Let’s talk

Have you ever made a presentation to a committee/boss/client who could not converse in words? It goes like this: “Hmm. Mm-hmm. I’m not sure what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.” And, “I can’t tell you what I like, but I know what I don’t like.”

The inability to articulate is a serious professional handicap. The problem is, it afflicts designers, too. Ask a designer to describe his fine technique and you might hear: “I air out the type until it feels right.” Or, “I isolate each color until one works.”

Until one works?

That’s not an answer.

Our teachers are equally abstract. One submitted to me an article on designing a newsletter nameplate. It began: “First select an appropriate typeface.”

How helpful.

Another, teaching on type, described Helvetica as honest.

With terms this vague, it’s no wonder nothing gets resolved. Just listen:

Client to designer: This is an important campaign; we have a big impression to make. Punch it up.
Designer: I know just the thing.

Later, at the presentation:
Designer: Isn’t it heavenly? The blue really makes it flow.
Client: There’s not enough ooommph.
Designer: I believe its beauty is its own ooommph.
Client: It’s not happening for me.
Designer: What do you want, then?
Client: Impact. Um, zip. I’m not sure; I’ll know it when I see it.

Later, over coffee:
Designer A: That great poster with the blue gradient fill? Jones didn’t like it. Too sophisticated.
Designer B: Aw! It was totally great! What did he want?
Designer A: Couldn’t say.
Designer B: Clients are so stupid.

Writing Before & After has made nothing more vivid to me than our need as designers to master the skills of verbal articulation. It is our job to understand and describe what we do, intelligently, perceptively, in English.

This is not a trivial matter. Would you pay your attorney for flow and oommph? Or your banker for a retirement plan that happens for you?

I doubt it.

But when you tell your boss that the company’s image needs to be perked up, do you expect her to know what you mean?

What, exactly, do you mean?

Do you mean Georgia or Verdana? Caps or lowercase? Black type or white? Can you explain which does what?

Do you mean four columns or three? Folded or flat? A new size? Why?

Do you mean red or blue? Why is one better? Can you say?

In Before & After planning sessions, we have a term we use called proof of concept. Say one of us makes the observation: Gray really works on that page. It’s probably true, but the statement is useless to the reader with a different page. If the page is important to us, we’ll make many layouts in an effort to articulate why the gray “works.” We will analyze these pages, often out loud, with a dictionary, until we can fit words to what we see.

When we’re done, the statement has been transformed into: Gray makes an image recede. It is now useful information, a statement of fact.

Some worry that getting technical like this takes the artistry and romance out of design. But it doesn’t, any more than knowing a recipe takes the goodness out of a tasty dish. Rather, it gives you the ability to create the dish — and even improve it — because now you know what’s happening.

Best, though, is that it gives you the vocabulary to tell others what’s happening in ways that they can understand and participate in. It puts everyone on solid ground.

It’s a skill you can learn.

You’ll find that while a client may not speak like a designer, he or she, like all of us, has a fine visual imagination, a theater in the mind. What’s fun is that your skill at putting solid words on vague images will light up that screen like a projector.

So do it.

Or just be a propellerhead.


(This article was originally published in Before & After Issue 11.)


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60 Responses to Let’s talk

  1. Lulu says:

    I encounter this problem all too often. Clients being unable to articulate what they’re interested in seeing, or attempting to impress a designer or the rest of the group with meaningless jargon.

    And while it’s helpful to be able to fully explain to a client why colors, concepts and fonts were ultimately chosen, this article doesn’t really help to provide ways of being able to encourage a client to better articulate what they have in mind. As tempting as it may be at times, I’m certainly not going to toss a client a dictionary and tell them to look for less vague terminology.

  2. Brett says:

    An interesting article, John.

    I talked a lot with my teenage children over teenage “jargon” words, like “weird.” “That movie was so weird,” or “bad” — I never liked “bad.” Or they would say, “I know what that word means, but I just can’t explain.”

    I think learning to know why and being able to explain are rare skills. Very rare.

    Knowing that grey makes an image recede (I didn’t know but I do now, thank you!) is a difficult thing to learn, isn’t it? In order to say that with any confidence requires years of seeing images recede on grey. And then to recognise it and then to put it into words? Very hard, I think.

    You say, “It’s a skill you can learn.” I would be very interested to hear your ideas on how best to do that.


  3. John,

    Thanks for this article. Communication is key to sales. This counts for sales to our clients’ customers and to our clients themselves. I appreciate direct language: “This does this.” and “When that happens, watch for this to change.”

    I am fortunate to have a design expert on staff who can communicate why things work.

    My design education is based on years of drawing, painting, fine art instruction, practice, reading Before & After, and research on specific techniques to achieve a desired effect. I’ve never really learned to describe what I was doing and why it worked.

    Since I’ve hired a designer with more skills and formal design training than I posses, I’m constantly learning from him how to describe design to clients. It’s made an impact on how my company operates. I plan to keep at it.

