Tough customer service

Jim Davies resents demanding clients, but finds he falls into the same trap when the tables are turned

Like Design Week, I’m springing into Spring 2005 with a brand new look. No, the short-back-and-sides that has served me so well for so long is staying. And I’m not booking in for a course of Botox. The image refresh to which I allude is being applied to my office stationery.

Now I don’t mean to sound smug, but my address book is positively bulging with graphic talent. Many of these big-cheese designers are friends, colleagues, or both. So immediately I’m in a quandary. How can I plump for one without putting another’s nose out of joint? What will my choice reveal about me politically, emotionally and aesthetically? In my sometime role as a design critic, I’m supposed to be as neutral as Switzerland, but would this mean divulging my personal preferences? And, most importantly, who’ll give me the best deal?

Grappling with these thorny issues, something else hit me like a bolt from the blue. The ‘C’ word. Yes, I’ve suddenly moved over to the other side, become… I hardly dare say it… a client. So here’s a rare and perfect opportunity to assess the design process from the oppo’s camp. From now on, perhaps I’ll be able to understand and empathise, to take on that third rewrite with good grace, to wave goodbye to another weekend with a happy smile on my face.

Even if this epiphany doesn’t come, at least I’ll have earned some moral high ground. As Elvis advised us in his song, ‘Before you abuse, criticise and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.’ Well, now I’ll have walked that mile, so any abuse, criticism or accusation will come complete with a newly earned credibility and authority.

And, of course, I’ll glow with all the essential qualities we all look for in a client. I’ll be decisive, understanding, nurturing, supportive, firm, but fair, appreciative, a team player with highly developed leadership skills.

So I made my shortlist of three happening design consultancies, and for a micro-second thought about getting them all to free-pitch for such a prestigious undertaking. In the end, only one of them agreed to the challenge, so in effect the decision was made for me.

Stationery’s a tricky proposition. You want something that makes an impression, but doesn’t shout. That looks professional without being dull. It can’t be too jokey, because by the time you open the sixth box of headed paper, the josh has probably started to wear a bit thin. As a words person, a quill, fountain pen or any other writing utensil is a no-no. Yet an allusion to what you do for a living would be appreciated. And as someone who works in the design industry, anoraky matters like choice of typeface and quality of kerning are also an issue.

I expounded these convictions at our briefing meeting and left them in the more than capable hands of my crack design team.

A few weeks later, I swarmed by the group’s studio to look at the initial results, and found myself as wavering and befuddled as the most weak-willed client. They’d come up with around 20 possible routes, all inspired and lateral. Not a quill in sight. It was tempting to keep the lot for different occasions. Or, follow the traditional path of the undecided client, picking and mixing from different solutions to arrive at something that destroys all of them.

No, I must admit, this client business isn’t the cakewalk it looks from the outside.

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