Mike Monteiro wants designers to toughen up

Christopher Donnelly


Mike Monteiro rocking a pretty spectacular cowboy shirt.


Tech conferences can be hyper-positive affairs, characterised by breathless talks extolling the limitless virtues of both design and designers. It was refreshing then to hear Mike Monteiro, designer with Mule design studio in San Francisco, speak at the recent IXD Awards there.

Part of Mike’s appeal as a speaker is his style: he bellows at his audience, launching caustic remarks into the rows of seats to universal guffaws. But it wasn’t all style with no substance at IXDA – his main point was both practical and crucial: part of the job of a designer is knowing how to sell your work. It was also a ‘negative’ talk. Mike wanted to tell designers what they were doing wrong.

Mike’s opening gambit was deceptively simple: good design is not self-evident. A key part of the designer’s role is to be able to show the client in detail how their design answers, in fact excels, the brief.

What Mike is getting at is the need for designers to have a strong sense of their skill-set as a service that is worth paying for. Some might argue that a sense of self-worth is not something many designers lack; but, working in an industry whose product is, superficially at least, intangible means that moments of self-doubt come with the territory. Perhaps, they are even more frequent than we think.

Mike Good-Cop-Bad-Cops his audience. He berates them first, tells them what they’re doing wrong, but then softens and lets them know it was all for their own good, that he loves them dearly, understands them unreservedly, and wants to help them be better people. To prove this, he offers up his list of the thirteen top mistakes designers make during presentations, each point presented like a little gift. It is a handy run-down of how not to screw-up a presentation. More generally, it is also a guide to how to be a better, more conscientious, and more methodical designer.

I’ve summarised the points here for you, on Mike’s behalf. Though there are thirteen, they cluster around three main points: own the room; speak your client’s language; and, believe yourself to be the expert they hired.

  1. You’re not there to be the client’s friend.
    You’re there to solve their problem and help them achieve their goal, not make them happy. Trying to be their friend prevents you from seeing.
  2. Not getting off your ass.
    Literally. Mike advises owning the room with your body language, as much as with what you say. You should try to inspire confidence – not for your benefit.
  3. Starting with an apology.
    This does not inspire confidence. Even if you haven’t done the right amount of work for the presentation, you’ve always done the right amount of work once you walk through the door.
  4. Not setting the stage properly.
    Setting parameters at the outset – this means letting your audience know where the work is and what you want to achieve in the meeting – which, more importantly, implies letting them know at what point they’ll be able to leave.
  5. Giving the real estate tour.
    Running through each piece of functionality you’ve designed as though it were a list. Instead, this is where you show the client the rationale for your design, in words that apply to their business.
  6. Taking notes.
    The second quickest way to lose people’s attention. You’re putting on a show for your listeners. Have someone else take notes.
  7. Reading a script.
    The quickest way to lose attention. Enough said.
  8. Getting defensive.
    Learn to differentiate between defending the work and getting defensive. You are not your work and your work is not you. As Mike so succinctly puts it, good people do bad work sometimes.
  9. Mentioning typefaces.
    Speak the client’s language. They don’t care about typefaces. Talking about things they don’t know about will make them feel uncomfortable.
  10. Talking about how hard you worked.
    The work should look effortless. You don’t want to undermine the skill that requires by explaining in detail just how difficult it was to achieve.
  11. Reacting to questions as change requests.
    Just answer the question. Don’t offer to make it
  12. Not guiding the feedback loop.
    Don’t ask open-ended questions – tell the client what type of feedback you need from them. That is part of the designer’s job. Ask specific questions on things they’re experts in. This will make them feel more comfortable.
  13. Asking ‘do you like it?’
    The million dollar clanger. Asking this question means immediate loss of credibility as an expert. It is inviting subjectivity into the room – and that’s kryptonite to a design presentation.