Hey, who’s the designer here?

PullingOutHairBLast week in the What are you working on? forum on The Grid, Before & After’s design forums, where we help out one another and occasionally swap war stories, a frustrated member reported that she’d submitted to her client eight designs for a summer event, and after waiting a month received the following reply . . .

“Sorry it has taken so long. We have received the feedback from the manager, and we are going back to #1 along with a variation:
1) Make the first-page logo bigger with a white outline.
2) Use same font for the third word as for the first two, and wrap it around the oval the same way.
3) Remove the middle oval picture and replace it with the one on the attachment.
4) Add the scenery in the background behind the picture.
5) Add the date somewhere. Small is okay.”

Our member laments, “Is that a totally new design, or what?! I’m not sure if I want to shoot them or myself! Did someone say that having a sense of humor was an absolute must for a designer?!”

Humor helps, of course. Still, it’s frustrating. You submit your best design, and the client redesigns it. How do you avoid situations like this? Here’s the shortened version of our followup conversation:

Me: Was there any kind of signed-off creative brief developed for this? If so, does your design meet it? If not, it’s reasonable to ask what the manager is wanting to accomplish.

It’s possible he’s not sure. The Tavern on the Green project is instructive in that the clients didn’t at first know, exactly, what they wanted but gave the designer enough to get started (“contemporize it, with an ode to the sheep”). The designer went through 17 iterations, apparently getting feedback at each one, until everyone was happy.

That’s the right way. The client shouldn’t be doing the design; that’s why they hired you. You have the skills to make their vision happen.

Failing that, you’re stuck in micromanaging land. I’d say make his version the best it can be and show it to them. They may not like it, at which point you can steer them back on track.”


She: I am not dealing with the [micro-] manager. My contact is [another] manager. He has “channels he has to go through” to get things done, and they don’t include me as he does them. He is between a rock and a hard place with these “just-want-to-see-what-it-looks-like” decisions. My contact didn’t particularly agree with the new ideas, yet he has to pass them on.

Even if I had done a creative brief, I am not sure how this can be avoided. Is there a line included that says, “No one else is allowed to design but me”? (Or how about, “I’m pretty sure your ideas are really going to stink. How about you not even bring them up to me?” ha ha)

I am finding . . . that most clients want to feel like they had a hand in [the design] . . . and I try to allow that for the most part. Especially if I can make their hand a full house.

It  becomes a problem only if I am not being paid for it, or if I get too wrapped up in “my design” for them. The only bummer is that I have to move some projects out of my “Star” portfolio into the “Oh, well” folder, hidden away. Usually they can see what’s better for them, and we can both be happy.

[Regarding micromanagement:] How would you imagine one (such as myself, say) could correct that situation, either before or during the sale/design process?


Me: You must work with the decision-maker. Too much will be lost in translation if you don’t. If you’re known to the decision-maker only as “the designer,” well, you’ll get second-guessed and micromanaged all day. Less with some than with others.

Eye to eye with the decision-maker, many things change. For one, you’re people, not titles. Both sides can listen and learn. Each can riff off the other. You can pitch ideas. You can sketch as he/she expounds — “more like this, perhaps?” Most important, both sides are accountable.

Since in this case that didn’t happen, you might at this point suggest that everyone step back and articulate the goals. See if you can learn what the decision-maker wants — what’s behind those typographic adjustments — and (ideally) get those in writing.

Be ready to provide more iterations. Design is an extremely complex language that even great designers vaguely understand and clients don’t at all. The client may know what it feels like but not what it looks like. Your skill at creating looks is why you’ve been hired.

Avoid the trap of thinking that your design is “right.” There is almost always more than one good solution to a given set of criteria. Hold your work lightly. Stay curious. Don’t worry about your portfolio. This isn’t about you.

Listen deeply. Speak the client’s language (business, usually). Understand that no one knows, quite, where this is going.

Knowledge, confidence, passion, integrity. Bring these to the table and everyone will trust you.


