Designing under the influence . . .

Designing under the influence, Design Talk post by John McWade Daniel Winters writes, “I have recently taken on a rather large client, doing design for an annual event of theirs. As is typical, they brought to our meeting the materials used in the past. Well, that really doesn’t do it justice — they dropped on me about 20 pounds of material from the past four years of the event.

“I actually like that they gave me so much, because it gives me great insight into their expectations. But I’ve noticed something when clients have done this before: Client-provided materials can be toxic to new, innovative design. When I see so much of their past material, it has a huge influence on my design, and then I realize that I am just moving in the direction of duplicating their previous work. It creates a massive design block!

“My question is, how can you use client-provided material to assess their wants, needs, and expectations without it becoming toxic to your creative process? Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated!!”


Smart of them to bring you up to date! It sounds like they liked their previous stuff and that it worked for them. Did they ask for something new? Is their venue the same? The theme? What more do you know?


The client is a very large, nationally recognized non-profit doing their annual fundraiser. They’ve not really asked for something new; they seem to just want it done in time for the event in three months.

The main item is a 150 or so- page catalog of items for their silent auction, as well as information about those who have donated auction items, and about the organization itself. They’ve indicated that they really like the style of Food & Wine magazine, but that’s about it. I get the impression that they’re changing up designers every year in an attempt to get closer to their vision, which they seem to find a bit vague.


My guess is that you’re trying to innovate when innovation is not called for, you’re getting predictably stuck, and the resulting “design block” is why you’re falling back on what’s been done before.

This is why a good creative brief is invaluable. It gets on paper what’s to be achieved in terms of message and image. A creative brief gives the project objective goals and keeps the critique at a high level. It is valuable for both you and the client.

You’ll almost certainly have to tease it out. You mentioned that their vision was “vague.” This is normal. Design is difficult to articulate. It’s a right-brain thing, more “feel” than words. And words are only part of the issue. Chances are high that your client is not entirely clear in his own mind what he wants. Explore together until it gets clear for both of you.

Be specific, too. Avoid statements like, “We want to make a good impression on our audience,” or, “We want the design to inspire readers to participate.” These are emotions, not design directives.

Instead, say, “We want our program to look like a high-end auction. To do this, we’ll use classic book margins and fine typography — serif type with wide leading — on glossy paper. Every item will be professionally photographed against a white background, with uniform lighting. We’ll give major items a full page, and minor items we’ll group four to a page. All pages will have a distinctive heading and a small, consistently placed space for auction notes. The cover will be black with thin, gold trim, and the title will be understated.”

Of course, this is only an example. Before your next meeting, you might get a copy of Food & Wine and study it. Ask what it is about Food & Wine that the client likes. Is it sophisticated? Trendy? Understated? Perhaps they like the colors or images or typography. Can they say how Food & Wine’s look applies to them?

(You’ll also need to ask yourself if you’re capable of transferring attributes from Food & Wine to the auction program without copying or losing the feel.)

Then comes the hard part: achieving your stated goals. I can’t count the times that I had a clear idea of what I wanted, but what I put on paper looked nothing like it. You’ll have to slog through this. Seth Godin calls it “The Dip.” But now, instead of defaulting to past imagery, you have a visual goal by which to measure your work — and by which the client can measure your work.

Remember, too, that you’re a team, not a lone wolf. Stay close. As you work, more will often be revealed, and new ideas, sometimes great ones, will arise.

Dear readers, can you add to this? Have you experienced being influenced by a client’s past work — or your own? How did you handle it?

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38 Responses to Designing under the influence . . .

  1. PeterB says:

    That makes it really hard to shake some new monkeys down from the tree.

    I had one where the client was unhappy with their existing corp ID, but when I went ahead and redesigned it, they simply picked up their old one and told me it should look like this, “but different.” Could not get from them what was acceptably different, and questions on design points clearly agitated them. Didn’t help that I was working through an intermediary and not the decision-maker.

    I cut my losses and walked away.

  2. Cathy says:

    I work for a non-profit with a long institutional memory. One reason we keep an extensive archive of our past printed pieces is to make sure that we maintain a sense of continuity. Although we strive to keep our design fresh and innovative, it’s important to make sure our members and donors recognize us. Your clients may not want a radical departure from the past materials. That’s why it’s important to ask lots of questions and get a written creative brief. It’ll save a lot of headaches and reworks later on.

