Too brief encounters

Many clients do not get involved in the design process between briefings and proposals – to the detriment of relationships and end results, says David Bernstein

A designer friend, knowing my interest in client-consultant relations, told me about the cartoon site www.skydeck.com, where resident cartoonist Tom Fishburne documents a scene with dialogue such as:

Client (looking at layout): ‘It just sucks.’

Consultant: ‘Can you be more specific?’

Client: ‘No.’

I have been there. The language may have been blander and the sentences more rounded, but the sentiments were recognisable. Not two months ago, another designer friend (let’s call him Steve) related his own tale of rejection and impasse. He had been commissioned to design a logo. Steve had worked with the client’s previous company, though not reporting directly to him. The client was, however, aware of Steve’s capabilities. They agreed a brief.

Steve duly presented a design and possible variations. The client dismissed everything with the equivalent of ‘I don’t like it’. Asked to elucidate, he just said, ‘It’s not professional.’ Steve defended his work by relating to the brief. It ticked all the boxes, but still wasn’t to the client’s taste. And he chose not to articulate his reasons. Steve offered to start again, provided that the brief was augmented. The offer was refused. As was Steve’s suggestion that the decision go to arbitration (who are these arbiters of taste? I can’t imagine another design group being entirely impartial. A professional body perhaps?).

The client refused to proceed or to pay Steve’s fee and, instead, settled for expenses. Steve thought of suing, but dismissed the idea as too expensive, accepted the situation and then withdrew.

I wondered what Steve might have done differently. Insisting on a cancellation fee would have concentrated minds. Should the brief have been tighter? OK, you can’t legislate for taste, but you can agree on criteria. For example, is the logo distinctive, appropriate, integrated with the brand? Will it work in various sizes, in all media, in shades of grey?

Is there a way of pre-empting vagaries of taste and accommodating the client’s idiosyncrasies? Where should the logo register on various scales, such as traditional-modern, obvious-subtle and so on? If the design is a replacement, where did the previous logo fall down?

Maybe tackling these questions jointly will generate understanding from both parties and a sense of mutual ownership of the solution? Maybe not. I decided to approach the Design Business Association. Chief executive Deborah Dawton was helpful. No, its legal team did not involve itself in arbitration, but members can go to its solicitors. Indeed, any designer can seek legal advice, but it’s crucial to choose a firm experienced in the creative field.

However, the DBA would prefer to preclude the need for arbitration. ‘Process is the key’, says Dawton. It is running a series of case studies, the better to understand how client and consultant get to an end result. Too often, she feels, the designer takes the brief and withdraws until returning with the proposed solution. ‘Involve the client in the process [between briefing and proposal] and you may catch the problem earlier, when you can do something about it.’

Not all designers like to work that way. And, in my experience, many clients prefer to judge a creative solution cold, free of the clues which close contact with the process might provide. Nevertheless, in cases such as Steve’s it could save the day – and the fee.

David Bernstein

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