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Why designers need to understand basic business concepts

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

When you’re a web designer, you really need to understand some basic business concepts. That’s not just for freelancers, either – agency and in-house designers need to have a solid grasp of business. Here’s why:

Businesses are your bread and butter. They’re what give you a job. They keep you (or your company) in business.

While there are some folks out there who’ll hire a web designer so they can have a nice web presence “just because,” the vast, vast, vast majority of your design clients are going to be connected somehow to a business (or at the very least, a business-like entity – one with goals and viability issues and things like that). Very few websites exist in the vacuum of “just because,” without a specific purpose or end result in mind.

So, you need to understand what businesses are actually looking for when they tell you they want a new website. And to do that, you need to understand some basic business concepts.

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The great news is, if you’ve been doing this for any length of time – and you’ve been paying attention to the why and the what of your web designs along the way – you’ve probably got a solid grasp as it is.

Business mind vs. designer mind

Businesses, whether they’re side-gig solopreneurships or global mega-corps, have one goal: profitability. Everything is evaluated based on what it will cost and what it will provide in return. There are lots of numbers in business – data, projections, estimates, etc.

Web design, on the other hand, is an art. It’s an art that does a real job in the real world and will have to stand up against real metrics, but it’s still an art.

Some of your business clients will know what to do with the not-so-concrete nature of web design, and may even come to you with some good ideas. Others…won’t. They’ll just know they need a site, and they want it to be awesome, and it has to bring them money. (They might not come out and say “it has to make us money,” but that’s what they’re after.)

It can be tough to get outside the construct of data, ROI, and results. Your job as the designer is to get them out of the construct, or at the very least translate what they’re saying from their business viewpoint into directives you can work with.

And to do that, you need to understand business concepts.

Why understanding business concepts is good for your (client’s) business

As a service professional, you have a responsibility to your client to understand what they need, even when they don’t necessarily understand it themselves. The best way to fulfill that responsibility is to have a good sense of their priorities, objectives, vantage point, and even language that they use.

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Business clients are very goal-oriented. When you can understand the goals of their business – the specific goals and the overarching goal of profitability – you’ll have a better sense of their priorities. This makes it much easier for you to figure out what they need and then deliver it to them.

By speaking the client’s language (instead of trying to get them to speak yours), you bridge the gap. To be frank, it’s probably easier for you to brush up on business basics than to get a client to tap into the creative side of design. We often forget this as creative professionals, but it’s hard to understand creative work if you don’t do it. It’s especially hard to understand things like web design in particular because it’s all digital and it’s all internet-oriented (making it intangible and mysterious…two things data-driven business folks have a hard time dealing with).

How to use “business jargon” to your advantage

As a service professional, one of your primary tasks is to set expectations for the client. This means milestones and delivery dates, turnaround times, and even some of the expected performance or other results of the new site design.

Once you understand that every business client is evaluating your work according to their sense of ROI, you’ll be able to manage expectations with a lot more ease. Every time you interact with this client, it’ll be a “ding” in their ROI-meter if they don’t have well-defined expectations. But if they know, up front, what working with you will be like, every interaction and deliverable that falls within that set of expectations will confirm their sense of positive ROI. This means your onboarding is critical!

And speaking of onboarding, the other thing you really need to explore is what’s called the “marketing mix” – there are four Ps in the marketing mix (product, place, price, and promotion) and you need to know how your client’s products or services fit within the matrix. It’s highly likely that the business has a deep knowledge of what customer needs their product meets, where they’re buying it, what the value and price points are, and how it’s being promoted.

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When you have a good sense of the client’s four Ps, you’ll be able to extrapolate the business objectives tied to the design you’re working on. Is it their main publicity tool? Is it primarily for lead generation? Does it need to tie into existing branding, maybe for a physical space? What are the target market demographics?

These are the types of questions that any business-oriented web designer should be asking as part of the intake process. But when you know how to ask the right questions, using the right language, you’ll be golden.

Then, working with the information from their marketing mix plus their business objectives in mind, you’ll be able to deliver the site they want and need. This will then (you guessed it) maximize their ROI…making them very, very happy.

What’s been your biggest challenge working with business clients? Sound off in the comments!

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