As a designer, I’ve long prided myself on my ability to “read the writing on the wall.”

But as I’ve gained experience, and had the opportunity to work with designers who have grown their own firms, I’ve learned how common this belief in our own intuition is and how easily the assumptions that result can lead us astray.

Three examples

My client Mary was sure that she’d won an international packaging assignment. Her firm’s experience was an exact match with the client’s need and she had developed a close relationship with two of the senior players on the client team.

So when they told her that their purchasing department required two competitive bids she went through the range of emotions; her hands got clammy, her chest tightened and she wanted to run out of the room. She didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, she didn’t say much and excused herself.

Harold, another client, was sure that his long-term client was going to crowdsource the creative on a new brand they were launching. They’d hired a new brand manager to lead the brand creation effort and word had it he was a fan of crowdsourcing.

Harold hadn’t spoken to the new manager; he’d just talked with his regular contact, the marketing assistant. Something he’d picked up from her gave him a queasy feeling that this wonderful client was about to go away.

Sharon called and said that her client (a long-term, close relationship) at corporate headquarters was practically begging her to respond to an RFP from a subsidiary company in the high-end snack business.

The problem was she’d heard through the grapevine that the marketers at the subsidiary thought of Sharon as “unstrategic.”

Worse, the RFP was, in Sharon’s view, stupid.

Image by Tom Fishburne in collaboration with Motista, via

Asking the right questions

In each example, the path forward involved using the original intuitions, and the resulting assumptions, as a source of insight into what questions should be asked.

After she’d thought a bit and talked with her team about the situation, Mary asked the client the following questions:

“I understood that my firm’s experience in Europe with this category was in line with your new packaging needs. Is that true?”

“Did you think the process, deliverables and costs we scoped in our engagement description were appropriate?”

“What has changed?”

Mary discovered that, yes, purchasing was involved because of the size of the budget. Yes, two competitors were being consulted. But she still had a significant advantage because her expertise was a perfect match.

Harold discovered that the new marketing manager was a real fan of his firm’s work. The manager simply found that getting a wide range of solutions quickly and cheaply through crowdsourcing gave him insights into the creative possibilities.

Then he asked Harold to help him develop the criteria for the effort and to critique the results of the crowdsourcing.

After asking for various clarifications of the assignment as described in the RFP, Sharon explained, “We’re not going to respond to your RFP because we believe there is another way forward that offers more opportunity to grow the brand.”

Image by Tom Fishburne via

Acting on information

Sharon flew out and presented a plan to the snack food subsidiary that was three times the budget in the client’s RFP. She won the assignment.

Harold’s client went ahead with the crowdsourcing, but they gave Harold a respectable budget to do the creative and to participate in the critique of the crowdsourcing effort.

Mary made a series of presentations to her contacts and to procurement. She was questioned closely on every aspect of her proposal by purchasing. She did adjust her plan, not to lower the costs, but to more precisely meet her client’s needs.

Sharon, Harold and Mary challenged their intuitions and won. So can you.