Neil Wengerd: The Importance of Asking Why

Neil Wengerd is a Partner and Creative Director at Nonfiction, a graphic design and branding agency in Columbus OH. In this column, Neil asks: “Instead of rushing to a solution, what if we started by asking the right questions?”

How often has this happened?

A client comes with a request for a new logo (or a brochure or ad). You design some beautiful work, and the client rides off into the sunset. Nothing changes.

Next time, what if we asked, “why?” instead of immediately grabbing our sketchbooks? The conversation could go something like this:

Client: We need a logo refresh.

Design studio: Why?

Client: Our competitor is outperforming us.

Design studio: Why do you think that is?

Client: Their website and sales tools are better than ours.

Design studio: Hmm. Why are they more effective?

Client: We haven’t updated our communications tools in a while.

Design studio: Why not?

Client: We aren’t sure what to say – or where to start.

Bingo. In one short conversation, we’ve uncovered the real challenges the client faces. In this instance, they don’t need a logo – they need a better way of communicating their purpose and value to their customers. By tackling that challenge, we can help our clients answer questions they didn’t know they had. And that adds tremendous value to their organization.

To be fair, some clients really do need a logo. But asking a client “why?” gives us an opportunity to create work that moves them forward. Here’s how you can do that.

Act Like a Two-Year-Old

Any parent of a toddler will tell you the “why” phase is real. Kids will even ask, “why?” when we agree to let them do something they asked us to do in the first place. While that can be crazy-making for a parent, we can actually learn a lot from two-year-olds. They’re trying to deconstruct the seemingly arbitrary guidelines adults put in place.

Clients often come with a preconceived notion of what they need. Like a toddler, it’s up to us to deconstruct those notions. The way we unpack any preconceived idea is by digging to the bottom instead of sticking with what we think we know. Ask clients “why?” until that question no longer has an answer. That’s your starting point. If we get that right, everything that follows creates real progress and change.

Make Your Own Recipes

There’s a fantastic Wait But Why article about how Elon Musk thinks. He’s been able to simultaneously create innovative companies within the automotive and aerospace industries. And on top of that, he’s thought up new transit systems and insane flame throwers. How? Musk is a chef, not a cook. Instead of creating variations on a theme, he’s thrown out the recipe book altogether. And that’s what we as designers need to do, too. We need to be prepared to start from scratch and think ahead.

Why Does All This Matter?

We’re doing our clients a disservice if we’re simply following the recipe handed to us by our clients or trends. By continually asking “why?” we create opportunities to help our clients create the future instead of just existing in it.