February 9, 2005

Design Matters

Yesterday’s post sparked some interesting discussions about the value of design and the seeming “worthiness” of clients who don’t “get it”. Well, I’ll go out on a limb here and bet that many of you are in the same boat as I am. I don’t have solely ideal clients beating my door down; almost all have genuine merit, but even so, some are rough around the edges. When I recently visited my new accountant, he sat me down and helped me to understand the things I need to know about personal and professional finance. Most times I find myself in a similar position and set to help the client get comfortable with what design is and what it can do for them. I consider showing them the benefits of good design vs. bad design and how I fit in to the equation to be part of my job description. Let’s talk about the positives behind this. I have my own methods of dealing with clients and getting them in the mindset of working with a designer, but I am interested in yours as the topic of this discussion. What do you do when you have a client with a lot of potential that just doesn’t “get it”. Do you pack up and walk the other way? What about the ones that probably have the same tools on their computer as you do? Or the ones that think that they get it? Please share.

Commentary (37):

1. Greg says… feb 9, 2005 | 12:58 pm

What do you do when you have a client with a lot of potential that just doesn’t “get it?.

That’s when I have a little ‘coming to Jesus meeting’. We talk about the improtance of trust and how they shouldn’t quit their day job to become a designer.

2. Kyle Stauffer says… feb 9, 2005 | 1:32 pm

If time warrants, and it’s a client I really want to impress or close the deal with, it’s always helpful to SHOW them the possibillities. This is usually in the form of a quick mockup or concept of their brand or site, etc. Just to show them what it “could be”. Most clientelle i’ve dealt with are more easily persuaded through the use of visual learning vs trying to explain it to them.

3. Jeremy Flint says… feb 9, 2005 | 1:34 pm

I do not directly speak with clients on a regular basis, but I do know that we usually evaluate a client based on whether or not they will trust us and our knowledge of what is best for them (in our case, interactive design).

If a client is unwilling to put trust in you from the start, then they aren’t worth having as a client, no matter how big of a fish they might be.

So that is always one aspect to look at when beginning a relationship with a client. Make sure that they are not coming into the project with any preconceived notions about what they think they need…and if they do, make sure that they are open to suggestions and willing to modify their plan or junk it completely.

4. Dean says… feb 9, 2005 | 1:58 pm

I worked on a logo project last year that in the end went nowhere.

This client had specific ideas in their head but couldn’t communicate them to me clearly. Turned out that they had tried another designer first and didn’t want me to be tainted with the original attempts. After multiple presentation go-arounds, I walked away and decided that I wasn’t going to please them. I was wasting my time. And time is money.

I also think that “selling-a-design” skills are important to a designer - and wonder now if I had better sales skills, whether I might have been able to convince them I was right…

P.S. I see now they finally have a new logo up on the site. Mine were all better! I’ll show you sometime.

5. Gabriel Mihalache says… feb 9, 2005 | 2:08 pm

Considering my small experience in the field and my large experience in a related field, I’d say “show, don’t tell”. If we think of it, most design lessons are visual in nature (based on examples). Learning a theory of design might be not on the client’s agenda, and maybe it shouldn’t be.

6. Chris Kavinsky says… feb 9, 2005 | 2:50 pm

I think its critical to communicate up front with clients that our role is to help them and their business, and ask as many questions as possible to find out what they want and what they hope it will accomplish. That way we can dispell any false expectations and set realistic goals together. If you’re lucky enough to get hired and they become problematic through the process, its important to go back to that initial conversation and remind them of those points. If the problems continue, you may have to evaluate if its worth sticking in there or cut your losses.

7. Notian says… feb 9, 2005 | 3:06 pm

Hey, man - a company that doesn’t know what it wants from someone they’ve hired to do it is OK with me. I’ve made a little over ten grand just sitting here giving out mock-ups, watching them change their marketing direction every 2 months. This is great!
But, if I had to work with an actor/director who did the same thing, I think I’d blow my brains out!

8. Darrel says… feb 9, 2005 | 3:13 pm

I also think that “selling-a-design” skills are important to a designer

It’s perhaps the most important skill in terms of business. I’ve learned that the single most valuable asset a design firm can have is a skilled salesperson who can talk the talk of both business and graphic design.

You can’t sell graphic design solely on the merits of graphic design. You can sell it based on the business needs and goals of the client. This is where a salesperson can be a huge help.

