Every designer eventually has a client who has trouble defining what they want. Here’s how to cut through the uncertainty to work effectively with your client.
Does your client have a case of the maybes? As in, “Maybe we could make this pink,” or “Maybe a bigger button would work,” or “Maybe we should go in a different direction.”
Or perhaps you’ve been hired by someone buzzed on buzzwords. They’ll tell you to make it “premium” and “elevated” without further context, or toss off contradictory requests like “Can it look more retro… but also modern?” without batting an eye.
Professional designers will know what these red flags indicate: The client can’t articulate their design vision.
It’s not a bad thing, or even an unusual thing. Clients who are design-fluent are indeed a rare breed. But if the designer isn’t mindful of it, a client’s failure to communicate could cause problems for both parties. It can even derail a project entirely. Luckily, with some tactfully applied understanding and guidance, a good designer can help a tongue-tied client get to the crux of their request, ensuring a successful working relationship and an outstanding final product.
Ask All the Questions
Image by PORTRAIT IMAGES ASIA BY NONWARIT
Sure, some clients have zero design vision, and will happily approve just about anything you submit. But those situations are few and far between. Most times, the client does have a direction in mind. They just don’t know it yet. In these cases, it’s the designer’s job to do some pre-project detective work to figure the details out.
Ashley Minette is co-owner of design studio Bruja Collective and a professional designer with a decade of corporate experience in fashion and marketing. Minette believes the best strategy in the face of a vague request is to dig below the surface. “I ask them what they’re looking for; what is the question they’re trying to answer? What’s the design supposed to achieve? I want to get an idea of the ultimate goal.”
Implement a fact-finding phase into your workflow. First, let the client know that you want to conduct a brief interview with them in order to get to know them and fully understand their request before beginning. Then, being mindful of their time, ask as many questions as you can. Here are some examples:
- How did the project first come about?
- Who is the target audience?
- What previous experience have you had with designers?
- Why did/didn’t you enjoy those experiences?
- Why did you choose to hire me over other designers?
- What examples from my portfolio felt appropriate to this project?
“Try to get as much detail out of them as possible,” Minette advises. In her interviews, she tries to pin down exactly what they mean when they use descriptive terms.
“I try to break it down very literally,” Minette explains, “When they say ‘dynamic,’ do they want it to move? To be bright? Once I get an idea of what they want, I repeat it back to them to see if it’s right.”
Repetition is a great tool for reinforcing the ideas you and the client discussed. After the interview, organize your notes and send them a copy. This will give both parties a record of what was said, which may come in handy if conflicts arise.
Set Expectations For Work
Image by SFIO CRACHO.
When clients don’t have a clear idea of what they want from a designer, there’s a higher chance they’ll change their mind about something they previously approved, add more work to your plate, or call off the project altogether.
To avoid these obstacles, Viacom art director Alex Felsenstein advocates for setting clear expectations early in the process. “In any relationship or partnership, you need to set guidelines for how each party will work together,” she says. “For example, ‘This is how many revisions I will do,’ or ‘This is how many rounds of review we’ll have.’ If you set that precedent, everyone will stay on the same page.”
This won’t just protect you from losing time and money. It’ll also take some of the decision-making pressure off the client and allow them to hone in on what’s possible as it pertains to your craft and commitment.
Stay in Contact
Image by PORTRAIT IMAGES ASIA BY NONWARIT
Since they lack design savvy, some clients may want to hand over the reins to you, only checking in for notes or approvals when the work is completed. Freedom is always nice, but don’t indulge the urge to go completely rogue. Instead, make it a point to check in at regular intervals.
As Felsenstein points out, many designers feel uncomfortable initiating and leading check-ins, but they shouldn’t be. “Oftentimes they don’t think they should be the ones asking the questions, but I think they’re actually in the best position to do so. They should be empowered to get the information and feedback they need to make the project a success.”
Open communication and review throughout the design process will aid transparency, giving both parties a chance to voice any concerns. Plus, it will prevent the design from going too far in a direction the client won’t like. “It gets everyone thinking,” Felsenstein says. “It helps the client understand where you’re coming from and what you need to do your job. We’ve been doing more working sessions with clients at Viacom and it’s amazing.”
Minette agrees that checking in with clients face-to-face — or at least over the phone — can help the client open up, especially when tensions seem to be mounting. “I like to talk to them. Emails can sound patronizing. They seem to elevate the ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ dynamic. If there’s any kind of frustration, I’ve been able to throw it out the window simply by looking them in the eye and asking them, ‘How can I help you accomplish what you want to accomplish here?'”
It’s Okay To Part Ways
Image via Atstock Productions.
Abandoning a project in progress is never a good look. But if a client just isn’t ready (or willing) to give you the information you need to begin, don’t be afraid to walk away — politely, of course.
“When I was first starting out, I had clients who would ask, ‘Why can’t you do what’s in my head?'” Minette recalls. “Those are the people you should not work with. Don’t get upset or take it personally. Just ask them to come back when they have a better idea of what they want to do. Setting those boundaries helps you get paid better. You can take on more of the jobs worth doing if you’re not spending time on jobs that are set up to fail.”
Luckily, these non-starters are the exception, not the rule. Most clients are more than happy to support their designers if it will help the final product, even if they have to reach beyond their comfort zones to do so. You can meet them halfway by engaging them on their goals, setting reasonable guidelines, and maintaining close working relationships.
With this open and inquisitive approach, you’ll help your “design-challenged” clients tap into insight and inspiration beyond everyone’s expectations.
Top Image by Antonio Guillem.
Interested in learning more about design? Check out these articles: