Does the client know best? Last week’s Design Talk post got all kinds of thoughtful responses, including one near the end by Mike Carroll, the author and publisher who’d designed the original cover himself, thanking all of you for your contributions and announcing that, by popular opinion, he was reverting to his original design, which can now be seen in paperback on Amazon.
After Mike’s post, another reader weighed in with the following letter, which I did not release in the comments section, but I post for you here. I do this because it raises an issue that is, to me, of utmost gravity — and that is the attitude toward clients that we bring to our work, most pointedly the idea that we are better than they, and our work inherently more worthy.
It’s a sensitive issue but enough of a learning opportunity for all of us that I wanted to not let it slip away.
My responses follow his letter.
Our reader writes,
“John’s first ‘30-minute’ revision brought out the best of Mike’s original design while removing the amateur elements that detracted from its efficacy. John’s redesign ups the credibility of the author and makes him look like an authority on his subject. For some reason, Mike thinks that looking like an authority on his subject will make students not want to read his book. This reminds me of clients who insist on crappy designs that they admit are crappy but say make them more ‘accessible’ or ‘down home.’ Ugh. Design should not call attention to itself. It should be transparent and support the message that it is meant to convey. The first revision (John’s) did this admirably.
“Mike seems to get the most pleasure out of having his self-published version validated. That is worth much more to him than whatever additional books he could have sold. As he clearly delineated in his response, he acknowledges that he is limiting his sales and his credibility as an expert in this field but ultimately achieving his primary goal: validation that he can do it all himself.
“This serves as an important lesson: that we designers can spend a lot of time and effort toward supporting what we think are a client’s goals — increased sales, better product, effective usability — when actually the decision-maker is motivated by other factors (ego massage, calling the shots, proving his ability to design), which begs the question: Why did you ask the designer in the first place?
“Mike says he can’t afford a designer, when, actually, what he means is that he doesn’t value the work of designers. The time that John spent with his friend for free was valued at exactly that by Mike. A salient lesson, indeed.”
My response is this: The attitude revealed in this letter can stunt a professional career. I’ll explain.
First, some clarity.
Mike didn’t come to me. His friend sent the cover to me, and I jumped in. In other words, Mike wasn’t asking for a designer, much less one to “not value.”
I pitched a few designs aimed mainly at giving structure to his concept. These were done quickly with almost zero knowledge of Mike or his market, certainly not the way we’d treat the job in a true, client-designer relationship, where we’d go deep.
He took my suggestions into account and modified his designs. In the end, he reverted to his original vision, which, as I said at the outset, I like, even though it’s messy.
My caution is this: Never assign motives, especially pejorative ones, to someone you have not met face to face. And even then, resist.
There are many reasons a design can be rejected, and all are valid, starting, I’ll emphasize, with the possibility that the client is smarter than we are. Or maybe he just likes blue. Never assume. Give him the honor of taking his opinion seriously; it will free him to know if he really means it.
Also, do not presume to know which designs would perform better (“increased sales, effective usability”). There are so many currents and cross-currents in the market that the only way to know would be to put both covers out there and measure. Even then, the results may not be clear. Twenty individuals could buy one cover, but one instructor might buy 25 copies of the other.
Similarly, we are not the audience for his book. We are viewing the covers strictly as designers, and once over lightly at that. Design is one piece of a living puzzle (sometimes it’s the key piece, but by no means always). To the student interested in his career field, Mike’s cover may be perfect. He alluded to this in his response.
As for “limiting his sales,” that’s unlikely; we can be sure that Mike will be tracking results. He invested blood, sweat, and tears to get his book out there, and he’ll be keenly attuned to the feedback, as we would be. He’ll know, at some point, whether or not his cover design is an issue. I’m guessing it won’t be.
Accept that when he said he can’t afford a designer, he means it. And just because a designer (me) offered him work for free does not obligate him to like it, much less use it.
Before & After readers have heard me say that the best design is not one we dream up. It’s not a façade, but rather, it’s a portrayal of reality, a form beautifully and truthfully expressing a function.
What’s important here is that when we assume to know another’s motives, we blind ourselves to what’s real. We can never produce the best design, or even decent design, as long as we favor our opinion — more correctly put, our judgment — over the true, living, breathing thing. A blind designer is an incapable designer.
This is not trivial. We are all unjust judges, which is easy to see once we notice that our judgments always come out in our favor.
My advice: Respect your client. Give him your best work. Hold it lightly. Stay open. Help him get where he wants to go. If he needs to circle back, be there when he arrives.