So how do you design for a client?

Design from a creative brief cover

Your response to our last post, “Ode to the amateur logo,” covered such a wide range of viewpoints — from “clients are clueless” to “my client changed my life” — that we figured it would be helpful to publish an article on the topic. We used designer Karen Barranco’s brilliant logo for the Jennifer Diamond Cancer Foundation as our model and laid bare the process she used to create it.

How do you design for a client? (“client” being a broad term that includes committees, employers, whoever it is you’re designing for)

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.

That gets you started on the right foot. Then, of course, you do the work. There are many paths to a good design. All involve a process of evolution. Our article illustrates how Karen morphed a dragonfly into an angelic image of beauty, simplicity and dignity. Especially striking is that her logo not only befits a premium cancer foundation, it can belong to only this one.

Key is the creative brief. The stuff you write down plays two major roles. One, it keeps the goals in front of everyone. You’re a designer; you know how easy it is to follow the form and lose sight of the function. Two, it gives you and the client a way to judge the results. This keeps the conversation at a high level. Everyone asks, “does the design convey confidence, trust and stability?” not, “why did you use a two-point line instead of a hairline?”

We expect the article to help you with every design from this point forward.

Once you’ve read it, I’d like to know if it left you with questions, and if there’s anything you can add to it. And you may want to visit Karen’s site, where you can read more about her process.

Before & After subscribers: “Design from a creative brief” is the current article of your subscription. Download it, read it, and get back to me.

Everyone else: Buy the article, read it, and get back to me.


About your projects . . .

We’ve invited all of you to send us projects that you’d like to talk about. I should mention that while we read every submission — often two or three times — we have time to respond to very few, and fewer still become articles. If you have the time, write anyway, and please forgive the silence.

That said, if you write, be at least a bit specific. We get questions like, “Should I use two folds or three for my company brochure?” and, “My current logo works, but I think it could be better. What do you think?”

What we think is that we need more information.

Good place to start practicing those creative briefs.


For more on creative-brief-based design, we recommend the following issues, which are available only in print:

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12 Responses to So how do you design for a client?

  1. Samuel T. says:

    Hi John, the current article about the logo for the cancer foundation is brilliant! I know that the real process is much more complicated, but I enjoy the way you describe the relations between the initial ideas and certain steps of the creative process. Before & After is the only subscription that I (gladly) pay for on the whole Internet, and every post is worth it! Thanks much. (BTW, the beauty of Karen’s final design is simply stunning and really moving.)

  2. Ema says:

    I have to say John, I am happy I am paying for this subscription. The “Ode to the Client” logo and this issue of Before & After were worth it. The notion of designing with the client in mind came home to me a couple of days back, when I got into a designer’s rage over a client who decided to take one of my logo concepts, put it in PowerPoint, and do a little mockup of what he wanted.

    Which was wrong for him, as he was using the wrong symbols (cogs for a job fair are just too full of negative meaning — streamlining, job cutting, employee as irrelevant cog in a wheel, etc.), but he was trying to say something.

    Although it was not part of the initial brief, he wanted communication (expressed by him as a bunch of cogs) to be part of the logo. Once I talked to him and figured that out, we picked a different, more appropriate symbol, and we’re both happy with the outcome.

    But it was this memory of this article that made me stop in the middle of my “the client is impossible and I refuse to do that” rant and realise I don’t necessarily have to execute what the client is asking for, but should try to talk to them and understand what they’re really trying to tell me.

    So thanks, it was a good lesson, and I won’t forget it very soon.

  3. John Kantor says:

    You also need to understand the difference between what the client wants and what the client needs — and try to reconcile them.