  3. Great tip on being specific, John. Thanks for that. If Daniel writes like you did in your little example (“To do this, we’ll use classic book margins and fine typography — serif type…”), I suspect he might be the last switch-up in this organization’s line of design contractors.

    Using those specific goals instead of the more mushy goals you mentioned will really give Daniel and his client concrete things to talk about, work with, and quantify.

    Thanks for the great tips.

  4. In 27 years, I have tried never to duplicate the same design for different customers. Ideas can come from places you don’t expect, so when you feel stuck, take a break from the project for a while. Do something else for a while, get your brain working on the other side. The inspiration will come. I once did my best work on three hours’ sleep after a rock concert and a flat tire on a rainy winter night before.

    When a client gives you a stack of previous work, at least you know what his expectations are — you know where the bar has been set.

  5. Your job is to do for the client what is right for them at the present time. So the question you have to answer is, “What is right for my client?” In looking at the historical materials, you can ask yourself (and your client) what was/wasn’t right about those materials in their day, what might or might not be right to carry forward into the future. In looking at the historical materials, you can ask why they feel the need to change designers. In looking at the historical materials, you can assess how high or low the bar is set, to do a better job this year than has been done for them in the past. But unless the client is particularly attached to the material, it’s really irrelevant. The question is, “What is the right thing for the client this time around?”

  6. Beth Cote says:

    I would use the old material to help define what the client doesn’t really want to do this time. What didn’t work for them is as important to me as a designer as what did.

  7. Josh says:

    Love the shout out to Seth Godin in the post!

    Daniel, one way to not be so bogged down by their past is to help them sort though their own materials. Pull out some likes and dislikes, and use them as points of reference. These can also help you with the aforementioned creative brief goals and the eventual success of the project!

  8. William Sommerwerck says:

    Why not come up with your own ideas before you look at what they’ve already done?

  9. Len Williams says:

    I always ask for current and past marketing materials. It provides a solid idea of what kind of design work they’ve relied on, and a wealth of text content that allows me to analyze their marketing strategies. One often-overlooked factor is to pay attention to what has been successful in the past. Do some research to find out from the client what has brought in income and sales leads, and what specific campaigns were most successful for them. Utilize key points of these successful marketing pieces to ensure the continuing success of your new designs and campaigns. As the creative, you shouldn’t have the idea that you necessarily need to change everything. Having that past material and a good connection to the company’s marketing/advertising director can allow you to re-use (sufficiently spiffed up, of course) successful actions that will more or less guarantee your new campaigns will not only look good but will drive lots more business into the company — making you the hero!

    • Alan Gilbertson says:

      Len, we are so on the same page. It’s too easy in design to forget that ultimately, one’s purpose is to make the client more successful. Clients sometimes forget this, too, in my experience, and have to be reminded.

      One client of ours attends an annual, national conference in their field, at which they also exhibit. I make sure to follow up after each conference to find out what, of the materials we created, was most successful, what was less so, how many inquiries they got, and so on. I keep the notes so that the next year we both have a good starting point, and keep track of what elements are effective and what we can leave out. In three years we’ve slightly more than doubled their business, and we’ve had several referrals from them.

  10. Steve Ruis says:

    I’d want to know who the catalog is intended for. Are these long-term donors who are older and want to see continuity in the event (and would want to see a connection with last year’s catalog)? Or are they looking to attract younger, hipper donors? This kind of information gives me a lot of direction.

  11. Doug Katz says:

    Perhaps the pounds of material your client brought to the table represent a confession of ignorance, not a statement of expectation. Wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe it was his way of saying, “I don’t know how to talk about message and image in conceptual terms. I don’t have much of a right brain. The best I can do is show you what we’ve done, and mention Food & Wine. Other than that, I’m counting on you . . . .”

    There may be a lesson here. Some clients can only participate in a project like this in concrete terms . . . not by telling but by showing and by reacting to what’s shown to them. “Design is more ‘feel’ than words.” It’s also more eyes than mouth and ears for some clients.

    Maybe take the historical material, not as handcuffs, but as an invitation to consider it, to extract the best of it, and to improve it.

