Monday, February 16th, 2009

Cucumber cake

Cucumber cake
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Robert is the finest pastry chef in the city. He is so because he loves his craft. Every ingredient is of the highest quality, his kitchen is pristine, and he spends countless hours working to nurture staff that care as much he does. As a result, his bakery has become well renowned for mouthwatering delights.

Recently, Robert was approached by a wealthy business person named Jonathan who noted that his daughter was to be married, and that he wanted only the finest at this event. Many had suggested Robert and felt that he was the best choice for such an occasion. Jonathan was excited to be in such good hands.

He outlined the general requirements and asked for Robert to plan a cake that was suitable for the event. He explained that budget was of little concern, but that the cake had to be something that people would speak of for years to come. Robert felt this was a little bit high-reaching–this was only a cake after all; nevertheless, he went to work, determined to create something guests would appreciate.

Now, I’m not a pastry chef, so I’m a little scant on details, but as Robert explained it, he relied on a lovely recipe that had worked well for him in the past, and drew-up a sketch for something he felt fitting for the event. It was elegant, simple, and he’d had great success with similar cakes for other large weddings.

Jonathan tasted the first sample. It was rich and moist, but he felt as though it was missing something. He wanted fireworks and explosions upon tasting this cake; more than that, he wanted an “epiphany” to be had by everyone who sampled it.

He brought the samples home and tested them with his closest friends. Over a number of glasses of a nice wine, they created a whole list of ideas for Robert to integrate into his recipe. Marjorie’s was the most exciting though. She remarked, “It’s a spring wedding! Why not start with this?”

When Jonathan presented these ideas, Robert seemed flustered. “Jonathan” he paused, “you came to me for a good cake, and I can provide this for you–perhaps it can even be great. I do worry though that these suggestions won’t make you happy.”

Jonathan was taken aback, “But these are great ideas! What are you talking about? We thought about this for hours, and all of us agreed–your cake lacks pizazz. It’s not that it’s bad, but it could be so much better.” Robert tried to stay calm, but found it difficult to do so, “Jonathan, look at these more closely. You’re asking me to put cucumber in your daughter’s wedding cake. This would be a disaster.”

“No” Jonathan countered, “It’s a spring wedding, and cucumber would be perfect. It will add a crisp, spring-like freshness to it. Really–believe me! This can’t be another boring cake. It has to be different and memorable. Why can’t you understand this?”

They debated and discussed the point for another ten minutes, at which point Jonathan played his trump card, “This cake isn’t for you and it’s not art. I’m paying you well for your services; do what I’m telling you to.”

So Robert did, and the guests at the wedding had cucumber wedding cake.

Later Jonathan was asked about the “unique” cake. He remarked, “We were told that Robert was the best; I don’t know what all the hype is about though. This cake doesn’t taste anything like what my friends told me to expect.”

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  1. Correction Man says:

    “No” Robert countered, “It’s a spring wedding, and cucumber would be perfect.

    Don't you mean to use "Jonathan" here?

  2. Noted and duly corrected. (My brain not work good.)

  3. Ben Meissner says:

    A great metaphor for the design industry. And a cautionary tale for clients who think they know best.

  4. Jonathan sucks. He's a loose canon, overly opinionated and a little under educated when it comes to cake design. He should of just bought the cake at Dairy Queen.

  5. Well done, sir. As always. This parable should become a little book to be handed to each and every client prior to the first meeting.

  6. Rob says:

    A good story... but who's really at fault? The client for not having any respect/regard for his baker's talent, or the baker for not standing up to a bad idea?

  7. Travis Fleck says:

    Thanks Eric great story.

    @Rob
    I don't know about fault but once you get to that point: "This cake isn’t for you and it’s not art. I’m paying you well for your services; do what I’m telling you to." as a designer you have 4 choices:

    1) Do what they are telling you even though you know it is wrong and take all that loot! Though, as intimated in the story, your reputation will suffer and your heart will break.

    2) Tell the client to keep their money and recommend a nice place for them to put it. Your reputation and pocket book will suffer but DAMN you'll feel good.

    3) Stand your ground and talk the client into a better idea.

    4) Get better at recognizing this type of client before you begin work on their project so you can avoid this situation all together.

    There is nothing more less fulfilling than option one and I always blame myself for the outcome. I'm working to get better at option 3 and 4. Haven't had the balls to enjoy option 2...yet.

