Professional Design Practice :: Lesson 4 :: Dealing with Clients

Professional Design Practice Lesson 4: Dealing with Clients

They come in all shapes and sizes, from all different professional backgrounds, and we rely on them to pay our fees. A large portion of the freelancer’s lot is spent looking for them, bagging them, and spending a considerable amount of our daily slog trying to work out what they want. I’m speaking of course about clients, and this article is all about working with them, retaining them, educating them and occasionally sacking them. Mention the word ‘client’ to a fellow designer and the response will quite often be one of a humorous tutting under the breath coupled with a rolling of the eyeballs, which you’ll be invited to join in with in a moment of good-natured designer-fellow feeling. This is all very well, though a little close examination reveals clients to be a generally good bunch, who, to state the obvious, we rely upon for our livelihoods. At their best they can push us beyond the safe confines of what we’ve become used to, and it’s an oft-quoted phrase out of the mouths of the wise that’s fast becoming a truism, that the very best design comes out of a collaborative endeavour between the designer and client. Let’s look at things here a little more closely…

The Good, The Bad & The Meddlesome. Image used with permission of Peter Lewandowski.

A Marriage, (of sorts…), the Designer/Client Relationship

A marriage, (of sorts…). Image courtesy of Wild Cakes.

“Without clients there is no graphic design and without demanding clients there is no great graphic design.” So says Adrian Shaughnessy. It’s a decent quote and should help pull into sharp focus the sometimes unfair nature of things whereby clients are looked upon unfavourably as this unknowable force, an irritating fact of life and a brake on our creativity. Certain ‘star’ designers are often cited, inaccurately, as having enjoyed unfair patronage by some über-benevolent client early on in their career, but the truth often turns out to be a little different, these well known designers having had to work just as hard as we all do for a certain amount of indulgence.

I’ve attempted to redress the balance here of how clients are viewed, but how should the designer act towards them? Along what lines should the relationship run? The best piece of advice I can give here, and this might strike you all as blindingly obvious, is to treat your clients with respect and attentiveness, in a similar way as you would your friends. This isn’t to say you should befriend your clients (a modicum of professional detatchment is always a good thing) but just as we all have to work at our friendships to prevent them from going stale, and an inconsiderate remark can damage a friendship beyond repair, so you should work on your client relationships to prevent a drift occurring.

They’re not all monsters (very few are) but the clients on your roster will all be as diverse as this bunch here, and will all want something different from the others. Image courtesy of Paxton Holley.

Designers should train themselves to be hyper-sensitive to their clients needs. It’s a mistake to assume that all clients want the same thing, or have the same expectations of you as a designer. No two clients are the same. Some will want to be highly involved in the design process, some will need lots of attention, some will be suspicious of the idea that graphic design has intrinsic value and can help their business. You’ll need to develop empathy and understanding in a bespoke way for each of your clients (no easy feat, but beneficial in the long run). By developing this understanding you’ll strike the right tone with them and be able to better glean what they want, which should be the main goal in any designer/client relationship. You’ll learn about each other and some sort of rapport may blossom. These are the conditions necessary for flourishing long-term relationships to develop.

Retaining Clients

The heights a design-conscious client (The British Guardian newspaper) and a reputable graphic design studio (Cartlidge Levene) can scale together.

Guardian offices wayfinding system imagery used with permission of SeptemberIndustry.

Winning new clients is a challenge faced by all freelancers, and will never go away throughout your career. Once you’ve built a solid roster of clients, retaining them is another challenge you’ll have to face. But getting repeat work from an existing client is easier than winning new work from scratch. It won’t happen automatically, and you’ll have to make your client aware that you’re available and looking for more work. Added to this, if you train yourself in the empathy and understanding skills I’ve outlined above you’ll go some way to keeping existing clients on your books. Naturally, as a designer you’ll also have to keep delivering the goods, on time and within budget, to avoid your clients looking elsewhere. Conduct yourself with honesty when discussing problems and briefs with clients, defend your work when it’s questioned and admit to it when you’re wrong. Demonstrate that you care deeply about what you do and be attentive to your client’s wants and predilections. By conducting yourself in this manner and delivering the work you’ve agreed to carry out, you’ll be doing all you can to hold on to the clients you’ve won and get repeat work off them.

Educating Clients

It’s back to school for some clients to design education boot camp. Image courtesy of Alida Thorpe.

