August 20, 2007

Tell Ya What I Want

I wouldn’t consider myself a pushover. I’m actually quite opinionated, and at times, I can be very critical, demanding, skeptical, and tenacious. These are qualities that are becoming more pronounced as I get older, tempering the bits of restraint and patience instilled in me from a injury-laden childhood. Because of these qualities, I have no problem asking tough questions in client situations, and over the years I have become very forthcoming with what my expectations are during every job, review, and critique.

I wasn’t always like this.

When I first started out, I imagined the client/designer relationship as a one-way street, possibly even a driveway with those spikes that pop your tires when you back up. I would accept feedback eagerly as rote demands, rather that optional points open for discussion.

What’s interesting here is how different I usually am in my non-work life. I’ve never been the guy who asked for a specific slice of pizza while ordering at a pizzeria, or piped up about riding hump in a friend’s car, not necessarily because I like being walked all over, but because I typically don’t care. I often make due with the hand I’m dealt.

Recently my shower drain became clogged, far surpassing the unclogging abilities of a mere tenant. I called a plumber, he fixed the clog, I paid him and it was done. Upon telling a friend about my bathroom endeavor, she smacked me and told me to get the money back from my landlord. I honestly hadn’t even considered it. If this were a design job where I incurred expenses, the first thing I’d have done was fill out an expense report. I have no problem talking to folks from big companies (people who have a much bigger effect on my life than my landlord), so why was I so timid about getting my landlord to pick up the plumbing tab?

In order to help a job retain any spirit in my professional life, I’ve learned to take charge over creative situations. In order to do this, it was essential to position myself or my company as the creative experts at the table. Setting up this relationship doesn’t create a wall between us and the client, or foster any sort of creative dictatorship—it allows us to recognize the differences in our expertise. As jobs progress, the differentiation allows me to speak my mind and back up my opinions in a respectful, though firm, way.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work alongside some very smart people, who as a young designer, I could watch and learn which battles are worth fighting. I’ve learned that the relationship is more of a journey in the park with many meandering paths to pursue, and more importantly, very much based on the joined consciousness of a group.

I’ve only been in New York a couple months now, but I can already see this change filtering in to my personal life. Hitting up my landlord for the plumber’s bill might have been just the start, but from here on out, I’m trying to exercise more authority from situations I find myself in. From cab rides to that slice of pizza that’s been sitting out for two hours, I’m standing up for my best interests.

Commentary (24):

1. Alex Burr says… aug 20, 2007 | 8:57 am

Excellent! One of the biggest client-relations issues my company has is precisely that - they have hired us as experts and then completely ignored our expertise, opting instead to make demands based on whim. When we challenge those whims, countering that those decisions may not lead to the best outcome, we are often accused of “not doing what we’ve been hired to do.”

No… we’ve been hired to do this the right way. We’ve been hired because we know how to do this the right way. If you already know what needs to be done, why did you hire us in the first place?

2. BillyG says… aug 20, 2007 | 9:16 am

Being raised in Brooklyn, I’ve always had that inner ‘you’re not gonna walk all over me’ awareness in me, but to be honest, my current slow-paying client is doing just that lol!

Luckily, she says I’m way faster than the former guy (who never finished her site), but in my book, this project is dragging big time.

I do 5-10hrs each week so it won’t be a complete waste of my time if she re-nigs(sp?) but still enough to show progress. The problem is, I had to wait a month just now for the previous 10 hrs…

Also, with no input or complaints from her whatsoever, I’m golden on the creativity side!


3. Daniel Carvalho says… aug 20, 2007 | 9:23 am

I totally agree with Alex. That is the biggest beef I have with this industry as well. Having to adhere to unrelenting client demands that ignore educated and professional advice.

It’s really tough to maintain a good client relationship when you completely disagree with their input into a project, mainly in regards to design specifically. You almost just become the monkey coder and just hammer out what they have dictated.

Thank goodness not all clients are that insensible and actually add value, and that we can choose what to put on our portfolios. Even if it only comes down to 20% of our work that we’re proud of.

4. Scott Robbin says… aug 20, 2007 | 9:27 am

Clients schiemts.…you’re a New Yorker now.

I predict that it’s only a matter of months before you’re hanging out the fire escape, in a bathrobe, shaking your fist at the kids in the alley, screaming, “I’m trying to sleep up here, ya bums!”