For more on this topic, see the following Design Talk posts:
Oh, the logo by committee
The meddling client

Also see our article: Design from a creative brief.





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8 Responses to Hey, who’s the designer here?

  1. Kris D. says:

    I agree about not worrying about the portfolio. However, I interpreted the portfolio/oh well categories as being proud and satisfied with the designs created. Often, the micromanaged designs become less effective in communicating the end result. Not everyone will listen to design theory for explanation on why outlining the logo in white will cause legibility issues, etc. I try not to hang on my designs as tightly as I used to, because there are many ways to design the same project. It is just disheartening to have a good design vandalized by “deaf” micromanaging clients.

  2. Gretchen W. says:

    I have run into micromanagers throughout my career. John’s advice is solid. Keep your focus on the goals stated in the brief. Sometimes my clients do come up with good suggestions. If not, answer with sound design principles. “Outlining the logo will destroy the integrity of the type. I can add emphasis to the logo in other ways.” “The photo you attached is not high enough in resolution for print. It will look fuzzy.” ”Adding scenery in the background will create visual clutter and take focus off the more important elements.” Try to discern the underlying objective in the requests and then solve with design integrity.

    Some of my best designs involved a lot of frustration with a client who made repeated requests for changes, but resulted in a piece we both loved.

  3. charles glassmire says:

    The fundamental problem here is that you are not getting paid for all the extra work. Your billing agreement should include an hourly charge. I find that clients are often less interested in more changes when they know they are paying for them. Remember, while your creative feelings are wounded, you are running a business, and in the end the bottom line will keep you creating good stuff.

  4. Rayna J. says:

    A book I found supremely useful in addressing this classic tussle is called Make It Bigger, by Pentagram partner and outspoken design activist Paula Scher. In it, she shares her first-hand experience of how she learned to negotiate corporate politics, power hierarchies and personality conflicts to preserve the integrity of her work while managing tricky client relationships.

    She’s the one who did the Citibank logo, makes an appearance in the film Helvetica, and is one of my personal heroes. I’m not a designer but have had the good fortune of working with some very gifted ones, and found Scher’s book not only useful in the design world but as a practical guide to navigating life. Plus she worked with major record labels in the 70s, so it’s got some pretty cool album art. I highly recommend checking it out if you can. Good luck!

  5. dave says:

    Right around “How would you imagine one (such as myself, say) could correct that situation?” my mind drifted to some of the situations I’ve seen. I pictured the horrible experiences and outcomes I’ve had over the years, and I can easily place myself in the horror stories that I read about. I have noticed, too, a wide assortment of not only design approaches and client vision but designer abilities and vision, too. Every now and then, a designer fails. Skill doesn’t match vision, vision doesn’t match dream: whatever. The story coming out of that failure sounds very much like the story presented here, but unlike this situation, the work was really mediocre. The client had every right to flinch at what they were shown, and not having the language they had no way to communicate what they saw and what they needed. How do we know when we’re wrong? when we’ve missed it? How do we accept when we’re the ones who have failed so we can learn and grow?

    Then I read your wrap up John: Hold your work lightly. Stay curious. Listen deeply. Simple advice.

  6. Kerry says:

    The client’s job is to clearly state the problem. The designer’s job is to solve the problem. That’s why they hire designers. Otherwise, designers are overpaid computer keyboards — which we are not.

    My suggestion would be to ask, “What problem is the decision-maker trying to solve?” If I can’t get the answer, just make a comment of what you think they are trying to accomplish. And show some suggestions that solve it better (along with what they are literally asking for). It’s more work, but this might help shift the role of designer away from the client. Also, if it is stipulated in the contract, add appropriate change-of-scope fees.

  7. Jen says:

    I have found that money speaks louder than words in these occasions. I often mention in the beginning of a design job that they have a set number of revisions and after that each revision has a fee. I have found that most clients can make changes and get a finalized version in 3-4 revisions. This technique has worked wonders for me.

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