    Thanks for all that you do,


  4. Len Williams says:

    Yes (shudder) I’ve run into several of these inarticulate clients in the nearly four decades of my design career. The common element I’ve always found for clients wanting such indefinable things as “new”, “exciting”, “oomph”, “impact”, etc., is that they mean something to the client related to their own experience but not the designer’s. These clients frequently also tell the designer they don’t know what they want and that it’s the designer’s job, because he’s a professional, to know what to do. Invariably, the client is then critical of the work produced, because the designer couldn’t read his mind to know what he had in mind.

    I’ve worked out a system that obviates a lot of these difficult situations: I ask the client what overall message he wants the design (ad, brochure, logo, web site, packaging, etc.) to communicate. It may take some time to get the client to wrap his wits around this concept — but there has to be some basic message he or she wants his target audience to get. I ask, “If you were on an elevator and someone asked about your product/service/company, what would you tell them in 30 seconds to one minute?”

    Unless you get the overall message the client wants to communicate, you’re floundering in a sea of unlimited possible directions to head. Design and advertising is based on getting ideas across. It is all about communicating a message from the advertiser to the potential customer. Clients that want “oomph” usually have never thought of what they actually want to communicate about their products and/or services, and getting them to define what the benefits of the product/service are to the customer is very revelatory in determining the message of the design.

    Good marketing is simply good communication of ideas. Many clients think they need bells and whistles and “something exciting” instead of figuring out what is really needed and wanted by their customers.

    Once you’ve defined the message, the design parameters tend to sort themselves out. As a designer, make sure the photos, artwork, colors, typefaces and layout all forward the communication of the main message. Anything which distracts from the message should be scrupulously avoided.

    I had a client once who delivered training to chiropractors in three levels. The previous designer for the client had designed a brochure that said, “Move up to your next level” and had a picture of a mountain climber part way up a mountain! The brochure looked like an ad for an outdoors or nature magazine or mountaineering service. The designer failed to realize that the photo distracted from the idea of moving up as a chiropractor in training. Goofy, and the piece was ineffective, of course. I came in and did a photo shoot of the advanced level and used those photos to show what the next level covered — and they greatly increased their attendance.

  5. Or, conversely, you can have the conversation, “No, $1,000 for this logo isn’t working for me. That figure needs more muscle. I don’t know. I’ll know the right number when I see it in my bank account.”

  6. You just articulated exactly what makes Before & After so useful. Thanks!

  7. Virginia Blaisdell says:

    I agree that it’s very important to pay attention to how we’re talking and how we listen, and how tempting (and futile) it is to speak in designer shorthand. I have spent a good part of my design lifetime trying to find concrete words to convey design decisions to clients, but sometimes when I do that — and think that I am being successful in getting the idea across — the clients will come back with a response that is indecipherably vague and unhelpful (“I know what I like,” e.g.).

    I think that in the face of an audience often dubious of the value of graphic design in general, we tend to want to weave a little mystification around our work to boost its importance and keep our audience from thinking that “anybody can do that.” And the clients may be wanting to add in some mystification as well, to protect themselves from looking like they don’t know anything about graphic design.

    Just wondering . . . has anybody ever found themselves reduced to making a design argument by mustering as many technical terms as possible? Kerning, serifs, line length and type size formulas, hue, saturation etc.? I admit I have done it, and it’s not a pretty sight.

  8. RM says:

    Great article — the most articulate article on the matter I have ever read. Have to admit being slightly guilty of not using my words. Thanks!

  9. Skip Savage says:

    In the beginning, I was visually illiterate.

    But now I’ve learned to see, thanks to the many useful ideas I’ve acquired from Before & After over the years.

    Yet much remains to understand.

    This article offers a glimpse into that void, the giant gap between the art of designing something that pleases and being able to articulate why it pleases.

    Maybe because my right brain does the work, my left brain takes a break. When time comes to explain what I did, words promptly fail.

    Same with music. Play a sad song and people cry. Did the composer know this beforehand, or did the magic just happen — in the act of creation?

    Either way, I’m fascinated by the analysis of design, especially how to produce a predictable effect in the people who encounter it.

    Thanks for this post.

  10. Martha Rogers says:

    Hi John,

    This is a great article and right on target. It’s very difficult to get clients to realize what it is they truly want. I’ve found that getting to talk in general terms getting to know how the person thinks and asking questions, repeating, rephrasing and re-questioning eventually gets enough results to begin to design. It helps to be a people observer!

    Asking what message they want to convey helps. But, a big one, is you have to know your “stuff” too, to know what questions to ask. It takes time up front that is really worth it on the back end (the design end).

    Thank you for all your efforts to give those of us out here on the front lines such great ideas and techniques; I’ve adapted a number of them for clients.


  11. Brian Diehm says:

    Yes, this nails the problem. The article doesn’t provide the answer; the answer is study. It takes effort and time, and there aren’t shortcuts to learning what each of our degrees of freedom really does.

