Don’t say the C-word

Tim Rich thinks poor relationships between young designers and clients, starts with language. Rethinking our attitude towards the C-word is the first step, he says.

A whole new wave of graduates is sweeping into design consultancies. I have one piece of advice: never say “the client”.

Flick through archive copies of old design trade magazines and you’ll see the term popping up just as the industry is becoming obsessed with being seen as a profession. Clearly, “customer” produced a whiff of some grubby-fingered individual fiddling with small change to buy a can of beans. It was, thought those ambitious design Johnnies in their cravats and monocles, a little plebeian.

So, when designers were trying to convince business people that they were offering a service – and, in some cases, a long-term and high investment service – they needed new terminology.

You can see how “client” appeared. It implied businessy stuff; large budgets, serious decisions, corporate relationships. If “customer'”was half a pint of mild down the pub, “client” was a G’n’T in the club house. Very professional.

Maybe it worked. Maybe it still works with those of a more, er, traditional mindset. But with the way business is conducted now it has lost its function as an indicator of sophistication. Like serviette or executive or de luxe, “the client” is pretentious because it claims something rather grander than is being referred to. It’s now almost as shudderingly awful as its suburban hairdresser cousin, “clientele”.

But, it’s not just that the word has lost its intended function. It’s that it now actively indicates an outdated and overly simplistic model in some design businesses. In poor-to-middling consultancies “the client” indicates a horrible, vague, pale otherness – a sort of ethereal cloud of negativity; an intangible, unknowable factor in the equation of creating something. No wonder the younger designers in those studios spend their 1pm lager hour moaning about “the client” – to them it means someone with the visual sensibilities of a walrus and a tendency to roll over and squash their fragile ideas. In many cases, they never get to meet the bastard, just hear his or her name uttered reverentially in internal meetings.

This is absurd. A successful design project is a case of designers and client (damn, I’ve used that word again) getting close; sharing ideas, discussing, supporting. In this scenario the young designer experiences an individual for whom design is truly important, but who looks at design issues from a commercial point of view. That’s why the practice of young designers being kept out of “client meetings” is ludicrous and counter-productive.

The fast-growing, multi award-winning ad agency St Luke’s has approached these issues head-on. It devotes each room within its offices to one client. The St Luke’s team and the client team work together in that space, creating the campaign. There’s no “otherness” about the client – s/he’s sitting across the desk, picking his/her nose or coming up with a great suggestion. No doubt this system throws up all sorts of challenges, but it definitely produces some bloody good advertising.

As design continues the long, hard march into the land of strategy, with many companies now earning more for consultancy advice than physical output, the client-as-alien way of thinking appears even more sad. Of course, fiddling with terminology won’t solve the essential misunderstanding, but it does stop confirming rutted conventions.

Then again, perhaps it is too complicated to avoid using the C-word. I’ve reverted back to it in this piece. It is useful shorthand. But we should at least examine when and why we use the term. And the new generation of designers needs to think about the words it’s encountering around the studio: designers will need to respond to people using “the client” as a reason for ideas and approaches to be rejected.

In truth, it’s pretty simple: business people are half of the team involved in a commercial design project. Let’s call them clients if it’s easier, just don’t allow the people you’re working with to be depersonalised into “the client”.

Why use shampoo AND conditioner?

Is anyone else out there confused by the appearance of the new Wash and Go sub-brand Solo? It’s the shampoo-only version of the now famous “Shampoo AND conditioner? Why take two bottles into the shower when you can… Wash and Go?” Are its owners saying that, after years of using the conditioner in Wash and Go, consumers’ hair is so beautifully conditioned they only need to use shampoo? Or did they simply forget to put conditioner in the last batch? Either way, shouldn’t Solo be half the price?

Latest articles