    Project briefs can help. It might also help to show him one sketch that mimics the 20 pounds and another that bears no resemblance — a replication of the familiar and then an unexpected invention. This will give him something concrete to react to. And that may be exactly what you both need.

  12. I’d keep talking with them and asking questions until it is not vague, until the light goes off. Otherwise, you will be condemned to repeat the past. Even people who say they don’t know what they want, do know, because if you show them something and they don’t like it, they will tell you. Do you want this? Do you want that?


    • Bob Long says:

      Have to agree with Giulietta . . . they may not be able to enunciate what they want (and even say they can’t), but if you show them something they do not care for, they will tell you (and it may be something you really like . . . life is like that). It’s the same about pricing goods. “I don’t know what this widget is worth.” Down to the $1 that may be true, but if you offer less, they will wince, arch eyebrows and sometimes even say something. But get this . . . that still doesn’t mean they know. There is a big difference between their perceived value and what is real. Vagueness is part of the whole industry of everything, and you will spend time and $$$ nailing it down.

  13. Karen Shea says:

    First turn 180° and do a few designs totally opposite from what was done in the past. Evaluate the differences — how much of the design is your own personality, what is its appeal: visual? concept? color? — then, find a middle ground to begin your design for the client. It will appear fresh and innovative to them without walking too far away from their comfort zone.

  14. I am a lateral entrant from Germany and learnt designing and texting autodidactically. Maybe this is the reason why it is easy for me to see sort of the whole picture of a company. When I design something, I refer to what is already there. When there is an old logo that should be changed but not changed, I know exactly what they mean — it’s like a rhinoplasty: make it better, but it’s not necessary that anybody can see the difference.

    The need of some designers is to make something new that meets their own need for significance and acknowledgement, but it may not meet the needs of the company — or the need of their customers for continuity and clarity. The Coca Coca-logo has never been changed significantly, has it? Also a new logo must be recognised by the consumer as the logo of the well-known company.

  15. Ken Tryon says:

    When I worked for a non-profit . . .

    My experience is more as a production artist — putting an art director’s design into a printable form — than as a designer ex nihilo. I took over an established newsletter format and tried to heal the ways it had been bastardized from its original, agency-designed style. I cleaned up the grid, made text styles consistent, and paid attention to typographical details. Just those simple changes improved the newsletter considerably.

    When it came time for the annual report, I had to produce on a tight deadline. I started with the previous year’s report (which looked okay) and did my usual cleanup. Along the way I tweaked design elements I thought were cliché into more elegant accents. I had a great cover image to work with, but initially just dropped that into the existing design. The last thing I did was to redesign the cover with a fresh look that worked with the new image. This caused some consternation on the part of the Society director, but I was able to assure her that the rest of the report was ready to go and the cover was icing. That bought me some flexibility, although she ended up choosing something closer to the old design than I would have liked.

    In both cases, I was constrained by time and expense (I was only a half-time employee), but was able to turn out work I was proud of and pleased my customer (boss). I had to decide what I could accomplish within the given constraints and determine the pain points in the old design.

  16. Joanne says:

    These comments all have very useful ideas. Asking the client what has and hasn’t worked for them in the past is a great place to start.

    Another idea to consider would be asking the client what end result(s) they are looking for, not only from the catalog, but also from the event itself. Do they want more donors? More bidders? Larger bids? Increased attendance? Increased awareness? Something else I haven’t even thought of asking?

    Don’t be afraid to question why the client wants to accomplish X, Y, or Z. It is your job as the designer to help your client clarify their thinking, and point out to them when their various goals are at odds with one another.

    Once you come up with these criteria in collaboration with your client, it will be easier to write a useful creative brief. Think of the brief as your yardstick, by which you measure everything you do: if it supports what you are trying to accomplish, then include it; if not, lose it. The brief will help you and your client to know when you’re on target, and when you’re wandering off into something tangential.

  17. Bari Tarmon says:

    I think I would take all the materials that were given to me that were used in past campaigns and pick items and elements that represent the company and project, such as colors, shapes, unique graphics, photos, etc., and use those items and elements in your new layout. You can repurpose some items: enlarge, crop, use in new ways, as long as they are identifiable and make the connection to prior work. The new version can be unique and fresh and remain true to the company’s image and aim. This may seem obvious, but I have seen designers abandon all previous elements and create something that looks totally unrelated, thus breaking any familiar ties to the recurring project and firm that distributed it.