    Well, actually, Before & After is the best and only real shortcut I’ve found. Thanks for that and keep up the good work, and I’ll try to keep learning just why it is that what works — works!

  12. Wendy says:

    A very relevant article for me right now. I am in the middle of designing a “sexy” graphical user interface, and the clients are basically telling me what they don’t like .

    They have given better direction than simply “punch it up” — they said they want it to look like a space ship — but when I asked them “NASA or Star Trek?” in a recent email, they responded with a smiley face.

    I will attempt to get them to articulate something more tangible in our next meeting. I won’t be tossing a dictionary to them, but I will attempt to get them to describe what they want in terms of “things you can put into a wheelbarrow” (which was an exercise in a linguistics class when we were asked to describe emotions in concrete terms).

  13. Dan Howard Jr. says:

    I love Before & After, because it makes the cloudy clear.

    You take an abstract whole, and break it down into observable parts. As a result, I have become better at utilizing your observations.

    Reading this article helped me to realize that some of us do have a “knack” for designing things that “just work.” It also makes me think that without really trying to understand and articulate WHY I enjoy the designs I enjoy, my growth as a designer will be stunted.


  14. George Breslau says:

    At art school, this vague description happens when students or professors begin describing why “it works.” The “ooomph” becomes a language that sets the user on a pedestal.

    The problem in designing is that a client knows there has been an effective design he has witnessed in the past, but does not want to reference that particular design. The right words are elusive until the essence is discovered. So, our job is to get to that descriptive essence.

  15. I totally agree with you, John, and unlike many of my designer friends, I don’t blame clients for being so. It’s granted that clients who approach us for our creative services obviously don’t have the ability to do so themselves. That’s why we are designers, and they are our clients. They are not geared towards creative imagination and technical aspects of graphic design.

    That is how graphic design is different from art (read: painting, sculpture, etc). Art is created from the mental stimuli and instinct of the artist. But in graphic design we are solving problems of our clients, and while solving any problem and simultaneously while explaining the solution, we have to be logical. And, being logical, we can surely produce great design.

    So whenever my client says, “Well . . . something like this, or . . . I want something like that” . . . I just don’t probe further. I suggest that it’s best that I place the first draft from the information I gathered from them, then they (client) can actually see what I am thinking visually, and after that we can communicate further via feedback. While placing our work in front of them, it’s a must to point out why we have chosen the style, the color, the font, and relate it with the information they provided in the beginning. This helps them see our view within their perspective.

    It really works, and clients are happy, and I am happy, since I have the rein in my hands to visualize. After the first draft, they are no longer vague and don’t want to copy someone’s else design — they already got a glimpse of the road they would like to walk down. I am there with them to make it smooth.

  16. Great article. Loved the comparison to attorneys and bankers.

    Too many designers don’t understand how their role is in many ways the same as that of any other professional service: the ultimate goal is to increase sales, brand awareness, or ROI. Knowing how to communicate is just as important for the designer as for an attorney. At least, it is if you want to be successful.

  17. Roger says:

    I heard of a tvc producer asking a voice-over announcer to alter his delivery: “Make it a bit more . . . pink!” But, you know, one person’s Pink might be another person’s Gaga.

    I had a website client who wanted more “oomph,” pretty much the way you describe. Having agreed to the concept and the budget, he began what seemed like endless salami slicing until the result was ugly and totally unlike the original concept (and budget). He was specific in one area, though. He did say “it needs more red.” Then he told me, “We’ve changed the webpage. John here has an Apple laptop, so he can do webpages.” I had thought I knew him fairly well and what he liked (cheap price and nothing too fancy) but clearly not, even though I’m usually very careful about asking the right questions and listening to the answers. After seeing the archaic and cliché awfulness of what he accepted from “John,” I withdrew — sadly but totally — from commercial association with him.

  18. Kathryn says:

    When the client cannot articulate, this method requires a bit of work, but it can define a client’s priorities . . . and help the designer define what she has done to meet the client’s needs.

    Grab up oldest to newest previous designs. Study them, making notes and using highlighters to point up basic ideas about the client’s product and promises to his customer. In particular, note the means the client expects to use to keep those promises about his product. This works as well for material products as for service products. (“What is your product?” is one of my first questions. It gets the client thinking in concrete terms.)

    Formalize your notes into a presentation that shows how often the same promise(s) and the same means to achieving fulfillment repeat themselves. Intersperse the identity elements, and define criteria for the work to be done. Then develop as many versions of the work as you think necessary that hit the mark you have painted for the client in the presentation. Explain every little detail — why you chose to develop an in-house version with half-inch unprinted edges; why the headline is that font and not the other; why photos of real employees with identifying captions is better than models from clipping services, etc.

    Your client may toss the whole thing, but you’ve given him a chance to see exactly why what you’ve done is not based in pretty, punchy, or pow, but grounded in function, as all really good design must be.

  19. Ian says:

    Produce the design. Then tell the story. Then help clients to tell themselves the story, because they have to sell that story to others.