I didn’t always believe that the client is always right until I had the opportunity to work with a great salesperson. In the end, the client is always ‘right’. A good salesperson makes sure the client’s view of right aligns with your view of it. For example. If you know the solution is red, but the client says it’s blue. A good salesperson will convince the client that red is the new blue.

9. Kim Siever says… feb 9, 2005 | 3:39 pm

I pack up and walk away. I have the luxury of a full-time (albeit very boring) design job. I do not need the side work. I can afford to be picky. So if someone comes along who isn’t worth it, I sell myself as expensive. That usually gets rid of them. However, I am very careful to include the fact that I am expensive because I am a professional; if they want professional work, they pay professional prices.

I have better things to do with my time than to cater to a client who wants creative control over every aspect of the design. If that’s what they want, they an type it up in Word and press “Save as Webpage”.

10. nick s says… feb 9, 2005 | 3:55 pm

I learned a lesson the hard way on this topic.

I did a site for my [fulltime job] manager’s wife…yeah, that was the first problem…

She wanted full control over the design. i nudged in a better direction as much as possible, but in the end it was a train-wreck.

The site was to get lots of local media attention based on the merit of the business idea. With that publicity coming, I didn’t want my name on the train-wreck. I redid THE ENTIRE SITE in my own vision/architecture for nothing (stupid stupid stupid!) The result was a million times better and the client was thrilled if only they’d listened from day 1.

now, I’m more inclined to give a heart to heart. “You’re good that that, I’m good at this”.

Eris’ 4 part piece on How to Care for your Web Designer is friggin great, and I try to work those ideas into my initial conversations with clients.

11. Leslie Jensen says… feb 9, 2005 | 4:14 pm

Wouldn’t it be nice to have all of our potential clients and clients just “get it?? Ahhh…

I agree that ideal clients exist but they aren’t everyone. I’ve found that most people respond well to me listening about their needs. I really try to focus on why they want a website, a logo, ect… Or why do they want the logo bigger, to use a “fun? font, or never want to use the color green.

One of the best things I’ve learned from a mentor is to keeping asking, “why?. I keep delving further until I get to the root of the reason. Once I know that, I am able to address their core needs and they seem to respond well to this. I’ve learned I need to “get them? before they “get it?.

12. shua says… feb 9, 2005 | 4:49 pm

I tend to spend more time explaining/guiding/discussing with clients who don’t “get it” if I can tell there is a potential for a longer than short term business relationship.

If a potential client wants a logo and you can tell you’re never going to see any business from them after that (after all… they have their logo, why would they need a designer when they can just “slap it on the letterhead and envelopes in Publisher?”)… i’m wary of delving too deep into trying to defend myself and me fees).

On the flip side, if I can see potential for future business and an opportunity to help both parties, then a little TLC is worth the effort.

13. Mark L. says… feb 9, 2005 | 5:49 pm

I get so frustrated with clients who come to me because I’m the “expert at what I do”, but when I present, I present research, fundamental reasons for going the direction I did, anticipating their questions, blah, blah, blah.

Then suddenly they become the “expert” at what I do and blabber about this and that and say they don’t know why they don’t like it but will “know it when they see it”.


I turn it around on them and ask them things they are “expert” with in their business and show them that I trust their knowledge in their field, they should trust in my expertise in my field. The only problem is that design is subjective, tax preparation, or plumbing or garbage hauling is not.

No matter how good a salesperson we can be, they still might not like it for whatever reason. But I have a passion for design and I love what I do. Life is a challenge.

14. Benvolio says… feb 9, 2005 | 6:41 pm

I’ve worked with some small clients and some larger ones and have come up against this much more regularly than I would like.

I’ve tried using research and data and that works some of the time.

The only thing that works 90% of the time is to actually build it and then show them. But this is not always possible as budget constraints will normally prohibit this approach.

For the other 10% who you build and then show and they still disagree - just make it green like they asked in the first place.

15. Kenan says… feb 9, 2005 | 7:37 pm

[What about] the ones that think that they get it?

They’re insufferable, that’s what. Charge extra for the time you spend arguing with them.

16. steve says… feb 10, 2005 | 3:49 am

i’ve had good and bad experiences with freelance clients. i recently lost a design job based on a draft the design criteria for which were “arty” and “edgy”. ugh! (sound of warning bells!) the client’s comments: “off the shelf”, “no art”, “no design”. very helpful! and it was only a draft…

in this case i had tried consultation, explanation, demonstration and empathy… but if you can’t get a coherent design brief from your client then it can all end in tears.

