I’ve often envied the role of the design client. How marvellous to have creative minds straining to win your approval. How wonderful to have all that creative energy dancing to your tune. But now I’m not so sure. Since abandoning the life of a full-time creative director, where most of my time was spent preparing pitches and presentations, and attending to the creative needs of clients, I now find myself, from time to time, acting as a client. Nothing too grand, you understand. Just the occasional gig as an independent advisor to small enterprises that need help with commissioning design. In other words, in one part of my life at least, I’ve turned from poacher to gamekeeper.
But far from being a rewarding experience, it is an oddly disconcerting and unsatisfying one. Perhaps I’ve become ‘stir crazy’. Perhaps there is just too much of the poacher in my blood to make me a good gamekeeper. I certainly feel inherently sympathetic towards designers. I try to make sure that the companies I work for approach designers in the correct way: I try to ensure that designers are properly briefed, that they are given enough time and allocated sufficient budget.
Yet my overriding impression is that designers often let themselves down when it comes to dealing with their clients. And it’s usually in small, almost invisible details. Take the habit some designers have of telling their clients what to think about the work they are being shown. To be told by a designer that ‘this is brilliant’, is a guaranteed turn-off. This is a judgement that clients want to make for themselves. When it happens to me, I can feel my hackles rising and a little bit of unhealthy resentment seep into my soul. Since being subjected to this, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night wondering if I’ve ever committed this howler (I have!).
Many designers seem overly defensive and much too sensitive, while others appear to think it’s their job to give clients exactly what they want, without ever challenging them or testing their appetite for the new and the unexpected. Both approaches seem guaranteed to produce only mediocrity. Of course, there are designers who are superb at dealing with their clients, but you can always spot them. Their work is excellent.
One of the most revelatory insights that my experience as a ‘client’ has given me is the realisation that buying design is not like buying other goods or services. The poor design buyer rarely knows what he or she is buying. If you buy a new car you can test drive the model you’re interested in. You can poke around under the bonnet and ask Jeremy Clarkson-like questions. But buying design isn’t like that. The design buyer buys blind. Hardly surprising then that clients are so keen on making designers pitch before hiring them. Forget the idea of pitching being a way of ‘ensuring a level playing field’; pitching is the way clients reduce the risk of buying a pig in a Prada handbag. It’s the way they try to ‘see the goods’ before purchasing. Designers who comprehend this and who find ways of dealing with clients’ trepidation will prosper, while those who are boorishly stubborn, and those who are wimpishly compliant, will find life more difficult.
Handling client expectations is one of the most important tasks facing the designer. I recently accompanied two clients to a presentation. One confessed he was worried the work shown would be too radical, while the other worried that it wouldn’t be radical enough. I felt sorry for the designer in this seemingly no-win situation. But he dealt capably with his clients’ conflicting expectations. He began by offering a rock solid rationale for his approach; and when he showed his work he appeared passionate and committed to it, but at the same time left the door open for compromise.
All designers are quick to blame their clients for the shortcomings of their work. And while there are undoubtedly some lousy clients, the ultimate responsibility for good work rests with designers. It’s no excuse to say my client won’t let me do better work. If that’s something you find yourself saying then look at your client handling skills. Are you the problem rather than the client? Are you the one who is applying the handbrake? The client/designer relationship is a partnership: both must emerge from the process with a sense of joint authorship. Get this balance wrong and you’ll end up with poor work. Get it right, and you’ll need to build extra shelves for all the shiny gongs you’re going to win.
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