5. Scott Robbin says… aug 20, 2007 | 9:27 am

Clients schmients.…you’re a New Yorker now.

I predict that it’s only a matter of months before you’re hanging out the fire escape, in a bathrobe, shaking your fist at the kids in the alley, screaming, “I’m trying to sleep up here, ya bums!”

6. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 20, 2007 | 9:36 am

Scott Robbin: Hmm, I didn’t think anyone else was outside last night.

7. Nic Johnson says… aug 20, 2007 | 11:55 am

It may be less of a change of attitude for it’s own sake. I’ll bet that the transition from timid-designer Stan to macho-designer Stan had a lot to do with your clout. For example, when you first started out, you had to drive on the spiky driveway because that was the only open road for you as a designer without a superb portfolio. You had to do what the client dictated because they were your only option. Now, if you disagree with their expectations, you can fire them and you’ve got others lined up on your doorstep to choose from.

As young, inexperienced designers/developers we don’t really have the option of being in that trusted adviser role. We’re just hired to be the clients’ hands.

So, it’s just something that comes with the territory. You put up with it long enough that you get some great clientèle over the years and build up your portfolio. Then, when you reach Stan-status, you can pick and choose and boss your clients around a little. :)

8. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 20, 2007 | 12:07 pm

Nic Johnson: There definitely is some truth to experience and body of work helping you get more comfortable in your shoes. But, that will only take you so far. I know plenty of people with great portfolios that still have trouble talking to clients and getting their due. By the same respect, I know designers who are less capable that can talk a client into nearly anything.

Both working well and managing well are skills that you develop on the job. Other factors like reputation can help give you a leg up, a foot in the door, or some other extremity in proximity to a client, but they most certainly don’t take the place of good old fashioned communication.

9. Nic Johnson says… aug 20, 2007 | 1:46 pm

Word. Thanks for clarifying my thoughts, Jason.

BTW, even the best designer needs to take care when getting random extremities in proximity to clients.

10. Warren Blayney says… aug 20, 2007 | 1:59 pm

As a junior designer in a medium sized, well established multimedia design company, I find myself questioning the demands of some of our more ‘fussy’ clients on a regular basis. I find myself asking my senior designer why we have to submit to such obviously bad decisions that go against what we both know are good practice. By the end of these projects, my creativity is left feeling extinguished, and my head hurts from banging it against a surprisingly hard 22 inch flat screen monitor!

Is this what happens as a designer gets older? Does their creative soul get sucked slowly from their bodies by the cold dead lips of a clueless client!? Heaven forbid.

What can I do to stop the rot?

11. Patrick says… aug 20, 2007 | 3:07 pm

Looks like the enormous change in your personal life, and slight change in atmosphere is panning out well for you. Next thing you know the beautiful ALA design will look like hogwash compared to your new designs you may be working on.

I guess when I graduate this year moving to a new location could benefit me in the long run…

12. Vladimir says… aug 20, 2007 | 7:51 pm

Ah, its nice being a young designer still in school. No corporate entity as sucked the lifeforce out of me yet.

13. Blake says… aug 21, 2007 | 8:51 am

I had a similar experience when I first moved away from Miami. Once you start paying attention to those kind of things, and your voice starts resonating, you actually start saving a bit more money in the process. ;)

14. beth says… aug 21, 2007 | 10:22 am

How well did it go over? I should get my landlord to reimburse me for recaulking my bathroom.

15. Jeremy Fuksa: Creative Generalist says… aug 21, 2007 | 2:59 pm

Are you sure you’re not me?

That really sounds like the way I am. Interestingly enough, I also am working on trying to “take the lead” in more aspects of my day to day existence as well.

16. Shane Guymon says… aug 21, 2007 | 5:56 pm

So did you get your money back from your landlord?

Other than that, it’s always nice to know that no matter how big or small you are in the world of design, you always are under apreciated by clients.

It’s happened to us all, and continues to happen.

17. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 21, 2007 | 6:25 pm

Warren Blayney: As a junior designer, sometimes that just the way things go. I’ve been in that same position before, and over time you’ll see that you can learn just as much observing your seniors in what not to do. As far as making sure you don’t rot, the best advice I can give you is to stay sharp yourself, and realize that this is an ongoing duty as long as you are a designer. Sometimes we need to be teachers for our clients and their audiences, and this is something that needs to be considered on each. and. every. job.