There are corporations and individuals out there, skilled in the argot of design practice, who regularly commission design and have a good track record for producing good work. These are often to be found at the top of many freelancers’ ‘wish lists’ of dream clients. They do exist but aren’t nearly so numerous as those clients unversed in professional design practice or language, and who require a little more help throughout the relationship. I hesitate to use the word ‘education’ here, but as formal as it sounds there really is no better term for the learning process which occurs between the inquisitive, receptive client and the articulate designer.

Smaller clients may be used to handing over design work to soulless ‘design and print’ facilities, or having a go at producing logotypes, advertisements, layouts and newsletters themselves. Contracting the services of a graphic designer can be a leap into the unknown for many businesses, who will all possess, at the least, a vague idea of what they want, but often little knowledge of the many aspects of design processes involved in their delivery. Assuming you have an open-minded and receptive client, it’ll be up to you to occasionally explain ‘why’ things work the way they do. This could involve any aspect of design practice, from colour theory and grid systems right through to conceptual-based matters. When called for, guide your clients through the tricky terrain of the design landscape with patience and understanding. Remember that you’re speaking to a client and not a fellow designer and adjust your language accordingly. In return, and by developing an inquisitive disposition (which should be mandatory for those looking for a career in the creative sector) you’ll likely learn lots from the varied types of businesses out there.

There’s No Easy Answer to this Age-old Question…

Look to form long-lasting, prosperous relationships based on equality with your clients (you’ll have to share the driver’s seat throughout your career at times). Image used with permission of Lino M.

Concerning clients, possibly the single most common question which preoccupies and occasionally distresses graphic designers is this: How do I stop my client from meddling with my work? An overly-meddlesome client can be a bane on a designer’s existence, and it irks us to have our work interfered with by non-professionals. We all wish, reasonably enough, for clients to defer to our better judgment regarding semiotics, aesthetics and the like, but, alas, this doesn’t always happen. Confronted with a situation like this you could flatly refuse to carry out the suggested amends, telling the client he’s plain wrong, or agree with him and set about implementing the suggestions with the minimum of fuss, keeping silent about your own concerns.

My own favoured, third way is to acknowledge what a client wants to do, tell him you’re happy to do as he asks but voice your concerns, and say that alongside what he’s asked you to do you’d like also to show him the concept you think would work best. Present several layouts/concepts to him and see what happens. As designers we aren’t always right and can’t win every battle, but by keeping in place a system for dealing with these kinds of situations we’ll more often get our work through than not. Be a warrior as opposed to a doormat.

If your client attempts to take control of a project and disregards your opinions entirely, don’t be a doormat…

Be a warrior, and find your voice as a designer to convince him —gently— of a better direction.

Doormat image supplied by Rukiasan.

Kit Fisto image used with permission of Ted Schwartz.

Sacking Clients

When to press the red button? Image supplied by Luke Robinson.

It’s possible that at some point in your career a client will prove himself to be troublesome enough for you to decide to let him go. Various things can happen to make you arrive at this decision. The client might be well-meaning but hopelessly disorganised to the extent that you start to lose money. Personal factors might make it difficult for you to maintain a working relationship. You may belatedly spot an out-and-out charlatan in your midst. A client might not be able to pay you. If this last thing happens, suspend all work immediately. Waste no more time or energy until your client has got his finances in order. If it’s a personal matter, and you decide that a particular client is simply not worth the trouble, then contact him to explain that you are severing your working relationship, politely but firmly, and provide reasons why. Make sure all loose ends are tied up before doing so (have you been paid up to date?) and then act on your decision!

Useful Top Tips

  • Never tell clients what to think of your work
  • When defending your work, always argue from the audience’s perspective, never your own
  • Take an interest in your clients’ affairs

In Sum…

For better or worse, we as freelance designers are linked in symbiotic relationships with our clients. Good clients keep us on our toes and can provide a check on our egos. They exist as (or propose) puzzles which we as designers must decipher and provide solutions for. It can be a highly satisfying part of the freelancer’s job to seal and then develop a working relationship with a good client, unravelling, deciphering, deducing, reassessing and reappraising matters throughout each relationship. To take less able or design-conscious clients and gently bring them on takes what they called in Victorian times ‘character’. Getting into the habit of forming your own opinions, and defending your ideas will boost your communication and articulation skills like little else.

More than a necessary evil then, let’s hear it for the client!

Unique, diverse, and each with a puzzle for you to solve. Let’s hear it for the clients! Image courtesy of Judy Baxter.

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