How To Talk About Your Work When You Can’t Talk About Your Work

As a small studio, we are lucky to be able to do really interesting projects for high-profile clients. Often the most exciting work do for our clients falls under a non-disclosure agreement, meaning we cannot publicize the work or talk about our involvement. That’s okay – it’s important for our clients to protect their IP, and our ideas are the competitive advantage that we provide. We ask our collaborators to sign NDAs before working with us as well – we have to protect our clients’ IP too. We get excited about all of the cool new things we’re doing – it’s our mission to make tomorrow’s interfaces more natural, and our clients give us the opportunity to do that. Yet when approaching the new business that keeps our design flow going (and our lights on!) we often can’t provide the relevant examples to show potential clients how our experience matches the challenges they face.  It doesn’t work to say: “We’re working on something really really cool in the robotics space for a large cannot-be-named client that is so very relevant to your problem only we can’t tell you about it.” It’s a common industry problem, but one that never gets easier to swallow. So how do we get around that? Here are a few ideas.

1. Talk about the process.

Talk about what you learned without revealing the details or betraying confidence. Was there a milestone or turning point in the design process where everything just came together? An “aha” or a surprise?

On a recent project we did in collaboration with NREC and Dezudio, we incorporated low-fi prototypes into our research and design process, exploring the use of haptic feedback in Army combat scenarios. While we can’t talk about the project itself just yet, we can (and did) talk about the prototyping process and what we learned from our experience without revealing details about the project.  Often our process on an individual project provides inspiration for how to approach our work in general. In this post on how to predict the future, we’ve drawn from our experience with many clients to help us figure out how best to approach other similar types of projects.

2. Describe what was exciting about the problem, without revealing the solution.

Each project opens up a new area of curiosities to investigate. Did you do research? What did you learn?

For example, lately, we’ve been designing a lot of devices for women. In fact, one of our favorite undisclosed clients supported us on volunteer trips to India and Brazil to understand the motivation and needs of women in emerging markets when it comes to using technology. (Aren’t we lucky designers? I know!). While we can’t discuss anything else about the projects we’ve done, we can elaborate on our general observations about (and as) women, and we can discuss what to consider in designing natural interfaces for them. Our thoughts are forthcoming on the Kicker blog. Similarly, our work around touch and haptics with a specific client has helped us to articulate a point of view on the vernacular of touch that informs everything we do to make interactions feel natural across our client work.

3. Do internal concept projects that reflect what you want to get across about your work.

At Kicker we do concept projects annually to explore new areas of interest, push our thinking in particular directions, and create case studies that demonstrate the skills and knowledge base that we can’t publicize through our top secret client projects.

A concept project at Kicker is an internal project that we define where we act as both client and consultant. We set goals and milestones just like any client project. We follow our Kicker process and manage our timelines, and we document everything we do.  They’re great testing grounds for new ways of working, and often teach us more than we bargained for about creating our own constraints and criteria for success. We consider concept projects to be an important part of Kicker’s DNA – they’re the best way to put our experience on display in a world where most of what we do is confidential.

You can see case studies about our concept projects here. Our favorites are the Tea Tumbler, The Tactile Reader, and the Conference Phone.

Obviously we would love to talk about the great projects that we get to do for our amazing clients, but it’s both our expertise and discretion that make our clients love working with us. So we talk around the work we do, and try to convey our approach, understanding, and experience without jeopardizing our agreements. And articulating this thinking in blog posts and public presentations allows us to share what we’ve learned with other designers, and shows our clients (current and potential) that our collective experience extends beyond individual projects into a Kicker point of view.

Big name projects can open doors, but if you can demonstrate the solid process, point of view and expertise behind your work, the NDA doesn’t have to stand in your way. If you’ve experienced the problem of not being able to talk about your clients, what do you do to work around it? We’d love to hear from you!