How to Pitch Your Design Ideas: Caroline Williams Talks Surviving and Thriving at the Boardroom Table

by Patrick Faller

posted on 01-25-2017

When it comes to pitching ideas, designers aren’t always the best at explaining their vision in the business arena. Caroline Williams knows this; as the senior digital design manager at Wyndham Hotel Group, she spends a lot of time around boardroom tables pitching and defending design decisions for 15 global hotel brands. We asked her how designers can survive and thrive in the business world.

Why is it so important to know how to pitch your ideas properly?

You’re sitting in the pitch room to convince those on the other end that you can solve their problem, and the only way to do so is to tell the story of how you plan to accomplish that. As a newborn designer, I would all too often skip the setup. I would immediately dive into the details and start speaking to everyone in the room as if they were just as excited by my color palette as I was. But usually, the people in the room aren’t there to listen to the ‘designer.’ They want to hear from the ‘problem solver.’ First, serve them ‘the why,’ that’s really what they’re buying.

What’s your number one tip for designers in the pitch process?

Stay confident. There’s a big difference between ‘um, yeah’ and ‘absolutely.’ Speak to the work as if they’re actually paying you to do it. If you’re asked a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t panic. They’ll notice, and you’ll immediately lose credibility. Learn to think on your feet, and whatever your response may be, say it like you believe it. If you can’t figure out how to do that, then take a hint from your gut and realize that whatever you’re pitching probably isn’t the right solution.

And what if it’s just not going well?

Don’t stress. It happens. As creatives, when we sense that our work isn’t wooing the audience like we hoped, we tend to get upset and sometimes, downright defensive. It’s important to remember that whatever you’re creating should be for the good of the business, not for your own good. Instead of taking offense or shutting down, ask for honest feedback and really listen. Then head back to the war room, pitch round two, and prove you can do more.

What other business skills do designers need to learn to succeed?

Collaboration. It’s talked about too much and seen too little. I’ll admit that not every project I’ve done is a product of this skill, but every great one definitely is. It’s not just about ignoring your inner idea hog within your creative team (which is equally important), but also about keeping open communication with those buying your ideas. Earn their trust by showing that you’ve read the brief, done your homework, and heard all their concerns, comments, and thoughts. Don’t become arrogant in thinking you know better because you’re the designer. Most of the time, they know better because it’s their business. It’s your job to interpret their needs into something relevant, usable, and of course, beautiful.

How did you learn how to be successful in the boardroom?

‘Listen and learn’ is a cliche for a reason. I’ve worked with some ridiculously smart people, and I’ve spent a lot of time studying them. Just because you’re holding a design school diploma in your hand doesn’t give you an excuse to stop being a student. Segue to tip number two: Don’t ever pitch something that your gut tells you isn’t the right solution.

What’s the biggest payoff when you’re a successful designer with those key business skills?

When the project is finally launched, and the other side responds with the same unbridled excitement and pride as I have, that means it all worked.

See more of Caroline Williams’ digital design work on her website.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

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