Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

It’s not them; it’s us (sometimes)

It’s not them; it’s us (sometimes)
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If you live in Vancouver, you complain about the rain and the cost of housing. It’s easy game, as we all share in this experience, no matter how routine the discussion can become. We designers aren’t so different. Although the public may never see it in designer propaganda, it’s not uncommon to find us commiserating about difficult situations with clients.

This isn’t all for bad reason. Creative work often is challenging as clients and designers alike really want to do what they feel is best for a project; as such, we all, at some time or another, find ourselves struggling to balance our emotions.

In the past year, we at smashLAB have examined the experience we afford our clients. I’ve always insisted that our creative solutions must be effective, and believe it shows in the feedback we receive from our clients. That being said, we started to think that we were falling a little short during the process. Something was making things harder than they needed to be, and as we looked, we started to realize that it was (gulp) us.

So, we changed.

Talking about what to expect

In finally reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, one passage in particular resonated with me. The author discusses studies in which they found that those doctors who were sued least in malpractice cases were often not the best physicians; instead, they shared certain characteristics that endeared their patients to them.

One such practice was to simply explain to patients what to expect over the course of a visit. As pedestrian as this may sound, this step is incredibly helpful in the design process as well. Many of our clients have never even worked with a designer before. Taking a moment at the beginning of a project, and likewise at the start of meetings, to explain what we’ll be concentrating on, and what we hope to achieve by doing so, grounds our process.

And then listening

I’m a careful listener. Although I may appear distracted, it’s rare when I can’t remember a conversation nearly verbatim. (This is incredibly bothersome to my wife, on the odd occasion when we find ourselves squabbling about something.)

Although my wife knows that I can multi-task like this quite effectively, our clients don’t. So, I’ve rearranged my cues around this point. When a client talks, I put down my pen, make eye-contact and visually send the message that he/she has my complete and undivided attention. (Perception is often just as important as reality.)


I once worked in retail with a fellow whom customers loved. His trick seemed to be found in how often he said “yes”. A customer would come in with an outdated coupon and he’d accept it. When people wanted something done in a rush, he’d smile and find a way to do it. As a result, people started to ask for him by name. The company sold more product due to his accommodating disposition.

Clients love to hear that something isn’t a problem. Just starting with a “yes” opens things up. This is helpful should you find that their approach doesn’t accomplish what they had hoped, and you need to sell them on another possibility. A mistimed “no”, on the other hand, can sometimes result in a tug of war.

We designers are often rather particular people, and this can lead us to predetermine whether an idea is workable, often without careful and adequate exploration. You know, you can always try out the client’s suggestion, even if it seems to not make sense. Sometimes ideas that you didn’t think would work, do.

It’s in the solution

After many hours of toil to make a design approach work, it’s easy to start a meeting just wanting to protect the gem you’ve polished. Needless to say, this is just the kind of mindset that can lead one to be defensive. This perspective makes you pretty reactive and often blind to the opportunities that might meet the project demands best.

For example, “I understand that you’d like the logo to be bigger so people can easily identify your company. My worry, however, is that this may take attention away from your offering. What if we instead cut some clutter from the page, so that the logo is more noticeable?”

We’re all trying to achieve the same thing regardless of which route we feel best does so. Focusing on those goals, instead of holding firmly to one approach can make all the difference in reaching a positive outcome.

Level with them

Admitting that one is fallible isn’t the worst thing in the world. We don’t work on assembly lines, and most people will appreciate that this means that some things won’t go exactly by the book. In fact, this can work out in the favor of all parties. Along the way though, just explaining this can help to smooth out the situation.

“I’m really sorry that we couldn’t deliver this as quickly as we had expected. You see, three clients all came in looking to complete their projects last week. We worked nights to help everyone out, but it’s hard to anticipate these kinds of bottlenecks.”

People respond to people. Forget the Gantt chart for a moment, screw what seems to be the “professional” way to do things, and talk to your clients as allies. Explain to them that you want to understand their needs, and equally wish to make your perspectives and methods understood. Invest an extra hour in discussion, and cut the time on kerning a little. Your clients will likely feel better about their investment.

Before a meeting in which we have to broach some difficult points, we ask ourselves if we’d want to hear what we’re saying. Is our energy and passion inadvertently coming off as arrogance? How could we better phrase our concerns, and how do we best facilitate what we wish to accomplish? (And apologizing for our mistakes is incredibly disarming in heated situations.)

Get a hobby

Design is funny. It gets under your skin, and once it does, it’s hard to not take things personally. You know what though? We’re contractors, and sometimes we aren’t going to get our way, even if we may be “right”.

I’ve found that simply accepting this has been a welcome relief. Instead of being so personally invested in a client effort, I commit to making our best options available to them. If they decide against our suggestions, that’s fair. We then do what we can to make their direction work.

Part of what has made this more palatable is our studio’s decision to take on internal projects that we can direct entirely. We’re a lot more flexible with client work, now that we have pet projects of our own to obsess over. Start building typefaces, pick up a camera, start a blog, create your own product; whatever it is, find something you can “own”. That way you won’t find yourself putting every drop of your soul into someone else’s project. (There’s a difference between committed and obsessed.)

I’m not naturally good with people, and that’s a shortcoming that has presented its share of challenges over the years. At the same time, I love this company and really care about the clients we work with. Being honest with them, reflecting before responding, and really working to understand their perspectives has helped bring our experience in line with our end-product.