  20. Jesse says:

    I think as designers we need to understand that part of our job is deciphering what clients are trying to describe. How many of you have gone into a mechanic asking them “to fix that humming sound” or gone into a doctor because “my tummy hurts?” We don’t know what it is or how it works, because that’s not our job.

  21. Yvan says:

    That is well told.

    We as creative people need to put a rationale in front of every work we produce. This is the best way to sell the work to the clients, explaining them why it works for them, rather than just telling them. Presenting the work is as important as doing the work itself.

    Thanks for the great article!


  22. Eduardo Torelly says:

    I’m Brazilian, so I ask forgiveness for my English in advance.

    I learned two facts in life that apply perfectly to this discussion:

    1) People in general have difficulties in talking about issues they do not dominate;

    2) Persons who are in command positions in companies hate to reveal that they don’t dominate all issues in life.

    Put these two facts together and we have our present Design Talk issue.

    So, here we are, poor designers, caught between a rock and a hard place. And we want the job; we have bills to pay.

    In these situations, my approach is to “soften” the client asking him to talk about his business, mission statement, vision, etc., etc. at a first moment. Or the history of the company. Or a prize the company earned recently. Any subject, linked to the company’s business, that he dominates. Try to get him comfortable in speaking; try to discover what is important to the client, according to his vision, before going to the next step, which is talk about the work itself.

    Then, conduct the talk about the work always linking to points referred on the first part of your conversation. Your chances of showing your designer’s skills are improved, because the client is comfortable with this talk, since he “taught” you about the business.

    That’s all, folks.

    (My dream is to tell this to the client:

    (“There’s a dialogue in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland I would like to tell you now. Well, Alice is lost in Wonderland, walks on a road until she gets into a crossroad. Two ways to go and no idea. She finds the Cat and asks:

    (“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
    The Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
    Alice: I don’t much care where.
    The Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.”

    (OK, I know, the next step will be the client showing me the exit door. Sorry, bad idea).

  23. John Tanton says:


    The best one I remember is:

    “You design something and I’ll criticize it!”

    Regards, John Tanton

  24. Many people strive to become artists without first becoming craftsmen. Art is something that flows from a deep understanding of your craft and how to manipulate it, not the other way around.

    A precise lexicon of why a design works or doesn’t and the ability to communicate it is part of developing the craft of graphic design. For that, there is no shortcut.

  25. The client shouldn’t talk about design, unless he/she has the skills. Clients should talk about what they know: their customers, their company, their products and services, their visions. The designer translates this to logo, design, etc. The rest is a matter of taste. I had many cases where a client wanted something that he liked, but it was completely unsuitable for his business. Or, as we say here in Switzerland, the fishes must like the worm, not the fisherman . . .

  26. Back in college, my graphic design professor repeatedly stressed that we were to be communicators first, designers second.

    A great design that does not communicate what the client needs is not a solution. As designers, we’re paid for our solutions to the needs of the client.

    Design is merely a vehicle to communicate the message.

  27. Schultzee says:

    John, your commentary is like a cold slap in the face with Aqua Velva at times (yes, I’m showing my age with that comment). I’ve been dealing with something similar this week, and I have to confess, I’m the guilty party in terms of ineffective communication. I’ve got a new perspective now that I have a freshly slapped face. As always, thanks for making the obvious easier to see and and understand.

  28. Tom Semmes says:

    While words like “oomph” and “zip” are pretty vague, they at least have some meaning. In concrete terms, it may be that the client wants the work to be more emotionally stimulating, which would suggest intense colors, dramatic shapes, sharp edges . . . at least it is something to start on. Better than asking the client what they want the piece to communicate and being told, “I don’t know, you’re the artist. Be creative!”

  29. David Kunkel says:

    I don’t toss my clients a dictionary, but I frequently toss them a web browser. I’ve had great success with inarticulate clients by opening up my laptop and cruising a few business sites, especially their competitors. I quickly learn what styles they admire, who they want to emulate, and who they want to differentiate themselves from . . . and it’s all in the visual idiom. They may not know what it is about it that they like or don’t like — and sometimes neither do I — but nevertheless, it rapidly narrows the choices and focuses the conversation onto actual achievable goals.

  30. Great points! And just when I learn how to communicate with a client to understand what they want, I get to do work for a committee! I’ve had two logo design jobs this year for committees at non-profit organizations.

    First step — get them all together and discuss all the tangible (how it will be used, elements needed, symbolism to incorporate) and intangible (mood, look & feel, image) requirements. That way, they can hash out any disagreements among themselves before I try to create a design based on a brief that only one person can buy into.

  31. Kathy says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I just went through this with a client, and it was painful. They went from being thrilled with their logo to not knowing what they wanted with their website. It got to the point of them telling me that “my design capabilities are limited.” Ouch! Now I know I’m not crazy, and they got some fantastic designs. No more “we’ll know it when we see it” for me and my clients. I know I can get specific and professionally convey it to my clients that they need to be specific too!