  8. Option #2 is less fun than many make it out to be.

  9. Anthony Bellemare says:

    As a designer, I have found another option that has worked well for me. Many times I will agree to do as the client asks, but I will always do a second version ...my version. When presenting them to the client you show them their proof first "Oh, and by the way. Here is another idea I had." It requires extra work, but almost 100% of the time the client will recognize your better understanding of the design process.

    In the case of Robert, I feel he did not listen to the client. Robert makes a good cake that is elegant and simple. But the client asked that the cake be something that people would speak of for years to come. And when he felt he didn't get it - the client turned into a designer and started creating his own ideas.

    It sounded like the client wanted to work with Robert, forcing him to take the job, but Robert didn't sound like he wanted to work with the client. Robert could have taken the opportunity to make some proof cakes. He could have even charged for the small cucumber proof cake, because it hadn't been tasted before. While at the same time taking a few extra days to figure how to give his original cake that pizazz the client was looking for.

    In the end, the client is unhappy and Robert gets a bad review to all of his clients friends and guests. Nobody wins.

  10. Great story Eric, really enjoyable :)

    One thing I often think when I read about these kind of situations and the "here's my version and your version" stuff is that it condones the idea of working against or for your client, rather than with..

    why wouldn't Robert sit and down and speak to Johnathan and find out what he is aiming for a little better, so that Robert doesn't have to just rely "on a lovely recipe that had worked well for him in the past"?

    This client had a different need to something he had packaged together in the past, didn't he?

    It's often all to easy to blame the client when a more in depth conversation about what the client wants and (more importantly) needs can work a lot of these things out.. Clients go to designers because they know they have a problem and think they have an understanding of what the solution to be.. the designer trusts them a little too much in the 'what the solution should be' sometimes (only in relation to the outcome, not the needs of audience and such)..

    like Anthony said, nobody wins in this situation. And besides, why waste time doing what they want and what you want when you can spend all that time doing what they need and what you're proud of?

    Bah, idealism.

  11. Travis Fleck says:

    @Eric: I'm sure you are right but in my mind I always feel great! ;-)

    @Anthony: I think you are right about that other option but that also takes an open mind from the client and an understanding from both parties about the nature of the client/designer relationship. Ideally, I want a client that is actively involved the proper way. Not telling me, say, what colors to use but asking good questions and pushing me to develop a better solution.

    Putting together an additional design(s) for a client and having them still choose the cucumber cake doesn't feel very good either.

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  13. Nick Grant says:

    @ Travis, very good point, but you usually have a feel for if your client is openminded or just plain pigheaded. In that case, I think a second option is still applicable just so they see what you may have been thinking BEFORE any conceptual designations had been made on the client-side. Or in short, it doesnt hurt to try!

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  15. Kris Hunt says:

    It just goes to show: the customer is almost never right.

  16. WebUnicorn says:

    Awesome metaphor
    tweet it

  17. @ Kris Hunt

    Quite to the contrary--most times clients bring a great deal to a project, and one would be remiss to not listen and allow that feedback to shape the work.

    My point surrounds that one odd client who pops up every once in a while and makes demands that defy logic/conventions or, worse yet, simply can't be done. (i.e. "I don't want anyone to ever scroll on this site; but, I want 2,000 words on each page in 20 point type.)

    A good designer works to solve a client's problems and, frankly, most clients do appreciate this.

  18. Travis Fleck says:

    @ Eric, have you gotten better at recognizing these type of clients that pop up every now and again? Any warning signs to pass along?

  19. I think so.

    We had one pop-up a year-and-a-half ago who ground us to the bone on price, complained that we weren't "keen" enough, and then finally hired us. We didn't think it would turn out well, but thought we could help them, so we took on the job.

    It turned out to be our most "bi-polar" client to date. One day we were great, and the next they deemed us shit. We're finally finished with that client, but (surprise, surprise) they don't like us very much.

    I don't have any steadfast advice on this point. My only suggestion is to trust your gut. I find that nice people can be reasoned with, and even if we don't agree, at least we'll understand what they're trying to achieve.

    In my mind it's a bit like dating. The ones who are "emotional rollercoasters" are really hard to work with. A special warning sign is if they talk about every past supplier being terrible, but feel that you're great. (The honeymoon rarely lasts.)