Change is good.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. andrew says:

    Excellent article.. very true. I have also given up putting sweat and tears into client jobs after having many beautiful creations carved up!!

  2. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks; glad you liked the piece.

    I would like to note though, that I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't put our full effort into what we're doing. In my mind, that's absolutely necessary. (And it's how we grow our capabilities.)

    That being said, I think it's important for us to be able to "let go" at a certain point too.

  3. Martin says:

    Brilliant read! Quite often we forget that clients are people too.

    I found that much of what you said in this article is along the lines of the old time classic book"How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. It's a book that I recommend all designers read, regardless of the cheesy "self-help" title. :)

  4. Great advice and insight Eric, as always. The experiences you share with us never cease to inspire me.

    And thanks for fixing the comments.

  5. Great point about going into a meeting with an open rather than defensive mindset. It's way too easy to lose yourself in that "designer perspective" and think that you're 100% right.

  6. Chris Butler says:

    Eric, thanks for the insight. Our team at Newfangled has been talking quite a bit lately about service, and how to give great service to our clients with integrity. We've touched frequently on several of the ideas you mentioned (Level With Them- how simple yet how often blocked by our egos!). A book I would recommend is one we've all been reading through together: Zingerman's Guide to Giving Great Service (you can find it on Amazon). It's written from the perspective of a retail food establishment owner, but deals with many issues that are part of the daily life of a creative agency, or in our case, a development company that partners with creative agencies.

  7. Able Parris says:

    Great insight! There needs to be a good balance between doing our best, and giving our all. Another thing to keep in mind is that even if a client "carves" away a great project, an idea is never lost. We can find ways to bring it back into another project, whether personal, as you mentioned, or contracted.

    Thanks for sharing, keep it up!

  8. "You see, three clients all came in looking to complete their projects last week."

    Isn't this making up excues? And I also wonder about what you write about as de-personalification of our work, should we just give in, and code that flash intro?

  9. Chris, Thanks for the book suggestion. I'll look into that. :-)

    Tor, I suppose I see it more as being honest than making excuses. Sometimes clients take an indeterminate length of time to respond to a creative solution and this can result in bottlenecks. I believe it's only fair to be upfront about that.

    With regards to your other point, while I do believe that we should bring personal insights into projects, we also have to acknowledge that ours are collaborative acts. As such, I see it as prudent (and healthy) to facilitate methods that work well with clients, even if this sometimes results in us acquiescing on a point.

  10. Shane says:

    Nice article, I found it to be very intresting and beneficial.

  11. Juan Manuel says:

    Hey Eric, great article.

    I would like to add to be able to say "sorry" when things go wrong, or when we make mistakes.

    We work with people, no matter how big our client is. People ARE the companies they work for. And we work for people not for companies.

  12. Naomi says:

    This is so true. It's easy to blame the client for everything, but a lot of the time, the problems also come from ourselves. It takes two to tango, right?

    I love the grid layout you have here!

  13. Anders says:

    Great article, full of great suggestion and common examples.

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  15. Ternel says:

    Great!!! I'm always wondering before where can get answers from all of my clients questions...Now its here. Yehey!

    I also love this article: How to disarm 10 difficult client observations/requests

    THE BEST!!!

  16. KLIM says:

    Great article, thanks!

    I am dealing with a few challenging clients right now and reading these posts somehow makes me feel a bit better.


  17. Hi all,

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  18. Erin says:

    Terrific article.

    "...That way you won’t find yourself putting every drop of your soul into someone else’s project."

    It looks like I should seriously take up a hobby...ever since I got this design job, I've inadvertently stopped doing all of my favourite hobbies (painting, drawing, etc.) because by the time I get home, I feel completely burnt out creatively. But you're saying that if I'd continue my hobbies, I wouldn't feel so wrung out? It does make sense.

  19. Hi Erin,

    Thanks; glad you liked it!

    You'd think that taking on other things would just limit your time for client-driven work; instead, I've found that it energizes us for those projects, and keeps us from taking changes overly personally.

    For example, we've recently been working on a project called MakeFive. We've been on it for several months now, and it basically makes us the client. It's a nice break, and I feel much more vital when I do work on client-work as a result of this effort.

    Everyone has their own way to feel at the top of their game. For some it's a brisk run, and for others it's a coffee and a sketchbook. Whatever it is, I think it's helpful to have another outlet for one's energy. :-)



    BTW: Visit http://www.makefive.com to see what we’ve been up to!

  20. yani says:

    Great article, some very good points and makes me rethink the way I deal with clients.

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  23. Eric, if you're not naturally good with people, it certainly does NOT show in these posts. You seem to poses a reflective attitude and thought process that allows you to communicate quite effectively (I just finished reading and trying to memorize your responses to difficult client requests). You really seem to care about taking care of your clients and your genuine desire to help everyone, your studio's clients and us as readers, shines and is a welcome breath of fresh air.

    I tend to get very defensive, especially if I know I'm going up against someone who will reject my ideas. But I like your suggestions to take the time to stop, listen and think what it would sound like from the other end. And keeping eyes open for an alternative solution that would meet both my aesthetic tastes and the desires of the client (the bit about making the logo bigger, LOL) is good insight, too. It's a challenge to do these things but they help us grow as people and as designers, and I like that part.

    I am a young designer (both in my profession and in my age) and I struggle with being diplomatic in my responses to, well, stupid requests (see??). You have some outstanding advice! I wish you would produce more!!

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