17. Niff says… feb 10, 2005 | 8:18 am

All you have to do is hear Ian’s storys. HE KNOWS ALL ABOUT clients who”think they know.” He now can’t run or kneel for too long without his knee swelling up to the size of his head.

poor the een

18. mary says… feb 10, 2005 | 9:09 am

I usually don’t have the luxury of telling a client to piss off, so my tactics are as follows: do what they want but also show them what could be, speak to them one on one, show them competitors work and explain how to be better/differentiate. When it comes down to it, I’m a commercial artist, which means my work has a price. If you make it suck or the process difficult, I will charge you for it.

Clients aren’t the enemy — they wouldn’t come to you if they didn’t need help. Kudos to Leslie’s post.

19. steve says… feb 10, 2005 | 9:22 am

Great posts Jason.
The tricky part for me has been to explain the importance of design and what good design can offer a company, without offending the client. Most non-designers go on whatever they like. “I like the purple one, and use all four fonts” So how do you say to the client… no. you can only have one font - and that color is not going to work well. When I replace my own colon I am able to use my personal taste (usually based on design principles) to pick a new one.
Prime example: My brother owns his own event planning agency in Manhattan. He looked to his kid brother to make an identity for the company that is “sophisticated, elegant, not too trendy, and powerful” (his words). I did that, well I believe. He loved everything I threw at him, colors, papers, fonts, etc. He’s gotten tons of compliments on the system. Still though, he uses Stylus BT font on all his proposals and totally throws off everything I did. You know why? Because he likes it. No regard for design. Oh well.
Anyhow… great posts.

20. SteveR says… feb 10, 2005 | 11:23 am

On the one hand, I always get worried when someone says to me “Just trust me”. I think it means they are having a hard time articulating something. As designers we are supposed to have reasons for everything we do. If we know the reason, we should be able to explain it to a client.
On the other hand, I had a client who could not separate her own emotional needs from the needs of her users. She dictated design decisions because “I like …”. The result was a poorly designed site, and I can say why the design is less effective than it could be.
I, too, agree with Leslie, and also Mary. In the end, I think it depends on how badly we want to get paid.

21. Kev Hamm says… feb 10, 2005 | 12:50 pm

I usually offer to work out their next business plan and/or budget, all while explaining that I don’t do my own checking, but I’ve seen the results, it can’t be that hard right? And then when they get that frightened and freaky look on their face, I do the “now, let me cut your hair” bit and mention a straight razor. Right about then, I ask if they want to let a professional do the work or someone who understands what is happening only well enough to appreciate the result. Always fun. And it usually works. I’ve even managed to get my boss to let me hire the designers that I like, and let them do the work that we all agree is a billion times better than anything the boss or I could come up with.

Great post, Jason. I would always suggest to you, tho, when dealing with clients suggest an absurdity with all the force of the client’s conviction - it works really well.

22. Ian says… feb 10, 2005 | 1:29 pm

True that, The Niff, but we’re talking about clients who don’t quite “get it.” Not tasteless, has-been homosexuals with rabid attack dogs tethered to multiple corners of the property just waiting for some hapless asshole to come wandering by so he can silently sneak upon them and tear them limb from limb. Unless the two happen to coincide. As it did then.

23. Matt Midgette says… feb 10, 2005 | 2:44 pm

Most clients come to me with their design idea and a lot of times it’s very easy to conceive. I normally show them theirs and then show them mine. (Sounds dirty). Mine mostly wins but the others keep coming back in the future with stationary, brochures, annual reports - those really sting. But it also gives me examples to show to other clients and those lettherhead, annual reports and business cards are becoming a more effective tool in convincing them to put their trust in me.

24. Jason Kernevich says… feb 10, 2005 | 9:48 pm

Great topic. Always an uphill climb. I have pretty considerate and open-minded clients most of the time, but some do try to hand out instructions. I have found that letting them know right away you are hired for your ideas and for your tastes and insights gets things going in the right direction.

However, clients that don’t get it shouldn’t be discarded if their product is valid in my opinion. I see the role of designer as as multi-faceted as it gets.…tastemaker, translator, diplomat, copywriter, educator, etc.…..We have as much of a responsibility to speak our clients’ language as we do setting tasty type.

