Ten Things Designers Can Learn By Watching Shark Tank

I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to Shark Tank. I’m fascinated by the products and services people come up with, as well as how they pitch their products and services.

On the surface, it’s just some cheesy reality television program, but if you pay closer attention to the products and services people are pitching, as well as how they pitch and negotiate, there is quite a lot designers can learn from it. It’s especially useful if you work in the consulting world, where you are regularly negotiating, presenting and pitching your work.

If you don’t already know, the premise of the show is that there are a panel of private equity investors to whom people pitch products and services in hopes of getting money. Seems pretty simple, right? Well, not so much. There truly is an art and science to pitching something successfully.

As a designer in a consultancy, these are some of the issues we tackle every day. Poorly presenting a great design can result in the client not buying into your ideas. Not having clear and concise design rationale backed by data can result in a client not trusting what you are trying to present to them. For most designers, these skills are no-brainers, but I think the intersection of business with design is an interesting topic. With that said, here are my ten take-aways from watching the show.

Develop Killer Presentation Skills

Nothing kills a great idea faster than a poor presentation. Stick to the basics. Don’t read your slides word for word. Try to form a connection with your audience. Tell a story with your presentation. Don’t expect to present a design and have the client understand it just by looking at it. You need to create a framework for each idea you are selling so that you can walk your client through the way you designed what you did in the hopes that understanding bolsters your design.

Know Your Audience

Are you presenting to a client, in a creative meeting, or to your peers? Each of these has different needs and expectations. If you are presenting to fellow creatives, there is a lot that can go unsaid, because, presumably, you share a body of knowledge so you don’t have to spell out every detail. If you are presenting to clients, make sure that when you say “conceptual model,” your audience knows what you are talking about. Also keep in mind that most clients have higher expectations in terms of what you talk about. Be prepared to speak to what your design is going to be able to do for their business.

Be Able to be Nimble, Flexible, and Think on Your Feet

This is one of the more difficult skills to master. You have a beautifully crafted presentation with all of your design rationale in place, and right in the middle of it, your client throws you a curveball. What do you do? How do you respond? The easy way out is to say, “I don’t have that answer now, but let me do some thinking and get back with you.” This is a cop out. You shouldn’t have to say this if you’ve properly prepared. As you are designing, you should also be anticipating what your client’s reactions and questions are going to be. You should also be prepared to speak to industry trends, the vertical, and what their competitors are doing and why your design is best. If a client brings in another idea that re-directs your design intention, get ready to grab a marker and go to the white board to collaborate.

Be Able to Speak at 10,000 Feet and in the Weeds

As designers, we do this every day — zooming in and zooming out. Does this design achieve the high-level business goals, the user goals, and make sense in the ecosystem? We also need to be prepared to rationalize why we decided to change the placement of a button on an app. When presenting, you need to be able to constantly zoom in and out as clients ask questions about our designs. Part of this depends on the audience as well. The needs of the CEO are going to be very different from the needs of the developer of a feature. Be ready to speak to both of those ends of the spectrum.

Be Able to Justify Your Designs with Design Rationale that is Based on Solid Research

Do this knowing that not everyone will buy into your design with all the rationale and research in the world. But never walk into a design presentation not having a solid rationale for why you made the choices you made. This helps you not only feel more confident in what you are presenting, but also helps clients better understand how a design grows from a seed to a tree. The research part of this can be tricky. It’s great if you have a bunch of primary and secondary research — this makes it very easy to back up a design. What do you do if you have no research? One place to start is a competitive or comparative analysis or trend-scraping. Even though this doesn’t back up your specific design, you can use some of this research to show clients your design is at least more innovative or user friendly than the competition. But, if you’ve done some solid discovery work, justifying your designs shouldn’t be a problem.

Be Innovative, But Not So Innovative That You Miss Your Target Audience

Every single client I’ve ever had (including internal clients) asks that a design be innovative. What does that really mean? Unfortunately, that word means different things to different people and changes based on context. This is where design synthesis is so important. Your concepts — big and small — are going to arise out of this. As a designer, you can devise probably 20 different ways to design something — from banal to out of this world. When you only present the “out of this world ideas,” clients are usually taken aback and ask for something innovative, just not that innovative. Again, this is where research can come in handy. What’s innovative in the market now? How do you imagine the next wave of whatever you are designing is going to be innovative? You need to hit the sweet spot between giving users what they expect and something that delights and surprises them. This is where knowing who your target audience is and what they want, need, and desire is paramount. Be able to speak to that when presenting your designs.

Know the Difference Between a Customer Need and a Customer Want

A need solves a problem. A want is something nice to have that provides something the customer didn’t know they wanted, but are excited to have and helps engage the customer with the brand. All customers expect what you design to fulfill all of their needs. That’s a minimum viable product. If you don’t design for this, the design won’t succeed. Where you can excel is predicting what a customer might want, based again on research and sometimes on instinct. You know when something new you design is truly something that will delight the consumer versus something that’s a nice to have, but is ultimately cruft.

Know When to Capitalize on Trends, and When Not

Designers always hate hearing things like, “I want this to be like an iPhone.” What does that really mean? Well, clients see successful products in their vertical and think the path to success is to follow the leader. Sometimes that works, but most of the time it just keeps you one step behind your competition instead of one step ahead of it. Research what’s out there now and what’s on the horizon. If you keep abreast of trends in the market, you’ll be able to discern when a trend is on the upswing and when it’s on the downswing. The goal is to create something that feels relevant not just today, but in the future as well. Just because everyone is now using infinite scrolling on websites doesn’t mean you should. It means that you need to look at that trend and see where you can riff on it so your design feels relevant and modern and not just look like you’re designing what everyone else is designing.

Passion and Excitement Sell Ideas

Most designers, by nature, are passionate about their work. Many of us aren’t so great at communicating that passion to clients. I think expressing this is a learned skill. Anyone can present a design in a very straightforward and boring way. An excellent designer can get everyone at the table interested and excited by what they are presenting. Practicing your presentation is a great way to do this. If you know your presentation without having to refer to your slides, you can expend more energy on fueling passion in the room. Get out of your chair and stand up. Don’t be afraid to write on the whiteboard as new ideas arise. If people seem bored, start asking questions and get a discussion going. Nothing is worse than an audience of people on their phones or checking email.

Learn How to Defend Your Position and Respond to Criticism in a Way that Enables You to Better Sell Your Idea.

This can be a difficult skill to master as well. You’ve done your homework. You have your design rationale, but what do you do when clients don’t buy into your rationale and have criticism? This is where you pull all of your data points out of your pocket and reiterate how your idea germinated from seed to tree. Sometimes questions and criticisms arise from a misunderstanding of the process, business and user goals, or even the design itself. If your narrative isn’t working, be prepared to present it in a different way on the fly so your client does understand what you are trying to do. Sometimes that’s all it takes to defend your position. It also helps you to better understand how your client thinks so that in the future you can design your narrative in a way you know your client will understand. Criticism is tough to take, especially if you think you’ve hit the mark with your design. Sure, some criticism is not useful. Learn to take what you need and leave the rest. Then apply the useful criticism to the next iteration of your design.

And remember, you won’t always win. As one entrepreneur who visited the Tank noted, “Only 20 to 30 percent of the deals agreed to on Shark Tank actually come together. That’s simply normal business — and it holds true for Shark Tank.”

So maybe not all reality television is bad. You can learn from and find inspiration in the most unexpected places.

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