The Challenging Design Client

Hey, we love a challenge. Give us a good brief, some firm parameters, a good deal of research to analyse, a tight deadline and high expectations and we'll get stuck in. And we'll deliver.

But we're not talking about a challenging brief here. We're talking about the person delivering that brief. Over many years, some beers and some tears, we've come to identify certain warning signs of a prospective client that tickles our spidey senses and flags a few alarms. And despite our natural propensity to embrace a new client, our spidey sense might just be telling us: "Say No."

Here's the crux of what we do: we make you look good. From commission to delivery, we are for that time, albeit briefly, your design and marketing partners. Our job — our commitment, our passion — is to make your business better.

Whether it's a new logo, a website, a sales brochure, a promotional campaign, whatever, what we want is what you want: a business that is fundamentally better than it was before.

Can you feel the love?

Unfortunately, not all design gigs are like that, and some jobs go south, leaving a bitter taste in everyone's mouth. In some instances it's a simple case of your can't please everyone all of the time. Other times, not so much.

Let's be honest: despite the adage, the customer isn't always right. Right? In every trade or profession, some clients are just painful to deal with. Unrealistic expectations or budget, badly prepared, lack of concentration or communication, superiority complexes: whatever you do for a living, we've all known customers like that.

It would be good to be able to spot such a client up front, say "Thanks but no thanks", and save ourselves — and the client — much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair. That's what our spidey sense is telling us in such instances.

Better, though, if we could educate the client so they become a better client, no? We want you to be better, so that we can be better, and together we can achieve a better result. Feeling the love again? Cool. Let's see if you qualify as a potentially Bad Client and what we can do to help you through it.

Buzzword overload

Does your brief use the words "yet" or "but not"? As in, "modern, yet traditional", "open, but not spacey", "corporate, yet human", "cutting edge, yet conservative", "black, but not too dark". (These are all real briefs.)  In art school that's called design dichotomy, and in art school is where it should stay. In each of these cases the phrasing is abstract to the point of absurdity or is simply meaningless.

Does your brief contain phrases such as "think outside the box" or "going forward" or  you want an "actionable paradigm shift to incentivise stakeholders to evangelise to the platform atheists"? Bleeeaaaggghhh. Again, that's all pretty meaningless: they're awful big words and we be but humble designers.

Let's go back to the drawing board and analyse what you're really after. Traditional doesn't have to look hokey. Corporate doesn't have to look cold. (Sorry, but black is always gonna be dark; that's just the way it is.) Chances are you've  selected some buzzwords that just don't work. Ditch the buzzwords and just say what you think in its simplest terms.

Sample saturation

Sometimes clients cite other logos or websites or  brands — sometimes competitors' logos or websites or brands, sometimes just logos or websites or brands they like — by way of explaining what they do and don't like. That's fine: that often gives us an insight into your business and into your expectations. Indeed, we often ask clients to list logos or websites or brands they like or dislike as part of the briefing process.

Our hope, though, is that there will be some kind of visual or thematic or semiotic link amongst the samples cited, something that clearly points to something, some commonality. Sometimes, though ... Sometimes ...

Sometimes a client cites so many logos or websites or brands, of so many styles and dispositions, that it is impossible to derive any knowledge from the exercise. Consider this:

We once put together a "cuttings file" of building styles we liked with which to brief an architect for our own home. The night before our meeting, we spread it all out on the floor. Whoa. There was a California bungalow, Harry and Rose Siedler's house at Wahroongha, some Frank Lloyd Wright, a Balinese-inspired ring of pavilions, a reconstructed warehouse, my parents' Queenslander, the public toilets at Maroubra beach and the fire station at Cascade Gardens. WTF? There's simply no commonality there. You don't need to be an architect or builder to discern an underlying problem: it's a hodgepodge of samples. Sure, the architect, at our insistence, could design something with all of the above in mind, but it'd end up pretty fugly.

Same with logos, websites and brands, or design in general. Too many, of too many different styles, and the whole exercise is questionable.

