One issue I face personally is how can I, as a designer, effectively explain my work to potential clients or people that do not have a creative side. I know how to explain what software or process was used but what is a way that a designer can explain the mind-set to someone that has no clue? I've thought about implementing a bullet list when I'm going through the project and jotting down key phrases, similar to how some people come up with a logo design. Is there a study or metric that can be used to say x, y and z should be included, like:

  • Color
  • form factor
  • target audience

The closest solution I've found via Google was an article by Design Tuts titled "Preparing and Talking About Your Graphic Design Portfolio"

It's not easy

The art of talking about your work is not something that comes naturally to designers – I know I didn’t find it easy in the beginning. But it's a good skill to learn, and learn as early as you can. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and look upon each meeting as an opportunity to develop this skill. Not only will this make it easier to talk about your portfolio, it will also make you better at presenting concepts and design work, both to your colleagues and to clients.

The simple rule here is engagement. Your aim should be to arouse interest in your work, not give a speech or lecture. Remember, showing your portfolio to people is also about them, not just you.

When you come to each project, talk about it briefly to introduce it but don’t talk at length. See how they react, let them ask questions or let them simply look. If they are looking at you rather than the work, talk some more about the project – tell them what interested you about it. Look for signs that it's time to move on to the next project.

To help you get used to talking about your work, try it on other people whenever you get a chance. If they are non-designers it will help even more, as you will practice not using designer lingo to describe each project.

So my question is how can a creative designer explain a portfolio project to a non creative person?

  • 9
    I take more about feelings that I have than 'cold facts'. For example, I'll say "I was going for a warm tone, conveying friendliness and hospitality." rather than "It's orange." Yeah, the client can see that too.
    – PieBie
    Commented Mar 30, 2015 at 15:48

10 Answers 10


I will start by saying I have negative social skills with a seasoning of Aspie on them. So, taking that into account, here I go.

Based on my Spock-like field work, I have learnt that my non-creative clients (I have creative clients as well) tend to be problem solving oriented. They tend to focus on the problems they have and are very interested on how you can help them solve them. They are also fascinated by metrics. In particular: time, number of clients, and money.

I have also learnt that they have the simplified idea that they need my assistance because I will make their products, business or software "look nice". They have the prejudice that I am obsessed with beauty just for the sake of it and that I am incapable of any objective reasoning whatsoever.

So, instead of getting angry at the stereotype (I tried that for a while, it did not work) I try to present myself as their "creative allied". Since they have assumed already that I create "pretty things" I use that to my benefit. Admiring the "look of it" is almost taken for granted so I try to educate them, with a smile, just as a comment, on how my "pretty creations" were also great business tools for my previous clients.

When I explain my projects to them I try to focus on what problem I was trying to solve and if I did solve it. Sure it looks fabulous, but I try to explain how the design decisions I made helped improve a specific business to achieve a specific goal. I still talk about the design decisions but I try to emphasize their objective and functional side.

If I failed on achieving a specific goal I explain that as well. It makes me sound objective and destroys the other stereotype they usually have in mind, that I am a diva. It also makes them realize I have been around the block several times so they don't fear they are hiring a beginner.


When I present packaging design, for example, I might explain:

  • How the design improved product recognition by the distinctive use of illustration
  • How my choices of Pantone colours over CMYK, even when they are slightly more expensive, will ensure a stable image for the brand
  • How the copy size is easy on the eye so the client does not have to strain to read it reducing product rejection
  • How the colours will make it stand out from the competitor boxes sitting on the same shelf
  • How the small footprint of the box will allow them to boast about eco-friendliness and to easily squeeze themselves on tight retailer niches; how I managed to make it "look attractive and different" but still follow all the industry standards even with a wink.

I try to keep in mind, though, that they are talking to me because they have decided they need a creative person, so even when I try to sound as objective and goal oriented as possible, I try to flaunt, in a friendly way, my creative side which usually I translate for them as "beauty inclined, detail oriented and market savy".

It is a performance, like any other business transaction, that I try to tailor for every client. As in any other cases, I try to be their allied, to be on their side, to nod at their sorrows, to grief their griefs and to show them how I might have expertise (and experience) that might help them with their problems.

  • 2
    Very well put. Always focus on the "this was the problem and here is my solution." Makes it easy for everyone to understand.
    – Raydot
    Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 16:49

For me, it's always the why.

