Managing Design & Client Relationships: Two Keys to Understanding Your Client and Creating Better Design
December 14, 2011
For 10 years I’ve been working as a design professional in just about every corner of the creative industry from marketing and advertising, publishing, brand strategy to mobile and web interface design. I’m confident that any designer with a few years experience will attest to the notion that most clients come to the table with two very critical demands, which can be a challenge to manage, let alone achieve successfully. Those two demands are “I need this done yesterday…” and “Here’s my idea, make it work.”
To be completely honest, it’s taken me many years and a multitude of experiences both positive and negative to understand and address these requests effectively and respectfully without turning the client away. Let’s look at each point in detail, and why each is important to the client, and some possible solutions to ensure you can confidently answer “yes” and “ok” respectively.
“I’m in a rush and I need this done yesterday…”
It’s annoying, it’s a cliché and almost everyone says it at some point. When heading into a discovery meeting with a new client it helps to prepare yourself for this request – or in some cases it’s a statement – so that you have a quick confident answer. The last thing you want is for the client to see you turn fire engine red and start shooting steam out your ears. What makes this statement so frustrating is that the client has surely seen some of your stellar work in your portfolio which you’ve invested countless hours in to achieve a winning design and they casually expect the same caliber of work done for them in 24 hours.
Rushing a design job will never result in a design solution good enough for you or your client. Rushing the job will never achieve all the goals set out for you by the client, and it will never – should never – end up being a portfolio piece for your either. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate client feedback and especially those tough clients that will push you further than you were originally expecting to go with a design. It doesn’t always end with a design you’re over the moon with, but more often than not it’s a very successful design that will achieve your client’s goals and look great in your portfolio. It may not be your favourite design, but it will most surely turn into an excellent case study for future projects.
Offering more than one design concept is also an excellent way of pushing the design further and coming closer to that perfect solution – which I can assure you does not exist, it’s merely an allusion. However, we must be careful when offering more than once concept as we can overload the client with too many options which makes their decision much more difficult and will often end up with a request for you to merge all the different concepts together – I don’t think we need to cover what happens there. I prefer to stick to two unique concepts if the client’s budget permits. That way you can offer two unique ideas and generate some conversion on the client side.
Why Do They Do It?
Ask yourself “why do clients so often demand that the project be rushed to meet a ridiculous deadline?” The short answer is that it’s human nature – we all want what we want right now. Very few of us have the patience required to wait an extra day or two, or three; whatever it takes to achieve the best possible solution. Once you understand this, it becomes a little easier to maintain that cool Zen that will convince your client that you are the right choice.
Cut the client a little slack, they are human after all. In many cases, they have been tasked with this project with deadline pressure from above and are hoping to achieve a great design solution by engaging you, which in turn will make them look like a genius to their boss. We’ve all been there in some way or another, so the sooner you can realize that and empathize with them, the easier it will become to move forward and create a great design and lasting relationship with your new client.
Consider This Solution…
Honesty is always the best policy. Once you get over the idea of telling the client exactly what they want to hear, you will begin to earn their trust and respect. When faced with this challenge – assuming the rent is not due and you’re not hard up to win the job – calmly address the issues we’ve covered above. Much of the time the client will reference a particular project in your portfolio, which will create the perfect opening for you to make your case. Explain to them that the design that they like so much was an investment of considerable time and collaboration between you and that particular. To achieve a result of that caliber sufficient time is required and rushing the job will likely result in a design that neither achieves all their goals or will endure the rigors of time. The client will not likely want to revisit the design 6 months or a year from now because it no longer works.
By carefully and clearly explaining how you work – it’s a good opportunity to go into some detail about your design process – and that time is required to work through the design problem and develop a successful strategy you will often be able to help them understand that rushing the project will not result in a finished piece that they will be happy with.
If they still insist that the project be rushed over night, you have the option to decline the job considering that the project and the relationship are not likely worth investing your time anyway.
“Here’s my idea, make it work…”
So you’ve won the job and you’ve convinced your client that turning this project into an overnighter is not going to achieve their goals and expectations. Now they present to you an idea and are adamant that this is the greatest idea and it will revolutionize their business. First and foremost, keep an open mind – they could be right. No one knows their business better than they do. Your job as a designer is to offer insight and develop solutions as to why an idea will or will not work. Remember, you are the design professional and they have called you for your experience and design know-how to help them achieve the greatest possible user experience with their project.
The Idea Behind Their Idea
Remember when you first graduated design school and every project you worked on held a very special place in your heart and was to be your next masterpiece? Not to sound jaded, but this feeling tends to fade after you’ve spent a few years in the industry and you realize that these projects of personal passion are few and far between. I’m not saying you can’t be passionate about your work. You just have to realize that the final product is not for you, it’s for your client and their happiness should be your ultimate goal.
Most of the clients you will work with in your career are not tasked with coming up with new and exciting ideas on a daily basis like you are, nor do they have the practice or experience. When they invest some time into an idea, it grows into something very important and personal for them and they unlikely to be accustomed to expanding upon this original idea or searching for something more once they’ve latched on to it.
In some cases, you may be dealing directly with the business owner, which adds a whole new level of personal connection to the idea and the outcome of the design. This business is their baby and they want to leave their mark on it. They will often forget why they called you in the first place, so it is your job to graciously remind them.
Working together with your client and helping them refine or rethink their idea in a way that addresses goals and benchmarks as well as achieving a successful design is a fine art. If you disagree with your client’s idea, or have a solution that will result in a better finished project take the time to carefully explain or help guide them to the solution while being careful not to offend them. Remember that most people are not accustomed to having their work or ideas scrutinized and criticized as we designers are.
Offer your solution in a way that gives them something to consider and do not force your idea on them. Start with “I like your idea and it could work, however here are some possible drawbacks I see.” Follow up with something like “What do you think of (explain your idea)” and offer supporting reasons why you believe it will work based on your extensive experience in design and past successes. This is a great time to refer to a case study you may have done with a previous client. This way you’re giving credit to their idea and still offering what may be a better solution based on your experience all the while subtly reminding them that they have hired you because you have the knowledge and experience in design to achieve the great results that they are expecting.
Remember the greatest results will almost always come from a strong collaborative effort between you and your client. They may have a great idea, but it is your task to transform that idea into a successful design.
In the chance that your client insists you are wrong and their idea is the way to go you can both accept it and tailor the design to their liking – remember you have bills to pay – or you can politely decline the project.
So what is the underlying idea here? Mastering the art of communication and understanding your client is the key to creating lasting business relationships and design work you can be proud of.
If you have an opinion or experience which may shed more light on creating lasting relationships between designer and client, better design or client and project management, our Toronto graphic design studio would love to hear about it.