  32. De Fluker says:

    Excellent article and oh so true! Wonderful comments from all involved. After 40-plus years in the business I ask my clients to show me as many examples as possible of what they like from other businesses, not necessarily in their field. It gives me a valuable idea of where to start. I provide a draft and work with their input for a final buy-in. Working with neuro-linguistics helps a lot, too!

  33. Rebecca says:

    Again, another great article. Communication is always key to good design, whether it is communicating with your target audience or your client, for that matter.

    As designers, I think we can count ourselves lucky if we have clients who can articulate exactly what they want — my experience is that they are better at telling me what they don’t want. But the one thing that I have learned over the years is that the more successfully I articulate a design (or concept), the more likely the client understands that there is a thought process behind my decisions. It is a revelation to my clients when they start understanding the “science” behind my designs — telling them I chose red and green because they are complementary colours (and opposite each other on the colour wheel) and, as such, create energy and contrast in a design, for example. All of a sudden I’ve solidified my expertise as a designer and helped define and sometimes validate the concept of graphic design.

    It doesn’t always happen this way, but it is a great feeling when it does.

    I have found that the only way to show there is a reason for every design consideration I make is through strong communication and articulation skills. I can’t always educate a client, but I can always work on improving my skills as a designer.

    Now if you could only do an article on the other important half of communication, that of listening well . . .

  34. Kerry Clark says:

    Great article. I’ve made it a point to be as clear and jargon-free as possible. The problem is that sometimes the client doesn’t care about what I know, why something works, or what they want to communicate. They want something fast, because their boss sees an opportunity somewhere.

    The boss would probably care more about the communicated message. But you can’t get to them, because they left everything in the hands of a salesperson, who just wants to get something “out there.”

    Then the conversation becomes one-sided.

    Client (sales guy): “I need an ad that’s exciting (pops, etc.)”

    Designer: “What’s the ad for? Where will it be seen?”

    Client: “It’s for (blank) magazine. It should really pop.”

    Designer: “What do you want the ad to say? Then we will be able to determine how it should appear visually.”

    Client: “Just come up with something.”

    Designer: “Do you want to advertise your business, or some aspect of your business? Who are we talking to, and what do we want them to do as a result of seeing this ad?”

    Client: “You’re the expert! Just say something clever like, ‘(blank line)’.”

    Designer: “Who are we saying that to, and what do you expect their response to be?”

    Client: “I said, you are the expert! If you can’t handle it, I’ll get someone who can.”

    Real conversation.

  35. Randy Martin says:

    Great article.
    Quite a few great responses.
    My version of the same response is:

    Begin with intention.
    What does my client want the reader (potential customer) to do when/after they interact with the piece?

    One thing. Only.

    Now you know what you’re doing.

    Then, it’s up to you to discover what visually the client wants, likes, hates, is ambivalent about, and create your effort to achieve that goal, not upset the client with arbitrary likes and dislikes, and represent the client/brand/product in the best, most appropriate light.

    Which, as stated, is specifically vague.

    To change that vagueness into the desired result, you will have to talk, admit that you don’t understand what you don’t understand, and work toward the most specific preproduction agreement you can.

    Do your work, and be able to justify everything with regard to intention.

    My rule for me is, “Don’t let them think about anything you don’t want them to think about.” That goes for clients as well as their customers. To me this says don’t create or use anything that will cause the observer to wonder what it means, or what it says, or why it’s there, or anything except to respond in alignment with the intention of the created piece.

    Personally, I have the most problems from clients who have worked with designers in the past. From designers who have told them things like, “I was just trying to create some space, to air it out, so I increased the leading;” or, “I was going for something that looked clean so I used Arial for the text (of a printed brochure);” or something similar that indicates to me that the designer did not understand that the focus of her/his efforts should have been to MAKE the potential customer READ THE WORDS and then respond.

    To me, anything that gets in the way of reading is BAD DESIGN.

    So, it’s with regard to these things that I explain/justify to the client the reasons for my decisions. I remain willing to make ANY changes they want that don’t conflict with the ability of the potential customer to read, understand, and respond according to the agreed-upon intention.

    I find that good design does just that, and that, once explained as such, works for my clients.

  36. Craig Garver says:

    I design for a couple of charities I also volunteer with, the company I work for, and a church that I belong to. The range of feedback is amazing.

    At work, they love what I do and think I’m the most talented designer ever born. Very easy to please, except for one manager, who has very specific ideas on color, size, etc. We work together almost like an optometrist and patient. “You want the tan changed to blue. Is this blue good, or would you like this blue? How about this gradient?” It’s turned into a fairly efficient process as we isolate one thing at a time to change.

    The charities all squeal with delight when they see the finished product and very few changes seem needed.

    The church is an entirely different story. We’re near a university, and the place is packed with retired professors and academics. Everyone thinks they are experts on art and especially type.

    It used to be typical to get a response like this: “I really like this, but I’m afraid the serif on the ‘E’ is going to cause reading problems. San-serif type is much easier to read. And don’t use red. It turns out brown when you print it.” Yes, Myriad is known for poor readability . . . groan.

