From reader Rafael Baquero of San Pedro Zancatenco, Mexico:
I have enjoyed reading many articles in Before & After and have noticed that several of them describe the frustration some designers feel when dealing with clients. I am also a designer, but not a graphic designer; I am a software developer. As a software designer/ developer, I have been on both sides of the problem: a client to graphic designers and a provider of software design. Perhaps my experiences in software design will be useful to the readers of Before & After.
The traditional method of software design, known as the “Waterfall Model,” goes roughly like this:
1. Meet with your client to discuss their needs.
2. Draft a requirements document where the needs are placed in writing and agreed upon.
3. Develop the software.
4. Test the software to make sure it satisfies the requirements.
5. Deliver the product to the customer.
This is similar to the rules of design:
Rule #1: Listen.
Rule #2: Embrace the client’s vision.
Rule #3: Write it down. You and the client sign it.
Rule #4: Design that. Don’t design something else.
In my (and other software developers’) experience, this development model frequently fails. Why? Because both methodologies make a basic assumption that is not necessarily true: that the client can speak and that the designer can listen. What I mean is that our ability to express ourselves, and even our ability to think, is limited by the tools and language we have to express ourselves. Clients frequently have an intuitive feeling of what they want or need, but lack the linguistic and mental tools to clearly imagine and express what that need is. Designers, on the other hand, do not have a deep knowledge of the client’s business and therefore are unable to clearly understand the ideas expressed by clients.
A solution to this problem is to use an iterative approach. This is commonly used in software development. Meet with clients early in the design process and frequently during. Talk to them about your ideas, and get feedback from them. This will help both you and the client to establish a common language that will allow you to communicate efficiently.
To illustrate the difference, I want to comment on two articles: Ode to the amateur logo and A card for a one-man business.
In “Ode to the amateur logo,” the designer paid attention to what the client said but, in my opinion, did not understand what the client wanted to express. I am guessing that the designer and the client met only twice, initially in the first stage of the design process when the client explained what he or she needed, and at the end of the process when the logo was delivered.
The business name is “Open My World,” and a horse, very likely used as a main element in the therapy, appears in the initial sketch. The designer saw these main graphical elements and used them to design a clean and flexible logo. But look at the horse’s pose in the initial sketch and in the final logo:
The horse in the initial sketch is calm and relaxed, inviting. This is a horse I would love to put my children on. The horse in the final logo is tense, dynamic, ready to leap, almost a bronco. I would certainly not want my kids on that horse!
The “Open My World” name implies expanding horizons, exploring new possibilities. I believe this was expressed by the client in the initial sketch by showing the child sitting on the horse and looking calmly towards the earth globe. But the designer focused on the globe, not the reason behind the globe, and used it as a graphic element in the logo. The result, coupled with the color choice, is a cold, impersonal, business-centered feeling. When I see that blue circle, the first thing that comes to my mind is: “to this business I am not a person, I am an account.” This is enforced by changing the description from “Therapeutic Riding Center” to “Riding Therapy.”
In contrast to the process that I believe the designer followed in “Ode to the amateur logo” is the process John and his nephew Matt followed in “A card for a one-man business.” In the business card design, John tried to incorporate Matt’s ideas early on in the design process. The result was a professional-looking business card that satisfied both designer and client. Although I believe that John did not fully understand what Matt wanted to say, I am convinced that he very accurately “felt” what Matt wanted to express. What I mean by this is that John uses phrases like “bigger, more complex, more muscular” and “clean, masculine, well balanced” to describe the card. For several years I developed software for the oil-drilling industry, and as a result spent time on land-based and off-shore oil rigs. During those projects I had to deal with many “hard-nosed, heavy-machinery” type of guys. Due to the demands of their jobs, this type of person appreciates and seeks solid, strong, practical, no-nonsense tools that can deliver and withstand hostile and rough operating conditions. The result is a “performance first, aesthetics second” attitude. That is what the resulting card tells me.
It is solid, professional, and to the point. Exactly the traits you expect from someone used to handling heavy machinery. Masculinity and muscularity can be used to describe these features, but they are not the features themselves.
Well, this turned out to be longer than I anticipated, but I would like to add one last thing. Don’t be offended if your client asks you to explain your design. If your clients don’t seem to understand your design, try explaining it to them. Tell them what thoughts and ideas went through your mind during the design process. Try explaining the reasons behind your choices. Explaining a design is part of establishing a common language. By explaining your design, you may be pleasantly surprised by a “Oh! Now I understand!” reaction, or you may get more valuable feedback by a “Oh! I see, but what I want to express is . . .” comment.
