This is possibly a bit controversial. I know some people will immediately read this and counter with ‘But the client is always right’, or ‘It’s a designers role to deliver the clients vision’. As with most cliches, there’s truth in those statements – but I’d argue it’s not an exclusive nor an exhaustive truth. It’s not a choice of binary options.
If you get a bunch of designers together (from pretty much any discipline of the design world) and you ask them to start talking about their frustrations many of the same basic themes will soon surface. The biggest gripes often boil down to the same thing … Clients who don’t trust them/allow them to do their jobs and bring their professional expertise to the project in hand!
Any designer/client relationship involves communication, compromise and the evolution of the idea. Things alter with new iterations, testing and are refined by data. Which is exactly how it should be. It’s the tried and tested design methodology- to systematically iterate & improve through a structured process.
But the expressed frustration is not seated there. It’s bigger than that. It’s the frustration of being hired to do a job and then not being empowered to do it. It’s buying a dog and then barking yourself – or more accurately, telling the dog when & how to bark! And it happens a lot.
It has been described to me as doing to the doctor – being told you need an operation, consulting with the surgeon and agreeing just what needs to happen – and then choosing to book the operating theatre and operating on yourself, or asking the surgeon to ignore their training and years of experience and try doing the operation in a completely new way, with a new technique, that you’ve just dreamt-up whilst talking to them.
Thankfully I’ve not experienced this much myself recently but in my early career having such ‘discussion’ with clients did happen. Now, I think the qualifying process S2 use with our customers, the market research and data-driven process we have created, coupled with the fact we share information and explain choices as fully as we can, usually means that our clients see value in our approach and the results we deliver – and so tend to trust us.
But in the past, when I was employed in someone else’s firm and was not as in control of the process nor client relationship as I am now, I witnessed some incredible scenes. I recall being taken by my then boss, and the owner of the design firm I worked for, to a client meeting. The client was a well-known organisation so I’m not going to name names – but their communications manager had a bit of a reputation for being a bully. For the purposes of this tale, I’ll call him Bob.
It was my first time meeting with the client and we were shown to a table in the corner of a very large open plan office. It was pretty clear when we walked in that Bob was not happy. A promotional campaign had not delivered the results they wanted and there had been some negative feedback about the style and approach used. He proceeded to rip into us. Very loudly. