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ATD Blog

Breaking Bad Design Habits


Wed Oct 22 2014

Breaking Bad Design Habits

Being a training designer presents daily opportunities to challenge ourselves, push boundaries, and design solutions that make our businesses successful, clients happy, and learning audience more effective. But sometimes our work isn’t inspirational, and it’s really hard to get ourselves psyched-up to change the world starting with annual compliance training.

A lack of inspiration can be made even worse with a healthy dose of design complacency. When we fall back on bad design habits, we can alienate ourselves from the real problems, our audience, and ultimately our professional self-worth.


Are you guilty of any of these bad design behaviors?

Skipping the needs analysis

Raise your hand if you’d be willing to undergo major surgery without first undergoing some less-invasive testing?

Not much of a choice, is it? Most of us wouldn’t be too keen on trusting the word of a doctor who would literally operate on a hunch. We’d like some empirical evidence before we invest in a costly, painful, and potentially risky procedure.

Yet, how many of us are guilty of skipping over the L&D version of pre-operative testing? How often do we tell our business cohorts to “just trust us” about the root cause of a performance gap?


At one time or another, most of us have been forced by timing or circumstance to eliminate or minimize the needs analysis process. But when we short-change front-end analysis or dismiss it all together, we become the equivalent of a quack — randomly applying training solutions without first understanding what’s needed.

Getting married to a concept

Confession: Sometimes I fall in love with my own ideas.

When you love what you do and are passionate about the value of learning it’s easy to get super-excited about your work. But with all that excitement there often comes the “reality check” moment when a client tells you that the high-concept idea you’ve fallen for is hopelessly impractical.

Does that mean it’s time to toss aside your brilliant concept and settle for something more mundane? Not necessarily.


Here’s how I see it: The essence of being a good designer is working within tight constraints. Our best designs surface when we allow those boundaries to inspire us rather than defeat us. The most effective designs are ones that manage to achieve a balance in the midst of many opposing factors.

The ultimate designer skill you bring to the table is this: a willingness to set-aside pre-conceived notions and apply elements of your out-of-the-box thinking in ways that balance business needs and resources with beauty and ingenuity.

Speaking in jargon

I was working with a client recently when I caught myself saying, “Less on screen text should help us lighten the cognitive load.”

While that statement was in fact true, and a solid design recommendation given the bullet-riddled, text-heavy PPT screen we were reviewing, I could tell by the expression on her face that I’d lost her.

Good designers know that you need to have meaningful conversations to build a successful collaboration. This means you need to speak in language that everyone understands. Whether you’re trying to get buy-in for your design ideas with business leaders or act as a credible internal consultant to a group of subject matter experts, you really can’t afford to alienate anyone with jargon-filled statements that are less about building understanding and more about demonstrating your design prowess.

To be sure, it may be necessary on occasion to load your statements with design jargon to establish your authority. But for most interactions, wouldn’t it be much more productive to communicate as a trusted partner—in a language everyone understands?

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from the original post on the Impact Instruction blog./

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