I hope you find some of this useful, and please excuse any errors; English is not my native language.
I love Rafael’s post and would like to share something that works for my business . . .
The only part of my initial client meeting that is always the same is my explanation of “the process.” It’s evolved after 20 years of freelancing, and I think it’s not only useful, it helps put the client at ease and helps them trust me a bit more:
“So first I’ll send you an estimate based on our conversation today and outlining my understanding of what it is you’d like me to do. I think we’re on the same page, but this will ensure that we are.
“Once you approve that and send your deposit, then I’ll get to work. In a week to ten days, I’ll present my first idea. At this point, one of three things happen:
• You love it and we move ahead (this is usually the case).
• You like it but there’s something not quite right (a color, a typeface or something like that).
• You think it’s terrible and you want me to start over from scratch — but now we have something specific to talk about, and you’ll be able to respond to something specific.
“I’m happy to go back to the drawing board up to three times. If I still don’t get it after that, then for some reason I’m probably not going to. At that point, I’ll happily refund all or part of your deposit, and we’ll both go on our merry ways, no hard feelings.”
This has happened twice in 20 years of freelance work.
Of course, if it’s a logo the conversation may change slightly compared to a website or ad, but that’s pretty much it.
I hope that’s useful to some of you guys.
Rafael: This was a wonderful, thoughtful article (and your English is terrific!). I would add that part of the problem of the client/designer miscommunication is time and money. Many clients are in a hurry and don’t want to spend the time or the money it takes to really communicate with the designer. Nevertheless, designers can listen more carefully and show sketches or rough drafts before saying something is complete and perhaps don’t assume so quickly they understand what the client wants.
This is why I used to have “rudimentary mind-reading” on one version of my resumé. It was a good conversation starter with potential clients and employers. :-)
With some clients, there is an “osmosis” that needs to happen between hearing what they say they want and solving their actual problem. This is a talent that is rarely listed in job descriptions for graphic designers, but it’s what makes a good designer great.
I admit that sometime the constraints of budget and time only allow me to do exactly what the client thinks they want. I also admit that I lose a lot of money by spending more time on something than a client is willing to pay for because I know the answer to the question they did not ask.
On the other hand, I have collected many clients who now only have to say, “Do that thing that you do that I love,” and that is about all the direction I need with them because we have solved a lot of problems together successfully.
Yes, listening and understanding are the foundation of a good client/designer relationship. Good article!
You hit the nail on the head. Frequent exchanges between client and designer are far more likely to result in better work all around. And your article was very well written, even if in a second language. Well done.
What an outstanding summary of the problem many folks face in communicating across specialties. You were accurate, concise and informative. Those are the same attributes that make John McWade such a great resource.
Having worked in the fields of computers, healthcare, and business management, I have made a career of helping folks communicate across their boundaries of expertise. You obviously are skilled at that, and I thank you for your analysis.
No apologies needed for your English. It is excellent.
Your post was simply excellent.
As Epictetus said many years ago, maybe with tongue in cheek, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
As an occasional client of professional service providers, it is clear that the art of listening often becomes second place to the skill of marketing.
Your English is perfect.
Loved this post! Great job Rafael. I have been a designer for almost 20 years, and I agree completely. It is not so much about what the client says, but the “feel” the client is looking for.
Clients do not always have the right words, true, but if we (as designers) remember that there is an underlying feel they are striving for in the first place, we can ask more questions (and better questions) to get to a place of more clarity.
Because as John points out, the end user of the materials (the client’s customer) is deciding based on emotion (not logic or appreciation of our skills), and we need to tap into the emotion to deliver work that achieves the end result.
I really enjoyed this post. Thanks!
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I read this today and thought it dove-tailed with your post:
Excellent thoughts, Rafael. Communication is more than listening to words. It takes understanding what the client feels, and designing based on the way his customers think. It all starts with a well-written plan and lots of discussions, before firing up the computer to design.
I used to tell my freelance clients, “I charge half my usual rate for meetings, because we are both adding equal value during our communication process.” This always got me a pleased reaction, and more relaxed — yet more focused — discussion usually followed. Focused because I established up front that my time had value, no matter how I spent it on the client’s behalf; and relaxed because they had the reduced rate in mind and wanted to make the most of it.