Part of being a designer is knowing how to interpret what people say.  Over the course of their life, everyone evolves a different vocabulary to describe the world around them, and it’s up to us to take what they’re saying and translate it into a set of desired attributes for a given project.  Being humans, sometimes we misinterpret these messages and get ourselves into trouble!  Today, I’d like to clear the air and take a look a particular phrase that designers are born to be leery of:

“Oh this isn’t a big deal, it’ll just be quick and dirty.”

How many times have you heard someone say that one (or said it yourself)? “Quick and dirty” is a phrase that has been around for a long time, and most of us just say it when we just want something done quickly and simply, without a lot of fuss, or when we’re using it to describe something we’ve done, as in: “Oh don’t worry about that, it was just a quick and dirty fix to get us by.” When you use this phrase, you are accurately describing what, for you, was something you threw together, usually just for the sake of having something. The trouble arises when this phrase is used in a designer/client relationship, and it begins to take on a much more nuanced meaning.

We need to go deeper

Lets talk a minute about what happens when this phrase pops up in the context of a client’s project or task.  As a designer, “dirty” hopefully isn’t the type of word you’d like associated with your own work, and speaking for myself, I tend to take a little more time just to make sure that I am personally satisfied with the product I’m showing people.  From from my perspective, while I might say that something I did was “quick and dirty”, that is usually a lie.  It might not be the most star-studded, breathtaking thing I’ve ever done, but it is rarely quick, and if I’m telling someone about it, it certainly isn’t dirty.

So what do we really mean?  Lets translate!

Lets get real for a moment, and break down exactly what we’re really saying when we use this phrase.  

If I say I did something “quick and dirty,” I mean “this is the baseline of what I consider acceptable by my standards of quality”

I think that’s pretty accurate.  It doesn’t mean it’s quick, it’s probably not dirty, but it’s not my best work.  It’s something that was done under less than perfect conditions, and while it got done and it is working just fine, it’s not what I’d consider to be my finest output.

So what does a client mean when they say it?

It means you better run!  (Just kidding.)

In all seriousness, when a client says they want something quick and dirty, it’s still up to you to do your job.  It’s easy to take that phrase as a signed permission slip to lower your standards, and as professionals that is something that is only going to hurt you, and your client.  It’s a dangerous cycle to get into, don’t do it.

A lot of the time what you’re going to find to be the case is that they simply don’t have the funds available for you to do the stellar job for which they are normally happy to pay.  They want to get the most bang for their buck (and who doesn’t?) and they perceive this particular piece as being lower value in the grand scheme of things.

“Quick and dirty” is a conversation starter.

This is an opportunity for you to step up and clear the air between you and your client and outline for them how you perceive the situation with regards to the design, and very simply break down the options and the costs associated with each.  It’s important to keep in front of both of you at all times the fact that everything you design is a part of their brand, and as such it affects how they are perceived in the broader world.  Even though only a small portion of their audience may see a given piece, they are still people who are seeing it, and it’s affecting their perceptions whether they realize it or not.

Communication is how successful relationships work.

That’s right, this is all boils down to being as communicative as possible.  Setting realistic expectations both in terms of the quality/quantity of work AND the costs associated is mission critical.  It’s all too easy to see “quick and dirty” in an email as a Get Out of Jail Free card to slap something together haphazardly and call it good.  But more often than not, it’s not going to be up to your standards or your client’s, and they’re going to demand better. They’re going to ask for revisions, and suddenly the “quick and dirty” solution isn’t looking so cheap any more.  Then the conversation is happening with money already on the table, potentially with both sides feeling like they’re being cheated.

As in so many things, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

Published 09/16/11 by Ian Wilson