Design Is Not An Investment: An Interview With Mike Monteiro

Mike Monteiro is the co-founder and design director of Mule Design, a studio whose clients include ProPublica, All Things D, and Mint.com.  He’s also the co-host of the popular podcast Let’s Make Mistakes and author of the books Design Is a Job and, just recently, You’re My Favorite Client.  We took a few moments to chat with Mike ahead of his presentation at AEA Orlando: Special Edition about his new book, who he looks to for inspiration, and the importance of watching The Wire.

What’s been happening recently at Mule Design?

Making stuff. Paying bills. We just recently finished up a couple of big projects for the National Audubon Society. They were fantastic to work with. Currently working with the San Francisco Opera. Good union people.

And we always have room for more. Hire us.

Congratulations on your new book! Between “You’re My Favorite Client” and “Design is a Job,” you’ve now addressed both ends of the service relationship. What prompted the new book?

Great question, Eric. When I wrote Design Is a Job, I wanted to address the problems in our own house. I’m a designer. I’ve spent the majority of my life being a designer and dealing with other designers. And I’ve learned a fair amount in that time. Mostly by making mistakes and then learning not to make them again. And I wrote the first book with the hope that I could keep designers from making a lot of the mistakes I’d made early in my career.

And then I found out that designers were handing it to their clients. Not all of them, but enough. Clients already have a job to do — they need to be clients. They’re the expert in the thing they do. Which is absolutely critical to the process. They don’t need to be educated about design. They hired a pro to do that. And here we were handing them a book about how to do our job. This is like when you jump in a cab, tell the cabbie where you want to go, and the cabbie asks “How would you like to get there?”

So I wrote the second book to empower clients. To help them navigate the process, which is a total mystery to the very people who pay for it. Their role in that process is critical. And the book pulls the curtain back on that. It tells them how to know they’re working with a good designer. How to make sure that designer is doing their job. How to hold that designer accountable. And what their role is as a client. Because when the designer asks “How would you like me to get there?” The best answer is “I’m paying you to figure that out. Do your job.”

One line in the book that really stuck with me—okay, there were lots, but this one really stuck—was: “Let’s dispel the stupid myth of design as investment.” It’s not?  And aren’t investments good?

Yes, investments are great. They’re also not necessary. When I think of investments I think of stocks, artwork, original Star Wars figures mint in box. Stuff that’s nice to have, and that you hope increases in value someday. Design is core. It’s not a nice-to-have. It’s plumbing. It’s foundation. You don’t invest in design. You can’t exist without it. A website without design isn’t a house without art, it’s a house without a bathroom.

Design is how things work. And good design is how things work well. A well-designed site, or app, or product, is going to stand a better chance in a crowded marketplace than one that isn’t. Because good design is about making something’s value more apparent.

Can you design well and still fail? Absolutely. But good design reduces your risk of failure. And that’s a business bet that I’ll take every time. You’ll make more money from good design than you’ll spend on it.

Another line that caught my eye was that everyone in business should watch The Wire.  Why?

Because The Wire is about the well-meaning individual’s quixotic fight against the corrupt establishment. And how corrupt establishments end up swallowing up those well-meaning people. Which, if you’ve ever talked to someone right as they start a job—so full of hope and wonder—and then six months into a job—defeated, ground-down—is just depressing as hell.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give all design students, to get them ready for the world of client services?

Two things. And I don’t know if I’d say either of them are secrets.

First off, the work does not sell itself. Never has, never will. I’ve seen a lot of great work thrown in the dumpster because the designer could not explain to a client how that work solved their business problem. Knowing how to sell work to a client is a core design skill. It’s not taught in school, which is criminal. As a guy running a design shop, a designer who can sell pretty-good work is infinitely more valuable to me than a designer who can’t sell great work.

Secondly, the client is just as afraid as you are. They’ve fought for the budget to hire you. Their job is on the line. And their business might go under if this project goes badly. So have some empathy for them. And never miss an opportunity to show them that they’re in good hands with you. Be confident in what you’re doing. Take charge. Behave like the expert they hired. They actually need to see that to be put at ease.

Who do you look to for inspiration, guidance, or out of just plain admiration?

Oh man. So many people. My employees. My clients. (Clients actually believe in design!) Other people who are out there in the field doing this every day, many of them here at AEA. This thing we do is filled with generous people who help each other out and share what they know with each other that it’s making me tear up a little bit.

And most definitely designers past and current. I wouldn’t have become a designer without the inspiration of Tibor Kalman, Victor Papanek, Massimo Vignelli, Paula Scher, Rudy and Suzanna at Emigré, Eric Spiekermann, the Eames, Dieter Rams. We have to know our history, man. Designers have existed on this world since we climbed down from trees and needed a place to sleep. There’s a lot to be learned from the people who preceded us, and we have an awesome responsibility to keep that lineage strong for those who come after us.

You’re presenting “How Designers Destroyed the World” at An Event Apart Orlando.  What will attendees take away from it?

Hopefully, a better sense of the responsibility they have as designers, as well as our power in the world. I’ll make you feel bad, and then I’ll make you feel great. You’ll love design more than you ever have before. Come see it.

Thanks, Mike!

Mike Monteiro will present “How Designers Destroyed the World” as part of An Event Apart Orlando: Special Edition, to be held at Disney’s Contemporary Resort October 27–29, 2014.  Don’t miss your chance to see this and seventeen other incredible sessions—register today!