    What I found was that sending a 10-page discourse on readability statistics and quoting from Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style overwhelmed them, and they dropped this nonsense.

    Isolating a problem and a willingness to work with the client seem to help enormously. So does education. Once my church team realized that I knew what I was talking about, all criticism stopped years ago, and they just love what I create for them.

    It does seem the people with the worst taste and the least knowledge of a topic are the most likely to raise strange questions about style and color, unfortunately. And the guy at work who nitpicks? The safety posters that we created TOGETHER really do look great.

    And it’s nice when it’s for “fun” and not the place I make a living! So I’ve got a lot more latitude than everyone else here, unfortunately.

  37. marcy says:

    Many times I have had to explain to clients that the term they used is “relative” and what that means in order to help them be more specific. I usually give examples, like someone telling me they want their site to look cool yet in the end chose colors that were very old school. So the term “cool” is relative to his experience. There is no scientific definition of “cool.”

    Also, small businesses especially have no idea what message they want to communicate. They just know they need more business, or they want an ad or a website. I walk through a checklist of questions with them (I fill it out because they won’t or don’t do it well) to get to specifics about what they are doing as a business and what they want to accomplish. From there, we can work down the path of the ad or website.

    On a side note, I really would love someone to write the “science of design” book.

  38. Raven says:

    I often do projects with boards or committees. Where some people like red, some like blue. Where some drive Chevies, others drive Fords. Getting agreement on creative solutions is a challenge. And when the solution comes from consensus, often it gets reduced to mediocrity!

    Then there are two types of clients: those who give you the parameters — “I like/want red!” (for a car wash?!) — and those who give you, the professional, the options — “You pick the colour, font, layout, as you know best.”

    In either case, the challenge is articulating and rationalizing the design. Something that was never taught in design school!

    Often I will use good and bad examples of other design work to prove my points. But it’s difficult to overcome personal bias with some clients.

    I appreciate the tips and suggestions from all readers.

  39. DawnM says:

    I think it is important to cull out the articulation from the client to be aligned with the message they are trying to convey, however, I feel that as a design professional, the justifications shouldn’t need to be leveraged.

    I always bring up other professions; i.e., chef, doctor, or plumber. There is a certain trust that is always accepted, but when it comes to visual perception, everyone immediately feels validated.

  40. Ariel says:

    Excellent article. I firmly believe that it is up to the designer to lead the client in articulating what they want; as has been mentioned, using other websites, their own past marketing pieces, even a rough first draft of your own, is an excellent way to start the dialogue. But as the professional, it is up to the designer to provide the vocabulary that makes the dialogue possible.

    That is why I love Before & After. You continue to provide the vocabulary that allows me to be effective in my business. I appreciate that you explain in concrete terms why “it works,” so that I can in turn explain it to my clients. Most of the clients I work with are very literal, so when I get questions like, “why do we need so much white space?”, responses like, “it gives the page a chance to breathe” just don’t fly.

  41. Ted Walker says:

    I totally agree and can relate, but I just couldn’t but help notice your incredibly lucid article came printed next to an ad for your book, “How to Design Cool Stuff.”

    (Ha. Sorry John, that’s no criticism of a great book and one of the best titles I’ve ever seen — I just had to do a little friendly ribbing here.) :-)

  42. Shawn says:


    Allow me to articulate about that “wow” above. What I mean is your article brought the problem into focus for me. I’ve been guilty of thinking the client was the one to blame for the breakdown in communication — and they may still be — but now I realize that I have a share of the blame as well.

    I’ve read your article and approx. a third of the comments (also insightful). I will read the remainder of the comments as time allows.

    Please do follow-ups on this article. Help us to learn the techniques needed for better communication, and how we can gently guide our clients to communicate more clearly with us.


  43. Tricia says:

    This is a stimulating article, and the comments also bring many situations to mind. It’s good to know that all graphic artists/designers are faced with similar challenges. Thanks for writing the article.

    More often than not, I’m able to communicate with clients and get enough info to surprise them with exactly what they are looking for, but on occasion there is the situation that seems unending, trying to come up with just the right solution, but this client never seems to be satisfied. Maybe it’s just not a good match, or maybe they are unsatisfiable. Who knows?

    One situation stands out, where I felt I was bending over backwards to come up with multiple ideas and layouts for a wine label (their first, as new vintners), and over and over again I thought I hit the mark. I loved most of the designs I was producing, and thought I was on the right track, getting closer and closer to the perfect label design solution. Each time they would add a new twist or change colors or fonts. Then I got the call that they decided to do something else, and did they still owe me for my time(?). This was a first for me -– a client actually gave up on my creativity. It was disturbing, but I charged them for the additional time I had into the project and got over it. I’m waiting to see how their label design ends up when they finally find the designer who will satisfy their whims. I’m hoping it doesn’t look like any of the design drafts I gave them, after all the hours I spent on the project. It’s hard to know sometimes if you are really communicating, because in this instance, I thought we were, but apparently not.

