The Intersectionist

A blog about the intersection of design and everything else

Difficult clients, or difficult designers?

Note: this article assumes that you don’t always have the opportunity to choose your own clients, and find yourself building relationships with clients who don’t understand what designers do or why it matters.

In my observation, complaining about clients is one of the most popular designer conversations. There is no shortage of horror stories, and it seems like everyone has them. I’ve told my share. There’s even a very popular—and funny—website devoted to (dissing) them.

And there are truly bad clients, who don’t care what you think, who don’t care about their audience, and have unusually bad taste. Hear me on that, because you might not like what I’m going to say.

Truly bad clients do exist, but I think they are far more rare than we think.

It’s just way too easy to blame a bad client relationship on a bad client, when we’re the other half of the situation. I think we designers often fail to demonstrate sincere concern for a client’s audience and goals, and fail to graciously, persuasively articulate the rationale behind our design choices. Clients should trust designers to do their jobs—we’re experts in design, which is why they hired us in the first place. But in relationships with clients who are misinformed or uninformed (not hostile), I think we need to do a better job defending our decisions in a winsome, persuasive way. And I think we do ourselves a disservice when we think that our choices are merely “good taste.”

Clients tend to think we’re just bring a different (and sometimes better) set of preferences to the table, and our value is reduced to taste. If we buy into the notion that all we have to offer is superior taste, we have a pretty weak argument for why clients should listen to us. It’s their taste versus ours. From their point of view, why should your (supposedly subjective) taste be trusted over theirs? If it comes down to taste, they win; they’re the ones with the money. If clients think we’re just insisting on our preferences, no wonder some of them think designers are arrogant. And a host of self-congratulating, out-of-context design contests and client-bashing websites doesn’t help.

So in order to gain greater trust and influence, we’ve got to demonstrate why our choices are more than subjective taste. Everything we do as designers has a reason (at least it should!). Every font makes more or less sense given the message of a piece, the constraints, desired audience reaction, and cultural context. Every image helps or hurts your message—with its style, composition, subject, cultural perception, etc. Even color choices aren’t arbitrary; you choose this or that color because you want to communicate energy, or conservatism, or youthfulness, or the brand’s traditions, and so on. They’re the factors you already take into consideration when you design something. And those factors can be persuasively articulated and defended.

We’ve got to show that we really care about them. We’ve got to show that we know what we’re talking about. We can’t assume clients understand the design process or rationale.

Even simply taking the time to think through those reasons and explain them to your client will demonstrate that it is not merely a matter of personal preference. You can show that you’re working hard to use all your tools and knowledge to effectively communicate their message. As a client, wouldn’t you want to listen to someone like that?

Like any relationship, client relationships take time, thoughtfulness, and hard work. They don’t always start out healthy. But most relationships—given empathetic investment and a commitment to demonstrating sincere concern for the client’s ultimate success (not just short-term demands)—can change. “Bad clients” can turn into great clients. I’ve seen it happen many times. We have to be willing to work through the rough patches, rather than resorting to gossip and complaining.

Trust me; I often obsess over great design. I work really hard to make sure I get the details right. I push back when necessary to make sure my designs are as good as they can be. I think truly good design is critically important. And I know truly bad clients really do exist. But as someone who has spent the past ten years in the design world, I think we need to reexamine whether we’ve really done all we can to understand our clients’ points of view and earn their trust with gracious, persuasive explanations.

Good client relationships are about the big picture and the long-haul. We work through the problems. We work to see it from their point of view. If we care about people, and not just our portfolio, then client relationships are no exception.

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Why crowdsourcing creative projects doesn’t work (and crowdfunding does)

I don’t think I can say it better than Maria Popova does here.

Branding

Everyone wants a brand these days. It’s usually thought of as your visual identity—the “look and feel” your customers judge you by. Or, a brand is equated with a logo. Just slap it on your products, and you’re legit.

But people often miss the fundamental reality of branding: it isn’t so much something you do as something you are.

Branding campaigns—logos, ads, taglines, etc.—just tell people who you are. That’s valuable in its own way, but what it doesn’t do is change who you are. If I always have a bad experience when I go to Kinkos (which I do), then no amount of “branding” (great identity design, slick presentation, etc.) will solve the fundamental problem: they just don’t seem to care about me or my printing needs. I’m sure there are great people who work at Kinkos, but based on my experience, their beautiful logo just puts a face to a bad name. On the other hand, if I always have a great experience when I go to Trader Joe’s (which I do), their visual branding reminds me of that experience and increases my loyalty.

As much as it pains me as a designer, I have to say I’d rather have a great experience tied to a bad visual identity. In the end, customer loyalty will stand or fall on the experience they have when they interact with you, your employees, or products. Shouldn’t “branding” start with making sure your customers’ experience is one you’d want to have?

You already have a brand. The question is: do you have a good one?

Does the universe really need another design blog?

Maybe not. But there are things that need to be said about design that I don’t see anyone else saying. So I’m in.

This isn’t meant to be just another link collection, or image gallery, or philosophical musing on design thinking. I love those things, and I have plenty on my RSS feed. But I think there are better ones than I’ll be able to provide here. I’ll recommend my favorites sometime.

I’m writing this blog because I think we need a more rigorous discussion of how good design functions—in the “design” world and the rest of the world.

Designers and non-designers need to make a clearer connection between design craft and design strategy. Non-designers need to understand the design process and the difference it can make for them. Designers need to learn how to articulate the rationale behind supposedly subjective choices, and think through the ways design strategy intersects with business strategy. More than anything, we all need to learn how empathy and honesty empower great design that really matters. I’m convinced that design has a much bigger role to play in the future. Design is really just getting started.

While I’m at it, I’ll throw in some thoughts about business culture and strategy.

I’m a professional designer and communicator—mostly graphic design and communication strategy, but I’ve also done my share of copywriting, photography, music composition/arrangement/recording/production, sound design, video editing, video shooting, interaction design, and branding, among other things. I love this stuff, and I want to see the principles I’ve learned applied at the next level.

I’m writing to think hard about hard problems, and figure out what design has to say about them. I hope you enjoy it, and join the discussion.