  18. Brian says:

    I have been doing a jewelry catalog for 10+ years. It used to drive me mad every time I did it.

    I started out working in grids and styles and had continuity. However, the client always said, “make that font bigger, make that bolder, make that green, make that purple, make that font script, put that in a box, etc.” The result was a mess.

    I did it two or three times a year and fought it for the longest time.

    Then it clicked with me. This guy was making money — lots of it. He knew his market and what they responded to. He was opening new stores. Even in the current recession he has managed to keep the stores open in a cut-throat market by adjusting his product line. He doesn’t even sell online.

    So who am I to tell him not to have his prices in 15 different font sizes on the same page? The object of the catalog is to sell product, which he is clearly doing, so the catalog is a success.

    I still work on it and try on the first draft to have some continuity, but I am at peace when he makes graphically abhorrent changes. I just keep it out of my portfolio!

    • Randy says:

      This is right on. Not all clients have vision. Some do. Not all clients agree with your vision. Some do.

      However, those who are successful at what they do and who have particular tastes must be listened to. Tweak what you can, fight for what makes better design, but in the end, they sign the check. Learn to live with it.

      Or, be a purist and true to yourself and work only with clients with whom you agree.

    • Kathy Julian says:

      Brian, you have expressed my feelings exactly. I don’t feel so bad now about hiding those jobs where I gave the client what they wanted, even though I knew their font choice did not suit their business. If the client gets what they want, even though it’s not good design, I guess that’s the point of it all — when you’re paying for something, you want to get something you want, not something they want to give you. Still, I love the jobs where the client doesn’t have any ideas and loves what you give them.

  19. I think we’re really all over-thinking this and looking at the problem through a designer’s paper tube. Non-profits are funny animals, mostly staffed by a lot of scared people who don’t like change (not all, but most). If you feel they are changing designers every year looking to get closer to their vision, chances are high that they are going to replace you next year as well. It sounds like the more you innovate, the more likely they will be unhappy. It sounds like they don’t want a designer; just a pair of hands to get what they need done, but they don’t have the resources to do it themselves.

    This isn’t bad — it just is what it is, and we should recognize it for what it is. You may have pitched and sold design, but they might have only bought graphic production. It’s important to know the difference.

    Not everyone needs or wants design expertise. But if this is not what you want to do, why do it? It sounds like there might be a disconnect between what you want your firm to be doing and what your client wants to be buying. I would be very interested to know if you get the project next year and why.

    • Alison says:


    • Cathy says:

      As an employee at a non-profit, your description of “scared people who don’t like change” made me laugh. That describes most of the decision-makers and higher-ups. You’re also right about hiring production vs. design. Our Marketing Director sends some projects outside only because we can’t get it done in-house (too many deadlines due all at once.)

  20. I would go through all of the materials provided and pick out factual trends (i.e., time, dates) that always appear. Pick out logos and graphics that are the same or similar. Think about what other trends are spotted — for example, do they use mostly recycled papers? Gem tones or earth tones in colors? Lots of photos, or lots of graphics? These kinds of trends will reflect the organizational culture. Most often, the marketers in charge of the project will circulate the new designs for input. The trends from previous years are the best clues you have to what kind of organization-wide expectations you’ll encounter — and the marketing leader you’re working with may not be able to tell you specifically.

    It’s also helpful to look at what the competition is doing. Are similar organizations producing an event or magazine? Do the trends seem similar to what you saw in the collateral review? These trends might confirm the need for certain elements. There may even be legal requirements involved like disclosures or logo bugs.

    The last thing I would do is to get a few issues of Food & Wine magazine. If it’s the only “like” you’ve been provided, my takeaway would be to surely include those concepts. This one probably is the marketer’s preference, where they want to make their influence in the project.

    Then when you present the design, be sure to make note of all the logic. “I/we saw a trend towards use of bright, rich gem tones in your previous materials, which we also see in ABC Association and Food & Wine magazine. This makes sense, because gem tones create a feeling of bounty, wealth, and giving — perfect for your cause and a big-ticket silent auction. I/we carried that theme into this year’s designs by using Pantone colors x, y and z . . . .”

