Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Articles > Design > Voices That Matter

Merit Over Marketing: A Manifesto

Without proof of their effectiveness, the act of deciding who will do the best design work for your company is a coin toss. And too often, this results in mediocre solutions with unremarkable results. By believing what we hear over what we see, we tell consultants and agencies that marketing is a more valued skill than design. Robert Hoekman, Jr. suggests that it's time to call for merit over marketing.
Like this article? We recommend

The stories travel in whispers from client to consultant, colleague to colleague, designer to designer. They're told during phone calls, in conference rooms, over drinks. They're told when no one else is around to hear them, and quietly enough to be sure.

"My company contracted so-and-so to do a design overhaul and now we get more complaints than ever." And, "My friend heard so-and-so speak at a conference last year, and his advice was terrible." And, "We did what the so-and-so agency said to do and our conversion rate went down."

It's under a veil of darkness that we decide which consultant to hire, which speaker to listen to, which blog post to trust. Because so far, there's no vetting process — no reputable rating and review site for design service providers, no trustworthy, independent certification. Rather than ask for case studies, we trust who has the most Twitter followers. Rather than ask for evidence, we trust the biggest names.

We believe this kind of marketing for the same reason we do a lot of things: because if other people are doing it, it's probably the right thing to do. When deciding whether or not to jaywalk through a crowded intersection, this is perfectly acceptable. When choosing which consultant to spend thousands of dollars on, we need a higher burden of proof.

Even agency recommendations that come from a friend or colleague are tenuous unless that person has seen evidence of the agency's quality firsthand. Word-of-mouth is powerful because it's passed along by people we trust, but it has a fatal flaw: those doing the passing are just as susceptible to marketing as the rest of us. Minus evidence, even recommendations from our most trusted friends are meaningless.

Without proof of their effectiveness, the act of deciding who will do the best work is a coin toss, and the so-and-so's are holding double-headed silver dollars. The so-and-so's are winning. And too often, this results in mediocre solutions with unremarkable results.

When we accept marketing over merit, we pay more for lesser solutions. We believe what the speaker on stage tells us without further examination. We accept the work of a well-known agency as good without questioning the outcome.

It's time to start asking to see the other side of the coin.

And before you question whether this call to action is born from a jealousy of such well-known consultants and agencies, understand that I am one of them. I am one of the consultants who has benefitted from this kind of marketing. In appealing to you to ask for evidence of a designer's effectiveness, I am calling for my own inconvenience. I am asking you to make me prove I have the experience, talent, skill, and knowledge to help you achieve your goals, and that my ideas are worth acting on.

Most often, the companies who come to me do so just after someone there has finished reading one of my books. Others are referred to me by a colleague who did. Some reach out after hearing me speak at a conference. Others haven't read or seen anything I've done — they've merely heard that I have done these things.

In other words, they come to me not because of my design work, but because of my writing and speaking. And they stop asking questions right there. They simply accept that because I have done these things, I must be good enough. They don't ask for proof.

I have been a full-time consultant for four-and-a-half years, and I can count the times I've been asked for my portfolio on two hands. And because that question crosses a client's lips so rarely, I have never even bothered to build a portfolio site. Each time someone has asked, I have rushed to throw together a collection of design strategy documents and screenshots, zipped them up, and emailed them with a bare-minimum explanation of what I did and how it turned out.

By believing what we hear over what we see, we tell consultants and agencies that marketing is a more valued skill than design. It's time to turn that around. It's time to call for merit over marketing. It's time to ask for evidence.

Fortunately, from speakers and consultants alike, even as difficult as it can be to track and demonstrate the value of design work, there is a load of evidence to be had.

Case Studies

Whether described on an agency website, over the phone, or during a conference presentation, case studies are invaluable. Very little can be communicated through images alone, as they can't effectively show the decisions that went into a project or their effects. Case studies solve this by offering insight into the problem at hand, the design thinking that went into its solution, and a summary of the outcome.

Ask to see (or hear about) these case studies. Find out what makes this designer or agency the right one. Then ask about a case where a design failed to meet expectations, and why it happened.


While determining which numbers to gather and how to evaluate them is a subject well beyond the scope of this article, the point stands: there is arguably no better way to prove a design's effectiveness than through cold, hard data. Click paths and other stats from site metrics, A/B tests, usability test results, and the effects of design changes on revenue are all ways that data can demonstrate the value of a design decision.

Ask your designer to look at the data and explain what can be learned from it.


Conventions and best practices are easy enough to discover through a little crafty Googling and by studying successful sites. Beyond that, though, there are indeed companies who cite data when they present their research. User Interface Engineering, Jakob Nielsen, and the Pew Internet frequently publish the studies they've performed, and they're chock full of data, and even hints about how to do your own studies. Whatever the question, chances are someone has done some helpful research and has published it online.

Ask your designer if there's research to back up his recommendation.


Any designer who's been at it for a while should have loads of personal observations to pull from. They come from being involved in usability studies, analyzing site metrics, fielding customer complaints, talking to users, and hearing anecdotes from colleagues. And though not at all scientific, these insights are what make a designer a designer. They are what give a designer his or her instinct — that special sixth sense about what will work and what won't. It's frequently quite wise to trust a seasoned designer's instincts, but don't give that trust away based on a resume.

Ask your designer what she's seen before to explain why she believes what is saying.


One effective way to think out a design idea is to find other sites that have done similar things and consider what's good or bad about it, and why. Extrapolating lessons from other peoples' work can help you improve your own.

Ask your designer if other companies have done what he is proposing, and if so, how it can be improved.

Explain Yourself

However you do it, and whether it's a consultant, agency, or conference speaker you're questioning, ask to see evidence to back up his or her belief. It is your obligation to yourself and to your business to ask your designers to rationalize their recommendations. A vetted recommendation is always stronger than a baseless opinion.

If there is no clear evidence, ask her to articulate why her hunch is her hunch. Be skeptical of sentences that start with, "I think." Ask for sentences that include "because."

"I think" doesn't matter. "Because" matters.

Be skeptical of speakers and consultants alike who espouse universal truths like they've just come down from a mountaintop with a stone tablet in each arm. There are no universal truths in design. What's right for one situation may not be right for yours.

Be skeptical of consultants who can't explain the Why behind their recommendations, even (or perhaps especially) if that consultant is a known expert.

Be just as skeptical of the agency with 100,000 Twitter followers as you would of your own team.

Whatever the problem, and however you approach the solution, don't just take someone's word for it.

Ask for the evidence.

Peachpit Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from Peachpit and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about Peachpit products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites; develop new products and services; conduct educational research; and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by Adobe Press. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive:

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020