How to Break Out of Safari Mode

I recently had to think about a certain kind of trip, I have been on too many times. I bet you have been there too at one point. I am not speaking about conferences, talks or vacation. I am talking about a safari – the design safari.

What is the Safari Mode?

We tend to complain about clients that don’t know what they want. It’s the old joke: “I don’t know what I want – until I see it“. Imagine clients sitting in a jeep in the vast land and just have a look around of the many beautiful things in the wild. Things that you throw at them.

I have been sitting at my desk in the past, cranking out variations without any clue how to “strike” the ideas of clients. I could feel how I fell deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of arbitrary drafts full of compromise. Then I found myself discussing typefaces, colours and grids in a vacuum. And finally decisions were made based on taste and ideas of the client – and of their relatives. It was always deeply unsatisfactory for both parties.

Understanding the reasons.

The Safari Mode is the fallback, when there is nothing else the process is focused around. When there are no goals and structures to guide a process, the client has no other option than to judge if he likes it. But what the client likes is completely irrelevant.

Your job is not to please the client, your job is to solve a business problem. What they like or not should be out of the picture. What matters, is what their target audience likes. Does the design transport the right message? Does it differentiate them from their competition? That is what counts.

It is sad but true, the reason for the Design Safari is not the client’s lack of taste or understanding. You are responsible for it. As the professional it is your job to guide the conversation around the right objectives. You have to ask the right questions and deliver the right solutions. If you are discussing 40 shades of greens, you probably did not define the right problems in the first place!

“Your job is not to please the client, your job is to solve a business problem. What they like or not should be out of the picture.”

Adjust your process to avoid it.

To avoid trapping into the Safari Mode, you have to adjust your process to make it impossible. Sounds easy enough, right? To make this happen, there are several steps you may have to take.

Your should focus the conversation about the problem and goals from the start. After that the individual steps that need to happen come into play. You should not share your first visual ideas with them. Rather, talk to the client in his own language. Talk about their strategic goals, problems of the past and practical issues they were facing before. Later on, you treat your design decisions as arguments to prove that your thesis – the design concept – is the right solution.

To equip yourself with the right knowledge to do this, you need a dedicated timeframe for discovery and strategy definition. Some designers have a time for discovery and research scheduled. Sadly a lot of that time is often wasted by scrolling the web for “inspiration” and ideas. Starting with a deep critical analysis will help you working from a strong strategic foundation.

(Since clients sometimes do not know what they need, always remember: a briefing is only one symptom of the problems at hand.)

When your present your work, treat it like an argumentation. Start from the problem the client and you together identified. Then lead over to the strategy and steps you want to take. Define core concepts that will link the strategic and the visual. In the presentation, tie back those beacon concepts and move from the big picture to the details.

If you work and present based on a strong thought process, the client does not even have the option to answer “I don’t like it”. What he likes, is simply not part of the question anymore. What your client may say is “this does not fix the problem” or “it does not work”. If he does, hear him out! If he has reasons to question your decisions, based on the strategy you set, this is valuable feedback for you! Breaking out of the Safari Mode does not at all mean you become an infallible magician! You and your client become equal partners.

“Breaking out of the Safari Mode does not at all mean you become an infallible magician! You and your client become equal partners.”

When to work on different routes.

Breaking out of Safari Mode does not mean you should in no case work on more than one draft or concept for a client. Of course, you will have to iterate a lot by yourself to find the right solution. Towards your client, there are two instances where creating different routes makes sense.

You may reach a point in the strategic planning, where two approaches could equally well solve the problem. If at this point the decision is a business question, it is your clients’ call. It can help to make decisions more approachable by visualising them. You should not work on two or more completely executed design concepts. Rather you could start drafting them out only to the point where everything important becomes visible to make a decision.

The second instance is related to the first. Some kind of solutions need to be visualised to be explained and understood. In that case the routes and options become a part of your strategy process. You move from the strategic to the visual a lot earlier, but you keep it on a methodic level. You don’t create full blown concepts, but develop routes in sketches, mood-boards and prototypes. These prototypes are visual thinking-tools to discuss strategic goals and steps with your client. This also makes your process a lot more transparent and helps to demystify design – which is always a good thing.

I hope this helped you to put a name on a common problem in the design process. Two questions to end this:

  1. What do you think about the name Safari Mode?

  2. What is your worst design safari story?

As always, hit reply or jump to Twitter!