I've run into many situations where a client is initially uneasy about my work. Not because they outright dislike it, but because they don't think it fits with "what they've seen." When clients are accustomed to seeing the same thing over and over from themselves as well as any competitors, it can be a challenge to get them to break their mindset and look at things from a different perspective.

What I've learned to do is to walk a client visually through any piece and vocalize my choices in clear and specific manners.

So, in short you have to be able to explain your design choices in a manner the client understands, using words that the client will "latch onto" as "yes, we want that." It is sales. And you have to often sell your designs in way the client can see as beneficial. And you have to be prepared to do this selling at any point during a client conversation. Answers such as "It's orange because I like the way it looks" will never go over well.

Some general ideas....

  • I made this blue because blue promotes emotions of safety, security and helpfulness - think of Hospitals, Police, and banks
  • I chose this typeface because serifs often lend to a perception of friendliness, elegance or high-end products where sans-serif lend to a perception of informational or official notices.
  • This type size is better because the audience viewing the piece is older. Providing larger type might seem out of place, however if the piece is easier to read for the target audience it will do nothing but increase retention.
  • I replaced this model photo with a younger model. Studies show people generally se themselves as roughly 15-20 years younger than they actually may be. So Since we're shooting for an average age-range of X I used a model that looked closer to 15 years younger than that. (doesn't work if the "15 years young" breaches teenager or child age ranges).
  • This image is specifically facing left. This controls how the eye moves across the page. When you read, you read top to bottom left to right. Having this image facing left encourages the user to follow it back to the top left side of the page once they hit the bottom right corner.
  • I put the contact information and logo here because it's the last thing you'll see on the page and will be in a better position to help the reader remember the company, if not the contact information itself.
  • I removed the animation for this because it did not contain any absolutely necessary information and was a visual distraction on the page. It unconsciously pulled the eye to it and made reading the text less imperative.
  • I placed the navigation across the top of the page because drop downs are necessary to condense the wealth of pages present into a simply two-click maximum tree. This allows the user to get anywhere on the site with only one or two clicks. Sidebar navigation would be so long it may extend past a user's screen height necessitating scrolling to view all the navigation.

These sort of things. They are generally very specific to a project so it's difficult to give broad sweeping answers other than learn to explain the work you are doing..

You don't need to automatically launch into this sales pitch. In fact, I'd suggest you don't go into at all but rather answer any questions or wavering with targeted answers like I've posted above. Don't just start spouting off the decisions you made. Let the client absorb the piece and react. From their reaction you can explain the areas they may be feeling uncomfortable about.

In my experience, I absolutely need to have explanations loaded and ready and be conscious of the decisions I made while designing. Or at the very least be able to explain on-the-fly when dealing with the client.

Anecdotal: I once worked at a place where salesmen were the middlemen to relay design ideas to and from clients. I had no direct client contact. This was challenging. However, if salesmen were good they would often listen to me regarding how to talk to clients about my designs. Often this lead to quicker client decisions and less creative head-butting with clients.

I recall one instance in particular where a salesman saw my design and before showing it to the client commented, "They aren't going to like this. It's not like the stuff their competitors are doing and it's not really what they are expecting." I asked him "why" and he explained 4 or 5 things that he thought they'd kick-back on.

I sat for 5 minutes with him walking him through the design, explaining my design choices and why I think my treatment of those 4 or 5 items was better. He reluctantly agreed to show it to the client.

When he returned from the client meeting, his first words to me were, "I'll never question you again. I was right that they initially weren't fond of the design. However, once I explained things to them the way you explained to me, they were 100% behind the design and were so happy that actual thought and care when into the project." (I'm paraphrasing.)

  • 2
    It's fortunate that your middlemen understand and go to bat for you.
    – Voxwoman
    Commented Apr 2, 2015 at 14:05
  • I'll second this. Having a reason for making a design choice will always go down better with non-creative clients and is especially important when dealing with companies' branding and products. No one likes anything forced upon them when it's apparent, to them, that there's no reasoning behind it. Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 11:51

Before I give a direct answer, I think it's helpful to give a general definition of what we, as designers, do. Namely we design, defined by Oxford's dictionary as

The purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.