25. Bill says… feb 11, 2005 | 7:49 pm

Interesting topic, but I feel a little lost on exactly what “IT” is that the client is supposed to get. If by “it” we mean the value of the designer’s expertise, then I would think that the fact that they’ve hired me in the first place is proof that they DO get “it”. But that doesn’t mean that I should expect the client to agree with every creative choice I’ve made. Everyone has their own taste and the client’s may be different from my own. Besides, just because someone went to design school doesn’t make them infallible.

Put another way: If your doctor told you you had cancer, you’d get another opinion. That doesn’t mean that you don’t respect his expertise, but you recognize that he’s human and can be wrong. We have to remember that a client is only human and so are we.

26. Paul Carpenter says… feb 13, 2005 | 7:05 am

I think one of the hardest things isn’t convincing people that good design is better but getting them to belive your design is good.
Some people just don’t get why I don’t like blinking text and marquees.

27. Jan Brasna says… feb 13, 2005 | 5:47 pm

It’s always about explaining the job and possibilities, showing layouts and analysing other websites, making case studies etc.

What do you do when you have a client with a lot of potential that just doesn’t “get it?

It depends on some points… How scary the final solution would be, money, client’s name/brand. After considering this I accept or refuse it…

28. Jeff Koke says… feb 13, 2005 | 11:17 pm

I think that if you spend the time to completely understand the business goals that the client is trying to achieve with the piece (whether brochure, web site, logo, etc.) and you incorporate those goals into your design(s), the client is usually happy.

Yes, some clients still want to make changes that go against all reasonable design principles. You spend some time trying to understand why they want it the way they do and explaining why that doesn’t work and show them a better alternative. And if they insist on having it their way, then you do it their way. They are the client after all.

Often the key is finding out who in the decision structure is actually responsible for the unpleasant suggestions (often not your main contact with the company). If you can speak to, or write an eloquent, persuasive email to that person, you can often change their minds, or reach a palatable compromise.

29. dik says… feb 14, 2005 | 10:10 am

There seems a lot of posts about the same underlying theory, that engaging the client in a well thought out/structured process before even trying to design will allow *them* buy in from the beginning.

I (currently trying to implement) try to discuss with the client the basic principles of the why, who, what they are trying to achieve (want a new logo? what is it for? Who should it attract? etc.) and capture this either in an informal email, or a questionnaire, I can then refer the ‘research’ to develop moods boards to present to the client, that way the main ideas I try to work into the visuals, are covered in the mood board (and hence have had early buy in) backed up by research undertaken by the client. And it also streamlines my visual development process by keeping me within parameters already agreed.

To many times I’ve designed ‘emotionally’ only to have the client reject it on the basis that “Green is an unlucky colour” - with the process outlined above, hopefully something like that would get picked up right at the begging (saving both you & your client time & money).

2 Caveats:

1). Obviously this is an ‘utopian’ process, the client might not have time, you may not have the budget to go through the entire stages (but it will really help to try and even stick to some of the bigger points).

2). Sometimes, you will get a client no matter how much research, mood board buy-in you get, will bounce the final design. There’s no easy answer if you should drop them, or keep with it - only your relationship with them can determine that.

30. John Athayde says… feb 14, 2005 | 1:23 pm

We built a massive CMS for a monthly magazine and it was broken up into four phases. We had discussed why it wouldn’t be a good idea to roll out certain content pieces until those database elements were in place. Instead they stopped after phase 1, used the feature story editor to post EVERYTHING and then complained about functionality. This is after 2 months of case studies and IA work that they approved.

They THEN decided to recode it themselves. Because, hell, PHP can’t be that hard to learn… The site is STILL not up.

Oh, the kicker for me as the interface guy? They fubared my navigation. They took a logical structure and put navigation items for their hottest columns and random other items.

hello, that’s not primary navigation. That’s side bar featurette, or internal house advertisments, etc.

The other client nightmare is the “well this doesn’t look exactly right in AOL” - we had a client FORCE us to use PNG images because of AOL’s compression. Because, since they only used AOL and refused to switch, they didn’t care if it broke everywhere else, as long as it looked good to them.

We pretty much deal with clients like this in one way:

Increase the price, send an invoice.

We now *double* our rates on a site build if they want it to work perfectly in AOHELL.

This may be obnoxious, but we’ve found that most clients don’t listen to anything you say, and only to their non-design friends.

I did actually ask a client if they diagnose themselves when visiting the doctore or defend themselves in court because they think they know more than the lawyer. Yes. Abrasive. But they get the memo mighty quick.