  4. Droolcup says:

    Excellent work. Having read through this and prior comments, I agree with most positions. I can only add these comments:
    1. My father, a commercial photographer, pointed out that the head of the company was often the fellow who began 35 years ago as a stock clerk. He didn’t know good, but he knew what he wanted. Dad would shoot several great pics that made the product very important, and then the ‘cheesy’ one that he knew the client would pick. And so it went.
    2. I am an amateur designer but have done a few logos. I have discovered that it is relevant to educate the client, and occasionally show them a series of designs, explaining why I felt the final one was strongest. And occasionally, the first crack out of the box works.

    Communication is vital: both in hearing what the client wants/needs and in showing how your solution meets those needs. In the end, it is the client’s choice, and we must honor it, but there’s no harm in politely explaining things. Occasionally you will find that what you are trying to convey is rather arcane and will not immediately be obvious to the rest of the world, but you may capture significantly the heart of what an organization is about, visually rendering quite powerfully what their explanations could not. It gives them something to encapsulate their identity and rally round.

  5. Mark V. Robinson says:

    I love your magazine and have been reading it since the Freehand days and consider it one of the finest design resources that I know of.

    With respect to the Jennifer Diamond logo, I agree that it is beautifully done and very appropriate to its intent.

    Alternatively, I think the very simple dragonfly silhouette on the diagonal, possibly accompanied by very light, curvy lines, could have been successful as well.

    There is an, airy, carefree sense of lightness conveyed by the recognizable dragonfly silhouette. To me, the very graceful yet upright “angel-like” shape is more static.

    I don’t intend this as a criticism, because I love the designer’s solution; just offering another approach.

  6. Peter Braverman says:

    The latest PDF on identity creation for the Jennifer Diamond Foundation is amazing — one of the best things I’ve seen from you in, what, almost 18 years? And that’s saying something. I do appreciate all the thoughtfulness that you put into communicating your ideas. It is both inspiring and humbling.

  7. Susan Klein says:

    As a designer, there are many things I have learned. One thing in particular — which relates to the marvelous article on creative briefs and logo design for the Jennifer Diamond Foundation — is that designing for the real world often does not line up neatly with creating good design.

    I noticed on the envelope design that the return address is beautifully placed in the bottom left corner of the envelope. If you check with U.S. postal regulations, you’ll find that this placement does not work with today’s automated mailing system. The Postal Service requires that the ENTIRE return address be placed in the top one-third of the mailpiece. If you don’t adhere to their requirements, you run the risk of your mail being delivered back to you instead of its intended recipient.

    The auto reader scans from the bottom left corner of the piece, and if it encounters your return address first, then that’s where it will sort your mail to be delivered. You can choose to ignore the postal regulations, but in doing so you set your client up for higher postage rates, since all mail must be hand canceled.

    Just a little advice from someone who learned the hard way, and had to pay (out of my own pocket) to have a client’s envelopes reprinted with the return address relocated to the upper third of the envelope. The design wasn’t nearly as attractive, but it saved the client some postage costs in the end.

  8. Thanks so much for all the nice words and added advice. I really appreciate that you got something out of the article. It was so well done by John and his staff and has inspired me to share more information about my process.

  9. Phyllis says:

    One person commented that it is “relevant to educate the client” — but it is also relevant to educate the designer about the client’s arena. If the designer, Lori, had gone to the horse riding therapy classes and watched the incredible joy those kids experience, she might have had a different outlook on the project. The disabled kids are the focus, not the horses. Audience is parents looking for venues to enrich their child’s life.

  10. L.S. says:

    In either of these two articles, “Ode to the amateur logo” and, “So how do you design for a client?” has anyone mentioned how to design for a client you’ve never met, are not familiar with the business, or even where it is located? Of course I’m referring to working with a sales person instead of a client. There isn’t enough information for a creative brief. The sales person usually has no design training or experience. I am unlikely to even talk to the client, and my company charges for one hour of design time. I usually don’t have too much trouble, but I’ve encountered all of the issues mentioned in each article. I’d love to hear (read) opinions and suggestions.

  11. Pingback: how to design using a creative brief | Special Modern Blog

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