Design: realizing the image in my head

As a designer, I’m always interested in moments that help me understand what it’s like to be a client. I’ve mentioned it before. Like when I was preparing the as-built drawings for my parents to do some renovations to my childhood home. I understood the disorientation many clients seem to have when they see their home on paper.

A recent experience has helped me gain perspective on another frustrating part of the designer/client interaction: inspiration photos, accessing the image they have in their head, and helping them to understand that image.

A big challenge for every client is describing the image they have in their head.
A big challenge for every designer is understanding the image in their client’s head.
The biggest challenge for both is accepting that no image in anyone’s head, neither the client’s nor the designer’s, is what the final design is going to be.

A lot of design students struggle with this.
“I know what it will look like. If only I could get what’s in my head down on paper!”

A lot of clients struggle with this.
“I know what I want. If only I could explain it so the designer can get it down on paper!”

Those images in your head are important clues but they are not fully realized nor directly translatable into reality. There is a process to turn them into reality. That process is design.

So, back to my own recent experience:

A friend of mine is training to become a hair stylist and was looking for guinea pigs. As a young designer myself, I completely empathize with wanting the opportunity to practice your trade but also why potential clients are hesitant until you’ve earned your stripes. But there’s also so much enthusiasm and passion when you’re starting out and that’s a big selling point for me. I connect with someone who really wants to do a great job over someone who really knows how to do a great job. (Ideally you find both).

I agreed to be a test subject. He planted the seed of doing a block of blonde and the image started to take root in my mind. I’m at a bit of an advantage as a designer of being able to picture what other people, especially other designers, are talking about. I liked his idea and was ready to go. Then, the day before my appointment, I realized it would probably be wise, just in case we’re actually picturing completely different things, to pull up a few photos for inspiration.

What to do (what I did) when looking for design inspiration photos:

I didn’t expect to find the perfect photo and be able to say: do this! Instead, I broke down what I was imagining into two categories; the colour and the cut. I started browsing through hairstyle websites and google image searches. I found about a dozen images of colour blocking that I liked and about a dozen images of haircuts. I pictured a client coming to me with the dreaded shoebox full of magazine clippings for a kitchen remodel and realized I needed to do some self-edits.

I looked through the images again and tried to decide what it was each one was telling me about what I liked. I noticed images 4, 7, and 11 all said the same thing and #7 said it best, so 4 and 11 were redundant and could go. I also noticed a couple that I really liked but realized I couldn’t picture them on me. Removing redundancy and pretty-but-irrelevant brought my stack down to five or six and then I picked my three favourite. I did this for both the cut and colour categories and now had a reasonable set of 6 images. Not only did this process make the number of images manageable, it forced me to analyze what about each image really struck me.

When I showed my photos to my friend, there was something specific I wanted to say about each. I’m going to share them with you now:


-1- I like the way it frames the face and the combination of soft but boldness of the colour
-2- I like the really bold shape and asymmetrical framing of the face but don’t want to go red
-3- I don’t like anything except the way the block of colour pops (sharp contrast of blonde/dark brown) but then fades


-1- Love the length and scrunchy curl that I can imagine being my dry and go style
-2- Good length and shape. How I picture my straight look. Maybe a bit too pretty.
-3- Incorporates the sideswept bangs (2) with the curls and volume (1).

Individually, each image communicates something different about what I like and what I want. As a set, they start to paint a picture of the overall themes and tone of “my style”. You can start to imagine some kind of hybrid that merges and unifies different qualities together without turning it into some kind of incoherent monster of parts.

My friend, the stylist he’s working under, and I had a really great, energetic discussion about the images I brought in. And while I thought I knew what I wanted, there were tons of things they were able to pick out about the overall style and tone that had been completely subconscious on my part. And I got really excited to let them do their thing.

The end result is that I’m thrilled with my new hairstyle and feel like it was a genuine creative collaboration between me (client) and my friend/his mentor (designers).

Again, I’m a designer so I have the advantage of doing this sort of thing all the time. Most clients coming to have a custom home designed, for example, are probably only ever going to do it once. And a designer can help you through the process but I hope sharing my experience and connecting it to an experience many have had will help give potential clients a head start.

In summary, here are a few tips I came to understand better by going through the process myself:

Pictures are helpful. Not many people can describe a visual result with their words. If you say blue, I can almost guarantee the other person is picturing a different shade than you.

More pictures are not necessarily more helpful. The inspiration waters get muddy at some point and you can’t cram everything you like into one design. Starting with a big pool of photos is great but editing back down helps you decide what elements are really important to you and create a clear(er), more consistent narrative for your designer.

Isolate one or two things you like about each image. You probably have tunnel vision and are only seeing the thing you really like about the image. It’s possible the designer will pick up on something else in the photo and assume it’s what you like.

Isolate one or two things you don’t like about the image. What you don’t like is really important information. A designer wants to give you what you want but also want to make sure they don’t give you something you don’t.

Be honest and realistic. Even if I really really liked it, I’m not walking out of the salon with a ‘fro. We all have designs and elements we really love and would love to have but sometimes they are not possible or practical or consistent with the rest of the design. Sometimes that bit of inspiration needs to go back in the box for another day or another project.

Trust the designer. Actually, this process of going through images can help build a good relationship with your designer. You’ll pick up on whether they get what you’re saying. If you get excited about how they rephrase things back to you, start developing the confidence that they understand your style and your needs, maybe even on a level you don’t.

Design is not a Frankenstein’s monster. Don’t try to piece together your ideal design by cutting and pasting parts of different designs together. Design is more than a kit of parts that can be swapped in and out. That’s not to say you can’t merge elements from different designs, only that it is a process that may transform some of those elements so they work together.

After you talk, put away the photos. Don’t try to compare the end result or process with the original photos. If you wanted to order something out of a catalog, you could have done that. Look at the design with fresh eyes and ask yourself if you like it. Are you happy. Does it feel like what you wanted? My final hairstyle does not look like any of the photos but it’s exactly what I didn’t fully understand I wanted.

1 comment
  1. Reblogged this on letter to a new manager and commented:
    A reblog of a different flavour than I normally post here as it appears to be about the genesis of a hair cut but stay with me here. I am a huge fan of design thinking and what I love about this article is the deliberate work done to break down how to give direction in a particular setting and to explain the ideas in your head. In short: Find examples. Not too many as that gets muddy. Figure out what works and what does’t work. Pick two or three of each. Again, keep it from getting muddy. Finally, let the process generate its own product. I have lots to learn about how to create a similar process for feedback in my world.

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