    Having been on both sides of this challenge, I know how it feels to be the marketer in charge, trying to give good direction to designers, but aware of the types of influences within the organization and how they can squash or celebrate a design. Having been on the outside agency side, too, I’ve learned that the client wants to know you’ve heard them and reviewed the materials they gave you. They will appreciate if you’ve done due diligence and been responsible about creating their new designs — i.e., not just redesigned because you think it looks better that way.

    Hope that helps. Sounds like a fabulous project with a great opportunity for exposure and to build a strong relationship with a big company. Best of luck to you — hope you knock it out of the park!

  21. Randy says:

    I have comments about this topic, but they involve a different breed of client.

    I’ve done web design work for several clients who were themselves artists and designers (jewelry designers in particular).

    Getting on the same page with another creative person is just as hard, if not harder, as working with the corporate suit that crunches numbers all day.

    In my case, I did look at things the clients had already approved and/or designed themselves in other media and used that as a springboard. I found that asking for specific design direction wasn’t successful in most cases. These types of clients have their own creative workflow that isn’t easy to articulate to others. Quick mock-ups worked best for me. Throw them some visuals and see which direction they lean. Artists usually know what they like when they see it. Once I sniff out one element that they sign off on, I can usually develop an overall design that they are pleased with, because the seed of creation came from them.

    This seems to be an important aspect when designing for other artists.

  22. droolcup says:

    Excellently articulated analysis, John, as usual. And superb postings by all. I cannot add anything but would like to underscore some points that resonate with me.

    The first is to spend time alone brainstorming your solutions to the problem before looking at the client’s twenty-pound stack. Just rough notes or ideas meaningful to you. This gives a foothold on possible ideas, as often one is heavily influenced by the other work and may need a “course correction” in due time if you feel you are being unduly led by past solutions.

    The second is to find a thread of continuity that runs through all of the materials, if possible — font, color, image, graphic, layout. It may provide a key to their identity, their preferences, and a motif or concept that you can exploit.

    The third is to give the non-articulate a group of visual solutions and use them to educate. “I put the triangle here at the base of the design to give it support; I chose this color because . . . . Since the name of the company means Xyzbq, I have represented that in this image, because . . . .” And so on. I recall doing this with a bunch of elders for whose church I designed a logo. They had no ideas whatever of what they wanted or needed and could articulate nothing. I took the name of the church and some of the basic creedal points, rendered them visually, and then showed them the abstraction. I used only three or four solutions and explained why I discarded three of the four and why I chose the fourth. It worked. Coulda been a fluke, but it worked.

    Keep copious notes for yourself of what was said — opinions, comments, anything you can use as a springboard, in case you forget later on. And if indeed they want production rather than design, there is nothing whatsoever amiss with earning that paycheck.

  23. Phil says:

    Great comments. My two cents:

    1. Remember that each year has to brand with the client, but it has to distinctly present that year as different. So a lot of good ideas are already up on how to accomplish that. Just keep in mind the mission: recognized as the same company but a different year.

    2. This sounds silly, but go to Google with a pencil and paper. Click the image search, and search for maybe four or five categories in your non profit’s area (starting with “nonprofit”) to see what is up there.

    When you see an idea that you like (that fits your already probing sense of design), make a note in writing about that idea, but do not copy the image; just put it in your own words.

    Bet you find a few “new” ideas that are fitting your criteria. When you emulate, you can’t copy . . .

  24. Edward says:

    Intuition always plays the biggest part when there are many factors to consider or unknown factors at work.

    You may not be aware of why you make the choices you do, but research shows that there are 11 million bits of information taken in by our brain every second, and that the frontal cortex (the logical and cognitive component) handles a mere 40 pieces per second. The other 10,999,960 pieces are assimilated by the middle (emotional subconscious) brain, where most of our choices stem from.

    This same research shows that when people make choices about complicated issues based on intuition and “feeling,” they find greater satisfaction over an extended period of time than when they analyze a complicated problem. (How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer)

    When designing for your client, there may well be many things to consider and unknow factors that no one mentions at first. For this reason, I would not bother to look at any material handed down, because it goes straight to the puzzler part of your brain, and overthinking can cloud the simple expression you really want to deliver.

    Do more than one quick mockup, and then compare with the past. You will quickly see what was important before, and how much of that you’ve captured in a different way in your mockups.

