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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