Understanding what makes your clients tick is just as essential as having a firm grasp on their likes and dislikes. Can personality tests like the Enneagram system help designers improve their business?
A funny thing happened to me when I started to research the Enneagram system. I started by looking around for fans, thinking it would be a difficult search, only to quickly find that I’m already close with several people who have been quietly obsessed with it for years. An interest in the Enneagram, I came to learn, is a bit like a fascination with cryptocurrency or a fondness for the Grateful Dead—a passion that stays slightly hidden from view until a fellow devotee comes along.
The first time I brought up the subject with a designer, I couched it in a lot of context: “Have you ever heard of this thing, it’s sort of like a personality test, and everyone is assigned a number. It’s called the Ennea—” I began. “I’m a Five,” she blurted out, laughing at her own enthusiasm. “Can you tell I’m kind of obsessed?”
So what exactly is it? The Enneagram (sometimes called “The Enneagram of Personality”) is a model of understanding human behavior. Originally developed in the 1950s by Bolivian spiritual teacher Óscar Ichazo and later developed in the 1970s by Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo, the system posits that all people can be classified into one of nine personality types. Each type has a number and is given a nickname that sums up its defining traits. “Ones,” for example, are often referred to as “Idealists,” “Reformers” or “Perfectionists”—people driven by moral righteousness and integrity.
These nine types are arranged around a circle and connected with a series of lines to form a slightly occult-looking diagram. Interpreting that figure makes up much of the substance of the Enneagram method—once you’ve determined your type, the theory goes, its position in the circle will help you to identify your own strengths and weaknesses and to navigate your interactions with other types.
For many, an interest in the Enneagram starts with self-improvement and a desire to understand personal relationships—a quick Google will reveal dozens of articles along the lines of, “What you should know about dating a Type Six.” The relative simplicity of the system, with its nine easily identifiable types (another well-known personality test, the Myers-Briggs, has nearly twice as many), has helped it spread quickly in the viral age. On TikTok, videos tagged #enneagram have more than 75 million views.
However, the Enneagram isn’t just an internet phenomenon. It has also become a popular tool in the world of business coaching, spawning a cottage industry of experts who advise their clients on putting the nine types to work at the office. “I have a technical and scientific background, so I’m coming to this from a very practical point of view,” says Matt Schlegel, who uses the Enneagram model in his work as an author and consultant specializing in interpersonal business topics like team leadership. “I’m always looking for tools to help me solve problems, and this tool is stunningly effective.”
One of the challenges of using the Enneagram system is that it rests on understanding not only your type, but those of the people you’re interacting with, which can be tough to assess on the fly. As a quick workaround, Schlegel says he often asks clients to describe their method for solving problems—the step of the process they obsess over will help indicate where they lie on the scale.
Schlegel told me that the Enneagram types are best understood not as rigid structures that determine everything a person does, but as a kind of mental “handedness” that explains behavioral tendencies. Thinking about it that way made the system’s role in the workplace much more clear—after all, understanding the predilections of a client (or a team member) has obvious benefits. “If I know the Enneagram [type] of the client I’m working with, I know what’s important to them and what motivates them,” says Schlegel. “I know what they’re going to want to get involved in and what they’re not going to want to get involved in, and I can tailor my service to give them the best possible experience.”
It should come as no surprise that the Enneagram method has found a receptive audience among designers. The trade involves plenty of skills, but at its heart, design is a relationship business. Any framework for navigating those relationships is welcome. “What we do is so much based on personality, so everything you do is subjective,” says Dallas-based designer Jean Liu. “When so little is objective, it’s human nature to try and look for tools like Enneagrams—any kind of personality test to determine the likelihood of a successful outcome.”
The designers I spoke with who use the Enneagram system say that the method has helped them better understand their relationships with their clients, their staff and the subcontractors they work with. “I’m more aware of tiny differences in personality. I also know, ‘I don't get on well with these types of people, so I’d better be careful or do some extra meditation before I talk to that guy,’” says Glendora, California–based designer Christine Jahan, who adds that it can even help with the aesthetics of a project. “If what I’m proposing is not something the client really wants, being able to read past how they say things is helpful.”
“I use it in broad brushstrokes,” says Liu. “I’m not sitting clients down and saying, ‘OK, now that you’ve agreed to work with us, will you please take this Enneagram test?’ But it’s a paradigm to understand the personalities I work with—how I present design schemes, or how I resolve conflicts.”
The method is frequently criticized as pseudoscience, and it’s certainly true that there has been no published, peer-reviewed academic study that proves its veracity. It would be difficult even to design such a study. Not only is there no one commonly accepted Enneagram system to test, the concepts that guide it are not rigid data points. (There’s no way to precisely measure to what degree a person is “unfulfilled” or “romantic” or “corrupt.”) Critics point out that systems like the Enneagram encourage a reductive view of human nature that can cause more harm than good. There’s also a danger, they say, in rooting decision making in an unscientific method that could be used to make choices in the workplace that have big consequences—whether to hire or fire an employee, for example.
The skeptics have a point. Certainly, there is a risk in taking any personality test too far or using a glance at the chart as a proxy for making a nuanced, complex decision. But critiques of the method rarely meet it on its own terms. The Enneagram, I found, is mainly used by designers as a scaffolding for understanding their own tendencies and the needs of their clients—a jumping-off point to do some thinking about the people in their world. The system is mostly used as an interpretive tool, not a prescriptive one. (No designer, even the most devout Enneagram believer, has ever said, “I love this client, I love the project, everything’s going great—but wait! The client is a Type Three? I quit.” Much more common: “I’m not getting along with this client. Let me look at the Enneagram to help me figure out why.”)
Interior design is a subjective, psychological business, and the emotional whims of a client can have a tangible impact on a designer’s bottom line. If the Enneagram helps designers navigate those choppy waters, why not? Especially if the method is paired with a healthy dose of common sense. “The number-one thing you should do with your clients, regardless of their Enneagram type, is listen to them,” says Schlegel. “That gets you most of the way there.”
Homepage image: ©Alex Yeung/Adobe Stock
What's Their Type?
Decode your most challenging clients with these simple cues from business consultant Matt Schlegel.
Illustrations by Lan Truong