  44. Mushtaq says:

    Let me also raise my hand and say, “Guilty of just these kinds of vague phrases!”

    Because I like to write, I found myself using subjective phrases and words that simply produced more confusion for the client. As a result, I’ve tried to break down those subjective words to concepts and hopefully become clearer.

    So when I hear “ooomph” or “impact,” that to me translates to: “Look at me — I want to get noticed!”

    If I am able to convey this to the client, the next step is: What is in my product that will get me noticed? Or, how can I present a particular aspect of my product in a captivating way? My thought is that it has to be a single dominant feature — highlighting too many features tends to dissipate the message and loses “impact.” This single feature might even be a question, with an implied answer.

    As an aside (this might be related), I was wondering if the recent redesign attempt (and return back to the original) of the “Gap” logo might have gone through similar miscommunication between client and designer. What do the other readers here think? I personally wondered why the company even wanted to change what seems like a strong logo. It might be a good subject for a future article, John — I’m hoping you will give us your thoughts on what may have worked as a design approach in that situation.

  45. Thanks, John . . . you’ve done it again . . . addressed an issue with which I’ve wrestled for years, unable to resolve, and pointed me in the right direction. I’ve had clients who couldn’t say what they wanted, and I’ve also been in situations where I couldn’t describe in an effective way what I was designing or why it worked . . . neither was satisfactory and won’t bear repeating. My first step in this new direction will be to go back over all the terrific articles you have written on design and study how the process is described. Thanks again!

  46. Rishi says:

    In the context, I’ve met some clients who seem confused and turn inarticulate while trying to place their requirements. Some of them even make me revise the idea over and over again until they get even more confused. I’ve even laughed over coffee with friends about some of my clients whose right brain has nothing left in it and whose left brain has nothing right in it! A friend says, they are D.I.C — the Design Ignorant Client.

    Whatever, but the challenge is always there demanding a meeting point for the client’s expression and the designer’s creation. It’s universal. Period.

    P.S.: I agree strongly with the view that right selection of words are required in all phases of the design — in part of the client and in part of the designer!

  47. Peg says:

    As a client in a medium-sized business, I would sometimes speak in the way you describe (apologies to all), and the outside designer with whom I worked had a wonderful way of breaking me out of it.

    Me: “This part over here needs more . . . something.”
    Designer: “Okay, if you were one of my really big clients back in my agency days, this is where I’d put you and your team into our ‘Train the Client’ class.”
    Me: “What? Have I said something stupid?”
    Designer: “Well, at this stage most clients would want to talk about [she’d name the direction], because that is what will make this project successful. Let me give you an example.” [She would.]
    Me: “Good point. But getting back to this space over here, doesn’t it still need something?”
    Designer: Pause for effect.
    Designer: “Let me explain the lesson again.”

    After one or two such encounters, I became quite trainable, and as a result, both of us were able to perform better in our jobs. Not incidentally, we both made more money.

    Of course, there is no real “Train the Client” class, but who cares?

    Flash forward a bit . . .
    Me: “This project need to achieve three primary objectives. First, . . .”
    Designer: Smiles like the Cheshire cat while taking notes.

    We clients often come in from the wild (rise to decision-making posts from non-design fields). We’re so used to being good at whatever our business field is, that we don’t know what we don’t know about your business field. So, it’s perfectly acceptable for designers to train us. Start by pointing out the years of specialized training and experience that inform your opinions, because we may suspect you just “like art” and have no further qualifications. Then instruct us about our role — because chances are, no one else has had that discussion with us. In the end, it’s more profitable (and more honorable) than just calling us stupid over drinks . . . especially if we are. :-)

  48. Jon Hoy says:

    Every article in Before & After includes a “why” in it. That’s why I love it so much — since the very first issue. You just don’t find this type of information anywhere else.

    I’ve been in the design field for almost 30 years and still get insights from every issue. Being able to articulate the “why” to a company’s management (read non-creatives) has strengthened my reputation in the industry, and it will definitely set you apart from the “artsy” designers that most corporate suits associate with our business.

    Go John! — and the rest of your excellent team.

  49. Alby says:

    True, true.

    I don’t think this should be seen as a problem, though. More of an inevitability in the process of bringing other people’s ideas to fruition.

    95% of our work in the 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. bracket emerges in the form of a Word doc with some bullet points and a perhaps a scrawled note.

    As designers, we draw on previous experience, a chat with the client and a touch of something else to get the client’s ideas off the ground.

    You can’t expect a client to be able to visualize what they want (although it’s nice when they can), because that’s why they’re coming to us.

  50. lucie Cooper says:

    I found Universal Principles of Design (Rockport) an excellent introduction to basic design principles. Full of useful terminology and clear explanations, it helped me to understand and then vocalise why and how designs were/were not effective.

