Monday, November 2nd, 2009

The Taxi Scenario

The Taxi Scenario
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I’ve uncovered a secret about working in design. At first glance, it may seem like another in a long line of posts moaning about clients. It is not. This is a simple observation, and I believe that it can change how you work—for the better.

Designers and clients

Talk with a designer for long enough, and the topic of clients will inevitably arise. Some will rave about how great theirs are, but most will (at one point or another) look perplexed and talk about the challenges they are facing. When booze is in the room, such emotions often make the discussion a little… umm… less constructive.

This doesn’t have as much to do with the people involved as it does with the construct that design services live within. Design is a somewhat blurry practice. Pricing structures vary widely, as does professionalism, and perspective on what a firm’s design services should constitute.

It also comes down to comfort. Design buyers are tasked with making a big decision when they select a firm, and are often investing a considerable sum. Those who make design purchases frequently, tend to know what to ask for. Those who don’t, struggle with how they should go about doing so.

I posit that this results in two distinct types of design buyers and demands.

Type 1: “Help me fix this problem.”

I’ll begin with the client all designers want to work for. These have a particular problem to solve and they need a professional to help them in this capacity. Perhaps the problem is that their customers don’t like the “feel” of their new product. Maybe they don’t know how to convert their site visitors into buyers. Or, it could be that they just want to understand how to employ a particular tool.

I don’t really need to talk about these sorts of clients. Although they can be demanding, it’s typically in a way that most of us appreciate. They need you to make something happen, and so long as you can afford the service/knowledge you’ve promised, all should go fine. Sure, there might be some stumbles, but those come with any collaboration. If you can’t make such a situation work, there’s likely a communication problem that needs to be addressed, and it may very well be on the designer’s side.

Type 2: “Press the buttons.”

The second kind of client is harder. We generally find them the toughest to work for, as they believe that all opinions related to design are equal. These clients ultimately want you to “shut-up and press the buttons.” They’ll convene committees and have long discussions about color selection or typography, regardless of their knowledge, or lack thereof.

With such groups, rational thought will be cast aside in favor of emotional decisions or politicking. Standard design conventions will be abandoned, and you’ll likely be asked to “jazz things up” even if doing so is completely inappropriate. Any competent designer will cringe in such situations, and not because they intend to be difficult or protective of their proposed solution. It simply feels “wrong” to craft things in a fashion that won’t benefit the client.

I call this the “taxi scenario.” Imagine hopping into a taxi and noting that you need to get to the airport. The driver would plot a course and start driving. Then envision waiting a few moments and asking him to drive in the opposite direction. Upon his explanation that this wouldn’t get you to the airport, you could respond, “you’re being difficult. Just do as I ask.” This would leave him with a difficult decision: follow the project directive, or be obedient.

The easy solution

Most reading this article, would simply (and sensibly) note that a designer should only elect to work the first type of client, as doing otherwise would seem counter-intuitive. While I’m inclined to agree with that logic, reality isn’t always so clear cut.

Creative companies generally experience an ebb and flow of work that sometimes necessitates taking on the latter form of client. Additionally, there are times when it’s hard to tell which type of client is which. Few will readily admit to being a “Type 2,” even if they are. This makes it hard to filter them out.

The fact of the matter is that sometimes you have to make the best of a bad situation; moreover, you can work with both of these groups effectively (and profitably). Allow me to explain.

The identity crisis

As noted, Type 1 clients are relatively easy. Do your job, don’t screw up, and if you do: apologize and fix said screw-up. Type 2 clients are also pretty easy, so long as they identify themselves as such, and accept the inherent limitations of that approach. If they simply want you to do “production,” and you accept the job, it’s easy. Do your job, give them what they ask for, bill for the project. Everyone’s happy.

The problem is with those who say they’re Type 1 clients, but in fact just want you to press the buttons and do as you’re told. This is the point of friction. Just like that taxi driver, you’re stuck with an impossible scenario. They’ve asked you to get them to a place, but are making decisions that prevent you from doing so. I have only one solution for working with this kind of client.

First, explain your logic. Discuss what they’ve asked for, and how their choices impede that from happening. If they’re truly Type 1s, they’ll acknowledge the paradox and make necessary adjustments. If they aren’t, you can’t fight them. There’s no point. If they’re Type 2s, you need to treat them as such, even if they claim not to be.

It will feel weird

Initially, just “doing what you’re told” will feel weird. Actually, it might even feel unethical as blindly following directions may result in them “missing their plane.” That’s just the reality of the situation. Except for in some lucky circumstances, it’s likely to happen, and there’s little you can do about it. They’ve paid for your time; it’s up to them whether they get a thinker or a drone. (Or: whether they get to the airport, or take the “scenic route.”)

In working with Type 2s, your only real option—after the initial discussion—is to do the job, collect the cash, and move on. The nice part is that once you resign yourself to doing so, you may find it to be quite profitable. You’ll find that it’s much easier to blindly carry out orders than make something work well.

This may sound somewhat futile or like I’m asking you to act unprofessionally, but it’s not intended so. It’s simple practicality. You can’t control others; you can only do what your clients will permit you to. If you’re working with a Type 2, I advise you to be polite, and save your energy—and counsel—for the Type 1s. Those are the ones who are actually asking for it.

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