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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Posted in Design, Question & answer | 8 Comments