  51. These inane, arbitrary and subjective conversations happen because most designers don’t have the experience (or a boss with the experience) to demand a well-articulated creative brief against which to judge the creative. A client — internal or external — who can’t tell you what he wants isn’t apt to like what he gets. The kind of squishy thinking practiced by Alby will continue the tradition (often right) that designers aren’t “real” professionals.

  52. Helz says:

    Regardless of how much experience, training, and education you have had; sooner or later you will come up against a client who does not want to constructively aid you, as their habit is to say “just do it.” And being a designer doesn’t mean that you are an able public speaker.

    Write a design brief for them after researching their company, and then ask them to fill in the gaps. Most will oblige. List colour preferences, examples of “looks,” etc. If they don’t do that or refuse, then you must give them a list of names of other design teams that may be of assistance to them, as they are not clients you should struggle over — as you know that they will be the sort of client that:
    a. is never happy
    b. wants discounts because they are not happy
    c. will defame your company

    If every design team then acts the same way, sooner or later these guys will be filling out a brief.

    NEVER work without a signed contractual brief. That is your guideline on how to proceed.

    ALSO, include the number of concepts you are willing to do, and make sure the upfront deposit covers your time for this.

    This is your livelihood, ladies and gents.

  53. Leslie Waugh says:

    My how true this is. As designers, we often speak designer jargon, which in literal translation has slim-to-no relevance to our clients, and then top it off with, “it works because I said so,” and clients get lost in the mix.

    I take personal time with all of my clients to do more than sell; I take time to educate about the “whys” of design, and they all really appreciate it.

    Most recently I convinced a client to use her least-favorite color in a logo, because the complementing colors softened the initial impact of her “I hate purple,” and after some color explorations with her, now she loves the combination.

    Clients are people . . . and people will forever ask “why?” Make sure you have an answer ready.

  54. rob says:

    Listening to your customer is critical. Psychologically interpret its intent is important. Paraphrase, use synonyms to decipher a project approach with the client is beginning to experience together . . .

    It’s true, having a good vocabulary is important, and especially culture and knowledge of art history helps to center — concepts of Gestalt, freehand drawing skills to support a good brief.

    However, further communication with a hint of irony certainly helps the dialogue with the customer.

    How does one learn it? I do not know, for example reading a lot!

  55. Steve Marriott says:

    I must disagree with the premise for one simple reason. You are not describing an issue unique in any way, rather a condition of human nature.

    This situation is most readily recognised in socio-political situations but nonetheless is prevalent in any sphere of interaction. The expectation seems to be that humans should be masters of all things, rather than “jacks” as we truly are, though of course some of us get to master some things in our lives.

    My own take, rather than spend as much time trying to educate my clients as I would otherwise spend trying to interpret their needs, is to quickly recognise the point at which my business will no longer bear the burden of “a lost cause” and decline to continue working with them. Having of course ensured a suitable contract for work is in place.

    Perhaps if difficult clients were constantly met with this response, they may take more time to think about what it is they wish to achieve.

  56. Laura Mizii says:

    Great article. So many ways of communicating — but nobody knows how to really speak effectively (no matter what level of education one has). It should be mandatory from elementary school and beyond on how to communicate effectively for business (and relationships of all kinds). This article will help pull out information from many clients, but there will always be a handful who will still say these words to a designer. I think there are always going to be a handful of clients who do not respect designers and wonder why they have to pay so much money for someone to “play with pretty pictures all day” (as I was once told). But, if a doctor or lawyer charged tons of money and they use tons of “jargon” on the lay people — it’s okay.

    Overall, one needs to see all clients like five-year-olds who are always asking “WHY?” And, we need to be able to use the Verbal Art of Self Defense and answer them — even if it is the same question or same answer re-worded in a million different ways, until everyone is happy — or, just turn down the job or the client.

  57. Helz is right. I would add that you need to be prepared to walk away from a client who refuses to give strategic (rather than “I hate purple”) input. Some people simply can’t be helped.

  58. Aimee says:

    I get a lot of flack and heavy sighs at the day job for asking questions and requiring concrete terms when going over a new project with a salesperson. My questions translate to “more work for them,” and I can see how that would be frustrating — but I also would like them to understand that I’m not clairvoyant, and graphic design is not art. That is a difficult concept for them to grasp.

  59. Bob says:

    To be honest, it is a bit easier for me to work with a client who uses vague terms. Mostly because I can offer suggestions and examples to help visualize what those terms mean to them.

    The harder client is the one who tries to solve the design challenges for you.

    “Just stretch the type so it goes all the way across for more of an impact.”

    Or my favorite, “I understand what you are saying about the foreground, middle ground and background . . . but can’t we add a few bursts to the sideground?”

    When working with clients like this, I end up making their version along with my interpretations. Which is like design by Russian roulette . . .

  60. Vague clients? Oy. There are some ways to get the dabblers to stop with the arbitrary suggestions. Ask how the piece doesn’t fit with the agreed-upon strategy and/or how that change will make it fit the strategy. Have graphic/brand standards in place before everything else. Or just say, “You know, nobody runs down to Accounting and tells them how to do their jobs.”

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