In other words, design is being intentional. We have a thought or desire that we want viewers to understand or have, and we want to create something to convey that. This thought or desire could be anything, but it is the reason why we are creating something in the first place. For example, it could be desire for a product we're selling, conveying information, or aiding understanding in some way, but there are countless reasons.

With that in mind, the most important thing you can convey is the purpose of the design and explanation of how your design carries that out. That should be the ultimate goal, everything should be done to achieve that end. Just as you want viewers of the design to get your original thought or desire, you want to convey the same thing to your clients - only more explicitly so and in detail. This also means that you need to know what it is and design everything with this goal in mind.

Thus, for the important aspects of your design, you should be able to explain your reasoning in a short paragraph or two. The less aspects you have to talk about and the less problems/questions the client has the better (generally speaking), but you should also be prepared to give at least a sentence or two about the reasoning for more minor design decisions in the case that they come into question.

If the client needs more convincing, examples are a great way to aid your reasoning. A lot of people have trouble conceptualizing things you tell them when it's an unfamiliar subject, but if you show them a good and bad example and have them tell you which is better and their thoughts on why, it helps them understand better and you can give any more necessary details after that. Of course you don't always have the time or ability to do this, but it definitely helps when possible.

In summary, know what the purpose is, design with that purpose, and explain how your design achieves that purpose.


The underlying challenge to your question is that of cross-level communication. 'Dumb down' your language about your work, but don't sounds condescending or pedantic at the same time.

Rather than the existing, good answers, I'd like to give some general rules of thumb when talking about design with 'outsiders'. I've found that some of these help in making my ramblings somewhat accessible to the random layman customer.

  • Always start by laying out the scope and intention of the project. Even if it's during a presentation for the customer you made the project for: it helps to remind people of the scope and what they said they wanted last time you met.

  • Avoid jargon. Don't talk about kerning, but do mention 'the space between the letters'.

  • Don't draw attention to minutiae when they aren't crucial to the design, especially if the average layman wouldn't have noticed the difference anyway. Do mention that you extracted a part of the logo to use as a list bullet, don't emphasise on the fact that you chose Merriweather over Georgia.

  • Talking about typefaces: don't do it. (relevant Q: How do you present typeface options to your team during a rebranding) Make your typeface choices and do mention that you chose a serif for this, and a sans-serif for that. Don't take it any further than that, lots of people will have to be explained what the difference between sans and serif is.

  • Emphasise that there are certain rules in design that you chose to follow. Especially for people who really do not understand crativity because 'it all just a matter of taste', drawing attention to the fact that there are some hard rules tht you can adhere to will help.


Here is my take as an outsider, that is I'm not a designer as you perceive it but rather a mechanical designer that designs machines. Though I have done graphic design work in the past.

Most people indeed cannot understand the process. This is hardly surprising, not many people understand mechanical design, plumbing, ikebana or whatever. The thing is this is no special thing that comes from creative versus noncreative people. The problem is that graphic design is very common and very visible so all people seem to have an opinion, like tasting food.

Don't try to force your world view on others, if they are disinterested leave it at that. Instead of detailing the minute detail of your process, explain that there are all kinds of surprising details that need to be considered in the behind these things. Knowing those things helps avoid failures, being pretty does not help much if you can not deliver results. If their curiosity after this sparked pour in some additional high level info. Telling reasoning behind things is fine.

Sure we all like to talk about what we love, but don't expect everybody to understand. I'm pretty sure many of you would think I'm weird if I would explain to you how to design a hidden hinge. The reaction of others might be same for color choice.

So how much do they really need to know?

Situation changes slightly if you need to sell your design. Then you need to explain why something is beneficial. But this is a problem associated with any sales and besides as a designer your probably much better at answering this question than I am. But a central concept to remind yourself and the client is that the design is meant for the target audience. Not you, and possibly not directly to the client either.


In my experience, the best approach to have when explaining your work to clients (or other non-creative types) is to focus on what the job of the product is that you’re working on rather than focusing on what job you’re doing. If you’re focused on what the product is supposed to do then you can explain how your graphic decisions help the product do it's job. The person may still not understand the graphic side of what you're explaining but they will likely catch on to how it is supposed to help the product.

Here’s an example of something you might communicate to a client:

If you're explaining an ad you’ve designed, you may tell the client how you used colour, contrast, and size to create emphasis and raise the the visual hierarchy rank of the phone number text and the “call now” call-to-action text because you understand the main job of the ad is to persuade the audience to call the number.