I don't know what I want, but I'll know it when I see it

Hey, no worries, just send us that blank cheque and we'll get started. Sorry, that sounds a bit tetchy, but there you are: these challenges get harder to deal with.

Tetchiness aside, it's on the money. This scenario leads straight to revision hell. We can't keep pitching and revising and pitching and revising without a clear and definitive goal to aim for. A rudderless design project just goes round and round in ever increasing spirals. You get increasingly frustrated as the weeks go by for the perceived lack of progress; we get frustrated as we grope blindly for inspiration, direction and feedback. Your final decision will be under duress and you'll resent the time and effort you (didn't, actually) put into a project which ended in your having to pick something. We'll be shattered and exhausted and it'll be a long, long time before our mutual mellows are unharshed.

We can't do it, and you can't afford it. Without a brief, we charge for our work hourly, and the total quickly climbs if you don't know what you want. Worse, chances are we'll never give you want you want (because you don't know what you want) which means, ultimately, you'll get a considerable bill for, well, for nothing.

Point of order: we simply won't work like that.

Get it together. Make time and we can work through a brief together. Forget the visuals: that's part of our job. What do you want your design to do? What do you want to achieveWho are you pitching to? What do they do? Get those thoughts on paper and we're more than halfway to a great brief and getting a great result. My mellow is feeling better already.

But you're the designer — I hired you to design something

True enough, but without more information don't be disappointed if we hand you back, well, anything. As the Cheshire Cat said in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, if you don't know where you want to go, it doesn't much matter where you end up.

Think about it.

I only pay if I like it, right?

This is what we call 'spec work', and No, we don't engage in spec work. A client who comes to us with this attitude and headspace regards design as an onerous expense, not as an investment that adds value to their business. They see rejected proposals or roughouts as wasting their time, rather than as a wide range of choices and a process of refinement. Feedback will be grudging, and will be mostly about us "not getting it".

A related issue is, "How do I get a refund if I don't like your designs?" The short, honest answer is, You can't. While it's not an unfair question, if this is one of your first questions and primary considerations, then we've got a fundamental issue about the value of design that we need to get over before we can start working together. We spell out our kill fees clearly in our quotations. And no, you don't own any rejected rough outs and proposals: that would be like paying for a motor vehicle and driving out with a swag full of the models you've test driven, too.

I know, I know: there's a webful of spec designers out there with "100% Money-back Guarantees" and their pants around their ankles. If that's what you need in a designer, have-at. We set ourselves — and our clients — higher standards.

Second cousin Curtis is a designer, and he said ...

Sorry, we can't work that way. If second cousin Curtis's opinion is valuable, he needs to be in on the briefing, not sniping from the edges about "this really cool effect I found in Photoshop". If he's got something to say, say it up front so we can incorporate it from the start. We cannot work with a dozen voices piping in their opinions after the brief. That's what the whole briefing process is about: communicating your needs to us from a voice with the mandate to do so. If a given person's opinion matters, get in on the brief.

More to the point, if second cousin Curtis is such a design gun, give him the brief.

Why aren't you using him? Because he's a knob. You know it and I know it. So second cousin Curtis' opinion is worth precisely one quarter of squat. If you're going to be influenced by second cousin Curtis' opinions through the entire design process because he picked some nice curtains for Aunty Lil (he's not really a designer, is he?), we'll get nowhere.

Design-by-committee (i.e. second cousin Curtis) simply doesn't work. It really is a deal breaker. Sorry. But it's all avoidable by getting everyone's input up front.

In brief

Not our clients, of course …

Thankfully, all our clients are angels. Such clients as the ones depicted above exist, for us, only as rumours and whispers from less fortunate colleagues.

Most of the foregoing is tongue-in-cheek, but it does contain elements of truth (because, as I said, some of these briefs are real). If you’re unsure of what you want or need, our job is to help you clarify your needs. That’s the first step of briefing, and it’s a two-way process. As I said toward the start of the article, part of our giving you the result you want is educating you to tell us what you need. And that’s the bottom line: both of us working toward the same goal. Better business.

So if you have something in mind, don’t hesitate to email us or give us a call. Not all of our clients started as angels …

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