31. Nathan Smith says… feb 14, 2005 | 5:42 pm

Sadly, with such clients, I tend to stick it out. I’m still in graduate school, and as such am in need of whatever business I can get. Ideally, I’d be able to sort through clients they way some of y’all do.

I try to explain to them that while I may be doing the web design, and no matter how well that turns out, it will just sit empty unless they fill it. I share in the same frustrations as the rest of you, with the type of know-it-all client that wants to push you around.

To those types, I just suggest (in all seriousness) that they design the aspects they’re talking about, and that afterwards I’ll encorporate that into the design. Most of the time, they ask how to go about doing that, in which case the point is made - that’s why they need a designer in the first place.

32. John says… feb 15, 2005 | 7:37 pm

My worst nightmare came true when I met with the company that turned out to be my third freelance client ever. My main contact had seen another site I’d done and loved the simplicity, usability, etc. We were going to get along great. I get to the meeting, and her boss walks in and says “Can the website play ‘House of the Rising Sun’ when you get to the home page?” I was speechless, waiting for him to say “hahaha, just kidding,” but he never did. I managed to talk him out of that, but there was still one bad idea of his that I had no luck getting him to ditch.

33. Mike Piontek says… feb 16, 2005 | 6:45 am

Something I’ve always tried to do is to make my clients feel as involved as possible. They often want to feel as though they had a hand in it, and that’s understandable… It is their company. In my experience, if you keep them out of it, it often backfires… Towards the end of the project they start making specific suggestions (“make this bigger”, “move that there”) just to make their contribution. That sort of stuff can destroy a good design, but it’s tough to argue about and difficult to work around.

I get them involved from the start, by asking about their product, any ideas they’ve had for the site, and so on. I show them a wide variety of different ideas and let them choose. If I’ve incorporated their ideas subtly I make sure to point it out to them.

It doesn’t always work, but I do think that if you can make them feel involved they’re more likely to trust you with the rest of it. Even if they do decide they want the logo bigger or the buttons red, keeping a good dialogue going will get them to say it sooner, so you can incorporate it into the design properly… Or if they’re really bad ideas, it gives you an opportunity to explain why they’re bad ideas and more time to present an alternative.

So I don’t think it’s entirely necessary for them to “get it” right from the start. The simple fact that they came to me, a designer and web developer, instead of calling their nephew that knows a lot about computers, tells me they’re at least on the right track. I don’t mind guiding them the rest of the way if I can.

34. cfharleyman says… feb 22, 2005 | 3:01 pm

okay.… a representative of a client calls in today. let’s say he’s an out of work cousin of the client. purely hypothetical, of course, but is ‘taking over the direction’ of the new site that’s been in design for a few months.

progress was slow but we were making headway. some money changed hands and a contract was signed but my hours were far from compensated. the client is a local single owner businessman like myself and i frequent his business.

the representative wants a total redesign of the site and wants to sit down with me for a meeting. immediately, i ask for a consultation fee. the rep asks me to hold and line two lights up. the client is on the line fuming that i’m asking for more money. i tried to exlain, but the clent only heard “more money”.

i conference in the two but they both start bickering amongst themselves. i ask them gently to let me speak but they rant on arguing over design changes that would’ve required a major redesign. again, i reiterate that i require a consultation fee to continue. fifteen minutes later, i have to hang up to open my phone lines. i’ve lost the client and the hours i put in.

did i “get it” or was i wrong for not keeping the dialog moving? did the client not “get it” by believing that our original vision was worthless? i’m looking for an answer to the question, “what did i learn here and how do i not repeat this mistake?”

35. wizmo says… feb 25, 2005 | 1:48 pm

Just a word of encouragement about this. In my 30s I worked as an interior designer, but got out because I saw that the main job was to intimidate clients who were insecure about their taste, and I just didn’t have the personality to do the necessary bullying.

Now, as a graphic designer/teacher in my 50s, I am able to be alpha dog almost effortlessly in most client situations. I’m relaxed and jovial, but clearly the expert.

Somehow, with age, came the ability to intimidate-charm-cajole-instruct so that we can give them the site they need and they can get out of the way and let us do that. Something to look forward to!

36. Allan W. says… mar 1, 2005 | 8:11 pm

Wizmo, I can hardly wait. =)

37. Pletch says… may 11, 2005 | 6:43 pm

Sometimes I just do what the client wants, take the money, and swallow my pride as a designer…

If the client is happy, then you did your job, even if you don’t feel the design is what it could have been.

Take the money and run.