This above explanation will tell the client:

  1. What graphical decision you made,
  2. To what affect, and
  3. What job it helped the product do.

You can get more specific from there but this much could be sufficient for the client to understand what you did and, more importantly, why.

Of course, this approach only works if you have good information to make good decisions from so be sure to research or ask the client for everything you need about the product’s purpose and intended audience before you start. Then communicate the connection between what you’re doing and how it helps the product's job. Clients may disagree with your decisions but that’s a different topic.

I hope this helps.


There may be non-artistic people, but I have very rarely met non-creative people. It's just that their creativity comes out in different areas besides design and art.

I find it most effective when selling my concepts to people who are not designers to approach things from a results point of view:

  • what is the purpose for this work in the first place (a marketing brochure, a logo)? Why are we doing this work at all?

  • If it's a marketing piece, it's pretty obvious - this is part of a comprehensive strategy to sell a product or service to a target market. You can explain how this target market will receive this material and how it will help close sales. The client doesn't need to know the details of how you came up with this or that, only that it will work for the purpose it is designed to do.

  • you can get technical with layouts and design decisions if they are questioned (this color and shape is used to draw the eye to this image/text or psychologically, orange is an arousal color or If I used full bleed on this area of the die cut, the printing costs will increase 50% because there will be more rejected pieces)

  • with logos, it's more touchy-feely and I try to get that information from the client up front: what kind of company/product is this? What are the values/vision? How do you want people to feel when they see this? and I can justify the design decisions based on their answers and my interpretation of their answers.


Point out, be visually objective and support your work with proven theories.

When you say "non-creative" people I immediately recall Seniors and managers. So think abut it. These people have millions of things in their head day by day, so the best way to talk to them about what you do is being very objective. For real...

  • Enumerate and think very well what you will say in front of them.
  • Synthesize as much as you can.
  • Show some graphics for every point you want to make.
  • If you're being questioned about your decisions, defend yourself with proven theories; numerics are their favorites! (like Golden Ratio, grids, color theory)
  • And finally, DONT EVER waste their time.

When I first meet a prospective client, the first thing I do is listen to their story and learn about their experience. This helps me to choose the right level of conversation to use.

I have found that most people are overwhelmed by the fact that the Internet has become an industry employing millions of people, doing tasks that didn't exist 30 years ago. I would feel the same way if I was preparing to go to another planet. For this reason, relating what I do as a web designer to tasks that they know is very helpful. For instance; engineering is very much akin to web development, SEO has a lot in common with accounting, graphic art is similar to interior design and content development creates the chapters of their book.

Understanding that many of the terms we use are also part of the general vocabulary is also important to avoid confusion: when you say "program" or "programming" to a layperson, they may mentally reference their favorite television show!

Translate the industry jargon into words and phrases that they can understand. Most people can relate to a script as a set of instructions, an SSL certificate as a lock on their front door and a search engine is a library card catalog on steroids.

These are just a few examples of thinking about what you do and drawing relationships to other industries. The idea is to create a mental picture in the person's mind and gain a better appreciation of your skills. Using http://www.thesaurus.com to find synonyms for technical words and phrases can be very effective.

Most importantly, stick to the "need to know" points of the matter in answering their questions and make sure you can connect whatever you say to achieving the results they want to experience by building a website.


If the reason that you want to be able to explain your work is so you can win them as a client - the goal here is to persuade. The best way to persuade is to speak to the heart of why they are hiring you.

Every client that comes to you isn't coming to you just because they want graphic design but because they require the result of what graphic design brings them. Usually this is helping their business earn more money by attracting more customers. When you explain why graphic design helps people attract more customers, you are suddenly explaining your work in their language. All you need to know is what goal do they want to achieve and explain how your designs will help them achieve this goal.

Clients aren't interested in how you make your designs, all they care is about whether or not you can get them the result they seek. This is why explaining design and creativity and showing your portfolio doesn't set you aside from competitors. Unfortunately, it is because the client is unlikely to understand what all of that means to them, leading to the majority of designers being chosen by gut feeling.

You can start by saying things like: "Looking professional will help your business to charge professional prices", "A well designed company is more likely to be chosen over the competition" and if you can supplement and elaborate on these with actual examples about the effectiveness of your own designs and how you help your customers achieve these goals it will be even more powerful.

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