    Daydreams and that thousand-yard stare can help distill a project to the simplest emotional elements. Your emotional brain has a much greater capacity to put any number of emotional elements into a simple symbol. I call it “Kindergarten Designing.”

    This method will not work unless you have a great deal of designing experience to draw upon. A bricklayer wouldn’t have a design background as a mid-brain resource, but you do, and so the kindergarten method of having fun rather than hard work will take you to places your puzzler could never think of.

  25. David Kunkel says:

    I’ve been in this exact situation. A company with a long history wants to “redesign,” but when they hand me a large stack of legacy material, I realize that they’re insecure about losing their established identity. I feel them out to find out if they are ripe for a redesign and just nervous, or if they really want only a “refresh” but are asking for it in more radical terms than they realize.

    First thing I do is read and look at (two different things!) the stack; then I forget what I learned — a few days between the study and the meeting does the trick. This way it can influence me subliminally but not directly.

    I attend that meeting with a sketchpad and a Sharpie, and talk about their expectations. Listening closely for clues like, “we want people to recognize our stuff at a glance” (refresh), or, “we’re looking a little boring/dated/stuffy” (redesign), helps me feel out where they really want to go. Sketching ideas while we talk helps direct the conversation, stimulate input, and gets buy-in in a visceral way to what we discuss. I have never failed to leave that meeting with a clear idea of what I’m going to do, with a client that is firmly in agreement with that direction.

    The only time I stumbled at this stage was when I found out that the real decision-maker was not the committee I was dealing with, but rather the late founder’s secretary! One quick meeting with her resolved the issue — she wasn’t having any redesign on her watch, and everyone was scared to death of her. Once she met me, she was able to trust the process, and I talked her into some reasonable updates. In the end everyone was happy, including my accountant.

  26. Bill Motzing says:

    The key is to have a strong process. Many back issues of B&A give great strategies for designing materials. Find the keywords, then look outward for inspiration and apply. You must start from the inside and work out. If you start from the outside (past and existing material) and try to apply that to the content, you will always have problems.

  27. JP Laclau says:

    Interesting topic for discussion and great comments — as usual!

    My own two cents would be:

    – Don’t look at the material they brought from the past four years but at what is in between and at the sequence — what took them from A to B and then to C and D. Is there a trend there? If so, you’d better understand it and maybe reveal it to them and take it in.

    – Understand better who your client is: the project manager (same one as in the past years or changing every year?), a committee, various scattered department heads . . . ?

    – Get your own reading of who their patrons are and of what defines their tastes (maybe the reference to Food & Wine magazine comes from their own marketing-department analysis of target groups). After all, success is not so much in acceptance of the product by the buyer but in the reaction of the public.

  28. Corrine says:

    In that case, is your client looking for a creative design or a safe one?

    If they want more, try to make a little twist of the old designs: Do the opposite things, alter one of the parameters, present the same thing in different ways, mix two designs into a new one . . . play with it.

  29. Vince says:

    I had a client who was also initially very vague. They gave me a lot of their past works for a concept that they wanted me to develop regarding a web project. The material was extensive, but without something more, I could not do anything new with it. In fairness to them, they did not really know how to help give me what I needed.

    I decided to just talk with them and asked them for some time in order to give me a feel for what they did as a group and who they were. From that, I started to get my own picture of who they were. I then started to develop a message and a theme for them.

    Once that happened, I was able to grow the concept. Then it was easier to look at their older material and pick what I could use that supported the theme that I started to create for them (which had been there all along, but no one formally said it or was conscious of it.)

    I shared this theme once it was clear to me, and their eyes brightened, and I got a “YES” from them. This process is what helped them to get more engaged and help me better. The project turned out to be a fantastic success.

    Hope this helps.

  30. Malcolm says:

    Here’s a little story that illustrates why previous client stuff should be handled with great care! A few years back I went to see a potential client, and he showed me his existing brochure and flyers, which were truly appalling. He asked me what I thought of it all, and I laid into it big time, explaining exactly why I thought it was such a load of junk. He listened politely, and when at the end of my rant I asked who had done it, he replied “my son.” We have an old saying in England that “a rich man’s joke is always funny.” Keep that in mind at all times if you want the work!

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