I've learned one crucial truth: if you can't sell your design vision, it's going nowhere. 

As a design leader who's worked in both large and small organizations, passion and big ideas are great, but they mean nothing without the ability to translate them into concrete plans and get buy-in.

In this article, I'll share my experiences in selling design visions and how I've grown as a designer by developing a strong point of view (POV) and effectively communicating it.

The frustration that fueled change

While leading design at Gaia GPS, I vividly remember a conversation with the CEO about some design initiatives I'd created, focusing on the core mapping experience for the web. The backstory is I was tired of the map tooling interface's unresponsive UI, with its haphazard layout of floating buttons and hidden dropdowns. 

It got to a point where I became so tired of dealing with this frustrating UI that I completely redesigned the interface and re-architected the experience in a way that better supported our core workflows and enabled the interface to scale with future functionality.

I'll get to the outcome of this story later, but it all boils down to building the right working culture and setting yourself up for success. From a very high level, here are some of the steps I consider important to achieving this goal.

How to sell your vision

  1. Build a relationship that enables you to manage up

I'm not going to go into an in-depth how-to on managing up here; I'll save that for another article. But here's the high-level thought: To make space for yourself and have the time and influence to come up with your own initiatives, you need to be able to manage up. Basically, your manager needs to trust you and trust that you're spending your time effectively. This means not needing to be micromanaged and told what to do all the time. 

You should be able to effectively manage your workload (saying no when necessary) and give your manager what they need to be successful in their own expectations. When you create enough space for yourself, it gives you the time to identify what you think is important and work on making it a reality. In combination with this, the trust you've built with your manager increases the likelihood that they'll be more supportive and responsive to your ideas and initiatives.

  1. Develop a strong POV on your work

"We pay you to have an opinion." Once you're able to make space for your work, you need to be able to talk about it with conviction. The gist of it is, you need to become a domain expert in your area and have strong opinions. Some people say "Strong opinions, loosely held," which means you've developed a position/opinion but are always open to other POVs or discussions on those POVs. 

Building a POV on topics and initiatives allows others to clearly see where you're coming from and enables them to more accurately engage with you. This can be in the form of wanting to collaborate with you to achieve your goals or discuss your POV from their standpoint to see how their different POV aligns or clashes with yours. For example, I have a co-worker who passionately hates mustard—all kinds. This tells me they care deeply about condiments, and I'm curious why they dislike mustard so much (personally, I love it!). It also opens the door to discussing their preferred condiments and why. Beyond condiments, when someone strongly dislikes something, it's an opportunity to learn about it from a different angle.

  1. Foster collaborative relationships with cross-functional peers

It's not just about being able to debate each other's POVs. You also need to actively seek out and understand what goals and outcomes your cross-functional peers are trying to achieve. 

For instance, when working with a PM, it's critical you understand from the business perspective what metrics they're trying to drive. You can help them achieve those metrics, but in a fashion that puts the user first. As for engineers, maybe it's their velocity they're trying to maintain or increase. You can work with them to break up your ideas into phases that they can deliver on time. Building this shared understanding of each other's goals creates an environment of trust. Your cross-functional peers will start to trust that you have their best intentions in mind when you show them your latest crazy idea.

  1. Take the initiative and document your vision

Let's get back to that initial story of redesigning the mapping interface. At that time, I had achieved those three previous steps. I was actively managing up to the CEO, I was very opinionated about what makes good UX architecture in the mapping domain, and I had built trust and psychological safety into my relationships so that I could have candid conversations about the product and business.

Fed up with the interface, I dedicated time to a redesign. I created a few concepts covering core use cases and presented them in my next 1:1 with my manager. Walking through Figma mocks and highlighting key points generated excitement.

Here are the essential steps I followed:

  • Choose your audience: Tailor your presentation to who you're speaking with. Understand their level of design knowledge and interest.
  • Match fidelity to the goal: Use sketches for early feedback, high-fidelity mocks for detailed discussions, and interactive prototypes for showcasing functionality.
  • Create artifacts for discussion: Whether it's Figma files, slide decks, or prototypes, having tangible materials helps facilitate feedback and generate excitement.

A quick story to illustrate this point

I remember when I was leading design at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and I got fed up with their old logo. In my spare time, I made some off-the-wall ideas on what a new logo could look like. I showed these to my manager (Director of Communications), and she loved it. I didn't spend a whole lot of time on it, but it was just enough to get them excited about the idea, which then allowed me to make more space to continue working on it. I got the designs to a place where I could build a deck and present a few ideas to our CEO and see what they thought about it. I remember being rather nervous as I had never presented to this individual and had no close working relationship with them, so I didn't know what to expect. And in return, they didn't know what to expect from me. 

After it was over, I was successful in convincing the CEO to greenlight further work into a redesign and what process they would like to see moving forward. To quote the CEO (to the best of my memory) at the end of the presentation: "I was coming into this meeting thinking I would hate everything, and I am leaving it loving the idea of a new logo!" You can see more about this project on my portfolio here.

Back to the mapping redesign 

With the team being small and the CEO driving the roadmap, we had one of the Frontend Engineers work on implementing the design. After soft launching and then progressively rolling it out, it was clear that the new redesign was a huge success. We tracked engagement metrics like object creation and map layering. I don't have the specific numbers anymore, but users were now organically finding and using features that were previously showing very low usage due to them being hidden or just poorly designed and implemented. 

After the redesign was considered a success in driving retention and usage, I remember having a candid follow-up conversation with the CEO, to which I said he should listen to my ideas more. He pushed back and said my idea wasn't unique and that "everyone" had thought of redesigning the interface and they all knew it was poorly done. Which led me to respond with, "We can have all the ideas in the world. We can all agree something sucks. But if no one is going to step up and do something about it, then those are just ideas and nothing more."

So in an attempt to bring this home... 

If you are finding your ideas are not getting much traction or are actively being shot down, it's not because they are bad ideas (ok, maybe they are, not every idea is a good idea), it's because they cannot see the vision you see. Leadership makes instant decisions constantly. They are pressed for time and need to move fast with what they know. And most people are not thinking about the things you as a designer are thinking of. So of course, if you say "we need a new logo" or "we need to re-architect this entire interface," you are more than likely going to get hit with a "Hell no. We already have a full roadmap, and how does that fit into our predetermined catchphrase of the quarter?”

You as a designer are uniquely positioned and empowered to be the change you seek. You can bring ideas to reality. You have the ability to shape the future. But remember, it all starts with effectively selling your vision.

Key takeaways

  • Don't underestimate the power of relationships: Building trust and rapport with your manager, cross-functional peers, and stakeholders is crucial for gaining support for your ideas.
  • A strong POV is your foundation: Develop expertise in your domain and articulate your design decisions with conviction. Be open to discussion, but stand firm in your beliefs.
  • Collaboration is key: Understand the goals and constraints of your cross-functional partners. Work together to find solutions that benefit everyone involved.
  • Take initiative and be proactive: Don't wait for permission or perfect timing. Start working on your ideas, document them, and be ready to present your vision when the opportunity arises.
  • Excitement is contagious: Passion is infectious. When you're genuinely excited about your ideas, others are more likely to get on board.

Your call to action

Now that you've read about the importance of selling your design vision, it's time to put these principles into practice. Identify an area where you see potential for improvement, develop a strong POV, and start building support for your ideas. Remember, even small changes can have a big impact.