Make Your Clients Collaborators

Categories Articles, Web Design

This is a guest post from Matt Griffin – one of the founders of the design firm Bearded. He also teaches letterpress printing to young designers at Carnegie Mellon University.

As a designer, I’ve heard a lot of “bad client” stories (I know I’ve told a few myself). Here’s the problem: the good client / bad client mode of thinking is flawed and irresponsible. Truly difficult, unhelpful clients are extremely rare. Most clients want exactly what we want: to arrive at the best possible solution to their problem, and aid the success of their organization. Nearly every client has the potential to be an important collaborator and teammate – and without these successful client relationships, we cannot create good design work.

It’s Kind of Like Dating

As with all relationships, the success or failure of this depends greatly on each person’s attitude and preconceptions. Of course, the side of this that’s easiest to control is your own. To understand this better, let’s look at scenario that is familiar to many of us: the first date.

You’ve been secretly swooning over some lucky boy or girl for some time, and finally get up the courage to ask them out. They say yes, and suggest dinner at a popular steakhouse. Problem is: you’re a vegetarian. Here are some possible responses:

The Defensive Approach

Steakhouse? That really burns your biscuits. It’s against your most deeply held values, and you take this incongruity as a sign that things can never work. You’re just too different, and if your almost-date can’t see that you’re a vegetarian just by looking at you – then they’re just a big jerk, anyway. It’s not worth even trying to discuss it, so you call the whole thing off and never see them again.

The Compliant Approach

This is the stuff of every 80’s sitcom and romcom. You hate steakhouses, but you want your date to like you so much that you go anyway, and try to pretend nothing is wrong. You’re afraid that if you acknowledge a potential disagreement, that everything will fall apart. And now you’re on the road to doing everything that other person’s way, just to avoid making waves. Not only is this bad for you (you never get what you need), but your date is getting something bad, too: they think you’re happy and like steakhouses. Neither of which is true. This is not a good start to your relationship. (Just ask the protagonist of every my-boyfriend-doesn’t-know-I-live-on-the-poor-side-of-town movie ever.)

The Collaborative Approach

Before you get upset that your date’s suggestion conflicts with your personal feelings, recognize the positive connotations of their intentions. The fact that the steakhouse suggestion was even made indicates that your date is (a) interested enough to participate and (b) that they’re trying to be helpful. They like the restaurant, and just want to share something with you that they think you’ll enjoy, too. There’s no way for them to know that you are a vegetarian – you just met, for crying out loud! Moreover, this mismatch of impulses is actually a terrific opportunity. You get to start a dialogue with your date, and find out more about each other. You can discuss why you’ve both made the choices you have about food, and probably learn something in the process.  Most importantly, this first disagreement will establish a template you will use for the rest of your relationship to work through decisions and negotiate potential conflict. How can you pass up an opportunity like that?

Designer and Client Knowledge=Useful Project Knowledge
A helpful Venn diagram.

Partner Up

This last approach is how you end up with a great client relationship. Remember: clients are trying to help. They have the same goal you do: arriving at the most effective final product. Their suggestions are just that: suggestions. Not commands. Suggestions are the beginning of a discussion where everyone can bring their specialized knowledge to bear on the challenge at hand.

It’s also important to remember that your client is not a designer. That’s why they hired you! That means they probably haven’t been to design school or worked in a design firm, and they have very little experience talking about or critiquing design. But they do have unparalleled knowledge about their organization and field, which you are sorely lacking. You need to listen to their comments and try to understand the things that are motivating them. Do they really want the logo bigger – or do they just feel that the brand isn’t clear enough, or that the tone of your design is not on target, the way the logo is? Just following your clients feedback without trying to understand what they’re saying first won’t get anyone what they want.

Now sometimes people are just a bad match. You’re looking for different things. By the end of a meeting if you’re gut is telling to head for the hills and you and this client will never make each other happy – pay attention. But if you’re not willing to work at your client relationships, and really listen (not just to their words, but to the motivations behind their words), you’re not really living up to your responsibilities as an expert and guide.

Clients are necessary because they make our work useful. They allow our designs to not just be beautiful, but to solve problems and help people. That’s why I show up to work every day.

So shake off all those defensive feelings, remind yourself of how knowledgeable and helpful your client is, and take another look at their “bad” feedback. See if you can’t figure out where their real concerns are, and start making better work for happier clients. You might even find yourself happier in the process.

header image by germanoldpictures

Matt Griffin is one of the founders of the design firm Bearded. He also teaches letterpress printing to young designers at Carnegie Mellon University.