Patrick: Talking about our work and all of the client stuff has been an evolution since I was in college. Though, all of the life changes definitely do shake things up and make you look at things a second time.

To All: Yes, I did get the money back from my landlord. Score!

18. bearskinrug says… aug 22, 2007 | 5:51 am

So does this mean I have to return all your sandwich condiments? If this new, in-your-face Stan means I have to buy my OWN dijon mustard, I’m against this change!

Unless it means you can get me my mustard back from those bullies…

19. Tony says… aug 23, 2007 | 1:54 pm

Have you ever been in the position where you aren’t the one interacting with the client, but instead your work is presented by an account executive? What if they do a bad job of selling the work and positioning you as the expert? How do you handle that kind of situation?

20. Jason Santa Maria says… aug 23, 2007 | 6:38 pm

Tony: That is, by far, the most troubling situation for client presentations. I’ve been there at studios before, and sometimes you can’t help but feel like your hands are completely tied. Unfortunately, the only advice I have for you is somewhat grim. Your best options are to sit tight and either climb the ladder yourself or find a different studio where you will have more face time.

Alternatively, you can find ways to make your situation a bit better. Something I’ve done in the past was trying to teach the people who present the work. Even if they aren’t designers, you can try to help them understand design and your work, as well as how to properly accept client feedback without just saying “yes” to everything on-the-spot. In the same way I mentioned setting yourself up as the expert to clients, you can also set yourself up as the expert internally. You can start to request that you and your team meet to discuss design before a pitch as well as afterwards to go over feedback, before agreeing to a client’s wishes. One last thing, you can also try to worm your way into client meeting and pitches. This might be difficult, but if you can get some face time yourself, you can start to interject and participate in presentations to make sure nothing gets left out. Just be careful not to step on anyone’s toes in the process. :D

21. Dickson Fong says… aug 27, 2007 | 7:30 pm

Although I’m pretty new in this field, I agree that it’s important to position yourself as the expert with respect to your client. In the end, THEY hire DESIGNERS/DEVELOPERS to do the best possible work for them, in which case they should get their money’s worth by listening to what we have to say.

This isn’t to put us in the position of being able to boss our clients around, because it should be a mutual relationship - my $0.02 is just as worthwhile as my clients’. Rather, this is to establish a relationship where the client understands that we are not hired to be their puppets, but to help them solve a problem. I think it’s important that everybody understands the ideal work dynamic - they give me their problems, and I’ll do my best to work with them to find a solution. Whether or not these are the right relationships to foster, I guess time will tell.

22. courtney zielinski says… aug 29, 2007 | 7:54 pm

Jason, just saw you talk at AEA. Excellent job!

Anyway- just wondering exactly HOW you position yourself as an expert for clients and if you really are successful with that 100% of the time. I try to do that with my clients and I’d say that a good number of them totally get it and let me be the expert, but there are definitely those who are the “just do what I say” types. With them, I often wonder how far I can push it before I just sound argumentative.

Just curious to know what your methods are…

23. Christopher Hawkins says… aug 29, 2007 | 8:03 pm
When we challenge those whims, countering that those decisions may not lead to the best outcome, we are often accused of “not doing what we’ve been hired to do.”

No… we’ve been hired to do this the right way. We’ve been hired because we know how to do this the right way. If you already know what needs to be done, why did you hire us in the first place?

Alex, you are my hero. There are way, way too few people talking about this sort of thing. We try very hard overe here at Cogeian Systems to be firm like that as well. It seems like it is always a fight, no matter how well-positioned one’s firm might be. I actually ” title=” - On Functional Specs and Project Pitfalls”>wrote about this in my blog a couple of years ago.

Jason, good for you! Clearly, when an client engages you, it is because you know how to do what they need done. That right there is a de facto admission that it is your opinion - not the clients’ - that should carry weight on matters within your domain. Don’t ever be afraid to push hard for what’s right in a client situation. Hell, don’t be afraid to push hard in general! :)

24. Kevin Tamura says… sep 5, 2007 | 12:20 am

for me the key is knowing which fight to fight. when i was younger I would fight everything.