  20. tmac says:

    "My only suggestion is to trust your gut. I find that nice people can be reasoned with, and even if we don't agree, at least we'll understand what they're trying to achieve."

    And, therein, lies the most important lesson.

    Choose only "nice" clients. Just as clients generally want to avoid "enfant terribles" as creatives, we creatives do ourselves well to stay away from "jerk" clients.

    People who are disrespectful, demanding, price grinders are easy to spot. They talk down and over you, make rigid demands, negotiate through underlings, criticize other vendors, and discuss creative (copywriting and design) as a commodity.

    If you come across this kind of person, no amount of money will make it worth the pain. It's taken me several years to accept this. But my work is so much more fulfilling when I can talk through a strategy, messaging or design decision with my client.

  21. Ginger Conlon says:

    When it comes down to it, sometimes you just have to say no. There doesn't need to be a big, "keep your money" flourish. Just a simple "Thanks, but no thanks." Some customers just aren't right for your business. Period.

  22. bg says:

    Surprised Jonathan didn’t throw him all the way under the bus and go with “This isn’t what we talked about.”

  23. Detrus says:

    The problem you describe seems to date back to the origins of human craftsmanship and specialist professions. The specialist, whether he was an artist, engineer, or architect always had trouble explaining his craft to his "client."

    The client had trouble explaining what he really wanted as well, and had no way of verifying that his explanation of the project was understood. In the case of art or design, the two parties are trying to tell each other about complex neural patterns they personally experience when they see visuals. The language we use to describe such phenomenon is vague. To the artist it is often incomprehensible without visual examples.

    A designer like Massimo Vignelli, while he was considered the best in the industry was constantly challenged by clients until his patience ran out. There is an inherent mistrust of specialists and I think it's justified. There is a demand on specialists to do well in multiple disciplines, not just the one they have the most experience with, but specialists often fail to deliver.

    The words and explanations of a specialist can be compared to those of a teacher. The teacher can be very good at being a mathematician, but when it comes to teaching math, you need a different set of skills. You need a separate specialist to measure how much information is absorbed by students, and suggest different ways of breaking down this information to the mathematician teacher. Otherwise the mathematician will only hear from angry parents, complaining that their kids can't count their shoes, and that he should figure out why, since he's so good at math.

    I think it's pointless to blame clients for not understanding a craft. The problem is craftsmen are not necessarily expert communicators. The ones that communicate better, while not being so good at their craft have a distinct advantage.

  24. Well said. :-)

    At the same time, I feel that you've missed an important point here. Because design is visual, it's often perceived as something that everyone has an aptitude for. (Just like singing and telling good jokes.) As a result, even the strongest designers find themselves justifying choices and explaining things a great deal.

    This, needless to say, can become tiresome. Think of how your mechanic would respond if you insisted that they fix your car with a bungee cable, as you once saw it on MacGyver, and as such are convinced it can be done like that.

  25. Detrus says:

    That also stems from the process supposed designers use. They focus on traditional criteria such as making it "look good." It's like a mental itch that artistic people can't let go. Design is something that can't have such criteria. If a project requires making things ugly, then that should be done well.

    The whole role of understanding the clients and projects needs for selling things has been taken over by advertising specialists who don't know how to make it look good, but they do know that no matter what it looks like it has to get the right reaction. Without these people reminding "designers" of the real criteria, designers often default to making it look good, or a style they're comfortable with.

    By doing this they earn the mistrust of clients, who don't see them as thinkers, but as button pushers and air-brushers. People with such narrow talents always attracted supervision.

    There is also an inherent problem that even problem solving, multitalented, communicative designers will fall into. Their craft is not a science, while it should obviously be a field of neuroscience.

    Neuroscience is a bit more complicating that engineering a car, but if it was as well understood, people would have more trust in those practicing it. After all, you can only go so far without fully understanding the system you're working with. Once we do achieve such understanding, many fields like economics, politics, design, writing, and advertising will seem ridiculous in retrospect.

    As long as our field is not a science and we don't make an effort to make it one, we will make plenty of stupid design decisions before our clients add their share.

  26. This is an amazing parable that resonates with what can happen when a client strong-arms the branding process based on half-baked ideas injected into the creative.

    Thank you for this amazing tale. I tell it to every new client we work with.

  27. Glad to hear it has been useful--thanks for saying so Jamie!

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