Recent research on decision-making suggests that simply being organized can improve overall decision quality. Organization is especially important during the concept review meetings. Best practices include asking the designers to use a common template when presenting (for example, using a simple value proposition statement for each concept), offering feedback templates for the marketers to use (see “a framework for design decisions” below), and having a shared evaluation tool (a visual, collaborative way to prioritize and score ideas). Finally, it is important to divide the meeting into three distinct sections: concept presentation, critique and debate, and decision-making/evaluation.

  • Collect some data. Design decisions are often made through subjective analysis, e.g. “how well do I think this concept satisfies the brief”. All marketers know the importance of focus groups and interviews, but often do not include this type of data collection in the design decision process due to concerns about sample size, resource constraints and confidentiality. This leads to the making of multi-million-dollar decisions without any external data. But, experience has shown that you do not need to do a ton of research in order to reduce the uncertainty of big decisions. It is possible to do five short interviews with customers or experts to get initial feedback on concepts before they are evaluated in the meeting. This way, you do not need to guess if the customer will think the new package is “premium”.

  • Make the process transparent and solicitous. Leaders often need to make decisions that are not aligned with every stakeholder in the room. This is the nature of design work-if you design for everyone you design for no one. It is important, however, to know that how you make the decision often influences the level of commitment and work quality on future projects. Leaders that make the decision process transparent (clear criteria and process for how the decision will be made) and solicitous (allow everyone to voice their opinion, show how all approaches influenced the decision, even if they were not part of the final decision) can count on teams working hard for them in the future. Leaders that practice the opposite (internal, hidden process and no query of input) end up with mediocre work and designers that leave at 5pm.

A culture of critique

Although adopting these four strategies will help organize and improve decision-making, it is still important to recognize that designers will continue to work and think differently than marketers. Their approach is solidified in design school through project-based learning and critique. Marketers may find it helpful to adopt some of the positive behaviors seen in design critiques in order to provide usable, valuable feedback to design teams. Although you will not be speaking their exact language, you will at least be playing by similar rules and providing guidance they can process and use.
There are two elements to a good critique. First, all criticism and feedback should be related to a pre-defined and agreed on set of criteria. Second, the critic should provide at least two clear, tangible (and achievable) things the designer can do in order to improve their work.
Each brief will likely have its own set of criteria. However, the follow set of generic criteria has proven useful for most projects:
  • Relevance to stakeholder: how relevant is this design concept to our customers and users? Is this solving frequent and critical needs? Are people willing to spend time and money solving for these needs?
  • Uniqueness: how distinctive is this concept? Are there numerous similar ideas, or is this truly novel and different?
  • Alignment with strategy: does this concept solve for high priority business needs? Does this concept address issues the organization is trying to solve?
  • Willingness to pursue: is the company willing to pursue this idea? Will internal staff be willing to work towards implementation of the concept?

“So that is what they meant….”

Improved design decision-making is the result of many small strategies, not the elusive, single “big fix”. It is the result of an improved process (decision organization), leadership (transparency/solicitation and critique), and analysis (data collection and point of view). BP

Jeremy Alexis is an assistant professor and an assistant dean at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. Jeremy has spent the majority of his professional career leading interdisciplinary teams tasked with defining next generation products, services and business models. He has worked with clients such as Unilever, Motorola, Citibank, Pfizer, American Express, Target Corporation and Zebra Technologies.