A Non-Designer’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Working with Designers


Fred Perrotta

Now make it look good.

If you say this to a designer, you’ve failed. You’ve failed to maximize her strengths and probably failed to engage her in the project.

Design is not making things look good.

Design is a repeatable process for solving problems.


At Tortuga, we have two full-time designers on our team: Patrick (industrial/product design) and Garrett (graphic/web design). Previously, I’ve worked with a handful of other designers to varying degrees of success.

Many designers feel undervalued and underutilized. By learning how to work with a designer, you can vastly improve the quality of your products. The more I’ve learned about the design process, the better results we’ve had.

This post will address how entrepreneurs (and other non-designers) can work with designers to maximize results. I learned these lessons by trial and error. I hope you can learn from my mistakes and avoid making them yourself.


Define the Problem, Not the Solution

Give designers problems to solve, not solutions to implement.

Designers can help to identify problems, generate potential solutions, choose the best solution, and implement that solution. If you only involve a designer at the last stage of the process, you’re missing out on most of her value.

When you only ask a designer to work as your “hands,” she won’t be engaged in the project because she can’t own it. The more senior the designer, the more she will be frustrated by your prescribing the solution.

Before prescribing a solution, work with a designer on answering questions about the audience and their problem.

  • What business problem do you need help with? What are you trying to accomplish? Why is this problem the most important one?
  • Who is the target customer? How is he currently solving this problem? What would an ideal solution do for him?
  • What other companies are trying to solve this problem? How are they doing it? What do you know that they don’t?

Julie Zhou lists good examples of how to best phrase the question to designers in her post on working with designers.

Give Examples

Give as many examples as possible. Good and bad. Details and big picture. In your industry and in unrelated ones.

Show, don’t tell what you want. An adjective may mean something different to you than it does to the designer. Give lots of visual examples to get on the same page.

Explain why you do or don’t like the examples you’ve provided. Focus on what you love or loathe about the product or website you are showing her. The colors? The composition? The typography?

You should have an opinion about the design, but that opinion should be rooted in the needs of the customer, not your personal taste.

Examples and explanations will help you both to clarify where you are heading with the design.

Simple tools like Pinterest can be helpful at this collaborative stage.

Make a Plan

Giving examples then waiting for a finished product will be a disaster.

Write and agree to a brief before your designer gets to work. You should agree on the problem, the deliverables during the project, and the end goal. A gantt chart may help you visualize your timeline.

At Tortuga, we use Asana to manage projects. For longer-term planning, we’re testing Instagantt to build gantt charts that feed back into our Asana projects.

Discuss the results of each step in the process. Adjust as needed. Making small changes along the way is easier than making a major change at the end. Agree on every step along the way.

Driving a car is the best analogy. Even on a straight road, you have to make constant micro-adjustments to stay the course.

Making changes gets harder the further along you are. Invest more time at the start of the project. Changing a wireframe is easier than changing an image in Photoshop which is easier than changing the dev code.

Measure twice. Cut once.

Making changes earlier will get you to your end product faster and at a lower cost.

Regardless of medium, each step in the design process will be higher fidelity.

Two examples from Tortuga:

Web Design

Brief > Wireframe > Page Design > Development

Industrial Design

Brief > Sketch > Orthographic Design > Tech Pack > Pattern > Sample

During this process, remember to focus on the customer’s problem. As non-designers, we tend to give feedback based on our taste and opinions, not the customer’s needs and wants.

Design is not about you. Design is about who you’re serving.


Thank you to Patrick, Garrett, Nat, Josh, and every other designer I’ve worked with for helping me learn all of the above and for tolerating me while I did.