DMI Views: Bridging the designer/client relationship—It's not them. It's us.
Home > DMI Publications > News & Views > Viewpoints Viewpoints Bridging the designer/client relationship: It’s not them. It’s us. Search ... By Mel Lim, Design + Business Consultant, Mel Lim Design Many designers, including myself, have often blamed clients for not “understanding design” or not getting “us designers.” WeSubscriptions blame them for everything, from under-paying, under-valuing, to treating us like third world labor. The list just goes on andSubmit News on. How can we not blame? We hear this all the time, even at industry conferences where speakers mock clients. Remember the ubiquitous YouTube music video of Make the Logo Bigger? The question should not be why don’t they get us, but rather why don’t we get them. In the last 15 years of my career in design, I’ve heard peers and colleagues complaining how clients simply don’t appreciate design. I admit I have fallen into that negative rant as well. But we shouldn’t blame our clients for their “ignorance” in design. It’s our job as designers, to educate and persuade them. And if we end up with a horrific large logo, then you know what? It’s our own fault. We’ve failed to communicate, to persuade and convince our client. Business people are different from us. We cannot expect them to speak our language. For us designers to make petty remarks and complain about our clients, is simply useless. Instead of seeing the differences of “us” and “them” as a problem, we should see that as an opportunity for growth, collaboration, innovation and productivity. What are our next steps? How do we take on this challenge of persuasion? How do we educate our clients on what is great, good, and bad design? How do we show that great design leads to profitability and growth? How do we prove that design is differentiation? How do we prove to them that design is not an afterthought, but rather the very crucial step in innovation? That should be the topic of discussion. We shouldn’t gather around design events/conferences and poke fun at our clients. Sure, it feels good to know that we are not the only creatives in the world that feel the same way. I know, it’s a tribal thing, to want to feel understood and connected. But times are hard enough for a lot of us to stay competitive and alive in the next five years. Some of us may not even have a five- month plan, let alone a five-year plan. So stop complaining. Let’s start having this much-needed serious conversation on how to bridge the gap. Here are my 5 top tips: 1. Try to make your clients feel that they came up with the idea, or at least make them feel like they contributed to the big idea. I know this is hard for a lot of designers. Many of us have egos the size of Humvees. We want to be given credit for our hard work. But I think we are missing the point. The most important element in a designer/client relationship is collaboration. It’s about “we,” “us,” and “teamwork.” It’s not about me and only me, the genius. You could be the only designer in the team, but everyone else still
matters. When you remove the “I” out of the equation and replace it with the “we,” you are no longer a vendor but an important partner in your client’s organization. “It wasn’t my idea or your idea. The true collaboration happens when you stimulate each other and put thoughts in each other’s minds.” —Sohrab Voussoughi, Founder & President, Ziba Design. The more we include our client in the creative process, the more they feel like they own the design. And the more they own the design, the more pride they have.2. Turning complexity into simplicity. Our job as a designer is to make the entire collaborative creative process look easy and simple even though it maybe extremely complex. When we lose sight of our responsibility, we are putting that work back onto our clients. They will feel burdened, heavy, and wonder why they hired you in the first place. 11 years ago, I worked on a logo design with almost 40 revisions. It drove me nuts. I hated the project and my client because she made me feel like I was worth a dollar an hour. Well, I came to realize that I was part of the problem. I thought I could impress my client by showing her many choices in the schematic phase. I thought she would “appreciate” my hard work. I was naïve and quite immature. I realized now that as a designer, I am supposed to be the one doing the “editing.” I am the one who’s supposed to make it simple. Which leads me to #3.3. Strategy before design. Get to know your clients. Great design comes from good understanding of business goals and strategies. Without that, you can show a hundred color palettes/design options and still fail to please your client. Because those hundreds of options make your client feel confused, and in return, they feel that you are confused. At that point, it’s better to take a break. Perhaps, go back to the very initial meeting and look at your notes and truly understand your client’s objectives. I understand that certain factors cannot be avoided such as the politics of management, clash of ideas, or the owner simply hates purple. But by building a strong framework, you can go back to it and see why certain design elements work and didn’t work. You will have some sort of metric to measure against. So do your homework first. Don’t be too eager to hop onto the computer.4. Not everyone can draw. I admit. I am not an MBA holder. I don’t have any formal business education. I don’t take lightly what my corporate clients and their teams do daily. When my clients don’t understand my designs, instead of forcing them to understand design, I turn on my analytical brain. I learn their lingo. And if I don’t know, I ask! (Just don’t bullshit.) If they speak in numbers and graph charts, I show them numbers and graph charts. If I don’t have compatible case studies from my own projects, I seek outside resources, showcasing how Fortune 100 companies have been using design as differentiation. If they want to see proof of how being green can save them money in the long run, I show them Nike’s Considered Design. When my clients need more than proven case studies, I take the extra step by mocking designs up. We cannot be afraid to do the work. I have seen great design companies competing for projects where they spent a great deal of resources to win the accounts. Some win and most of them lose but don’t be afraid to do the work. Your competitor is already out there trying to win their next project.5. You have to really care. How can we make our clients appreciate and care about design if we don’t care about their business? If you want them to get you, you have to also get them. Most of my clients have already used other designers in the past. Their biggest complaint was that the creative assets the past designer created did not have long lasting