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The Art of Communicating Like a Designer

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I like movies. Some weeks back, I rewatched Mad Men season 1, and one man stood out to me – Don Draper – for his mastery of words. Every word he spoke was designed to serve a purpose. Innovators are leaders. And leaders must influence. Understanding the art of communicating like a designer, like Don, can promote our influence. This article discusses how to communicate like a designer to influence.

I like movies. It helps me to de-stress and focus on something else — the movie — rather than think about the challenge to solve. Yet, during this period, however short, something miraculous happens. My brain begins to solve the challenge, and by the time the movie ends, the challenge is unraveled. There are also moments when I gain new insights directly from the movie. I call those moments my Eureka [i] moments, after Archimedes famous words. During these moments, I feel like I went swimming in the riverbed of a gushing waterfall. It’s cold yet reinvigorating. My latest Eureka moment came some weeks ago, while rewatching Mad Men. (Yes, I was rewatching Mad Men. Lol!) In season one, I stumbled upon three valuable learnings from Don Draper on the art of communicating, and I intend to share them. Innovators are leaders. And leaders must influence. Understanding the art of communicating like a designer may help promote our influence. And who knows! Some of us may enjoy rewatching the series, as it is a timeless show.

Spoiler alert!

Mad Men is an AMC series from writer and executive producer, Matthew Weiner. It is a Golden Globes 2X winner and 16 primetime Emmy winner. Set in 1960 – 1970 New York, the show is about one of New York’s most prestigious ad agencies. At the top of this high-pressure, glamorous world of Madison Avenue advertising is Don Draper, a brilliant and talented top ad executive. [ii] Don’s personality and values are one to debate. However, I was most interested in his excellent mastery of words and his style of communicating complex ideas to his clients. To me, who’s better than the ad man himself, Don Draper, to teach the art of communicating like a designer?


Lesson 1: Employ multisensory statements or illustrations to express complex ideas.

Whenever Don spoke to his clients, his statements were multisensory. It was as though each statement was designed to appeal to one or more of his listeners’ senses. This is atypical of how we communicate. We are unisensory communicators. The stories we tell usually appeal to one sense — maybe the eyes (visual) or the ears (auditory). And at best, we try to appeal to two senses — maybe by creating visually appealing presentation slides stacked with numbers to drive home a discussion. Which is not bad, as research shows that people generally remember more of what they hear and see than what they see or hear alone (Treichler, 1967). However, when compared with Don Draper, I noticed that Don appeals to multiple senses (at least three) simultaneously and ties his message with at least one of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. [iii]

In episode one, Don is overseeing the Lucky Strike sales campaign. Lucky Strike is a cigarette company. It is having issues with cigarette sales because the Federal Trade Commission and Reader Digest banned ads that made claims associated with cigarettes and health. Because, it made people think of cancer. Hence, Lucky Strike was worried. Don’s job was to solve this enigma. However, he had a creative block.

At the eleventh hour, the solution came. But the clients were already at the door, about to leave the meeting, disappointed. Whatever Don says must either sink a three-pointer, or the client walks, and he probably gets fired. Under such pressure, Don calmly pitches the solution — “Lucky Strike. It’s toasted.” — and saves the day. When prompted by the client to explain, he restated the crux [iv] of his strategy like this:

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s okay. You are okay.” Don Draper, AMC, Mad Men Season 1 episode 1, 2007

Don’s statement appealed to five different senses: sight (visual), hearing (auditory), smell (olfactory), body movement (kinesthetic), and touch (tactile). And he tied it all with three of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: need for safety, esteem, and self-actualization. Using this communication tactic made his idea easier to understand and connect with. It was so compelling that you could see the appreciation of the strategy in the eyes of Lee Snr, Lucky Strike CEO, as he smiled and uttered: “I get it.”

Research shows that our brains have evolved to process multisensory information. Multisensory processing can improve accuracy, reduce reaction processing time, improve precision, provide more complete information about objects, and facilitate unisensory learning (Shams, 2011).


Lesson 2: Understand who the customer in focus is

Sometimes, it is unclear who our customer in focus is at any given time and condition because of the different customers and types of customers encountered across the value chain and customer journey. Don found himself in this predicament. Rather than ask other tobacco executives what bothered them most, he asked a waiter, who smoked, if he would smoke a Lucky Strike cigarette. Hence, the answers he received didn’t apply. Both the executive and waiter were his customers. But one was the focus for that time and condition.

One way to solve this obscurity in identifying the customer in focus is to deploy a stakeholder map. Stakeholder mapping is a method of identifying, analyzing, and prioritizing the primary customers that an idea, project, or solution will influence or impact the most. When done right, it allows the designer to build trust and influence with key stakeholders because they have tailored their message to serve the customer currently in-focus, accelerating progress towards delivering value for the end-user in the customer journey.

In the end, the insight required for Don to unravel the enigma arose when Lee Jnr., the son of the CEO of Lucky Strike, said, “Come on Dad, let’s get out of here. The bright spot is, at least we know that if we have this problem, everyone has this problem.” Knowing the customer in focus matters.

Lesson 3: Don’t try to persuade or convince the client. Instead, aim to connect the client with the product, idea, or solution.

In episode 13, Don pitches a carousel idea to his client, Kodak. They had reinvented a technology that allowed users to project their images more seamlessly to a screen. And they had requested that the words — The Wheel” and “research and development” — be introduced in Don’s pitch. Kodak wanted to be able to state that they reinvented “The Wheel”. Technology reinvention was their goal. However, Don dazzled the clients with his pitch that he changed the name of the product from “The Wheel” to “The Carousel” without hesitation from the client. But he didn’t accomplish his goal by trying to convince or persuade the client. Instead, he connects the client with the product. He personalizes the product, diverting the focus from technology to experience. He uses pictures from his personal life to project the interaction the customer will have with the product. By doing so, he allows the Kodak team to share in the user’s experience. Experience, not technology, was now the new objective. Don starts his pitch by telling a story about Teddy, an old pro copywriter, who he met at his first job. Teddy had told Don that although “new” was alluring to customers, Nostalgia — when customers have a deep sentimental bond with a product — was more powerful.

“Nostalgia — it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel; it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know, we are loved.” Don Draper, AMC, Mad Men Season 1 episode 13, 2007

Again, you see Don use multisensory statements to connect the client with the product. He appeals to several senses, including pain (nociception), and ties it to a sense of love/belonging. The result: the client is in awe and speechless.

Applying insights on human behavior can make us more effective designers and communicators, helping us to manage the intangible just as well as we manage the tangible. Because sometimes (maybe most times), it is the intangible that matters the most. And when we communicate like a designer, like Don, our job is to draw out the intangibles for the customer to understand.


Shams, L. W. (2011). Influences of Multisensory Experience on Subsequent Unisensory Processing. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 13064., vol. 2, p. 13064. doi:

Thompson, V. a. (1994). Memory for pictures and sounds: independence of auditory and visual codes. . Can. J. Exp. Psychol. , 48, 380–396.

Treichler, T. G. (1967). Are you missing the boat in training aid? Film AV Commun. 1, 14–16.

Wiener, M. (Producer), & Wiener, M. (Director). (2007). Mad Men [Motion Picture].



[i] Eureka, Archimedes,

[ii] Mad men, 2007 – 2015,

[iii] Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – Simply Psychology

[iv] The crux: “…It means the hardest pitch or the hardest move on a climb.” – The Crux with Richard Rumelt, 2022,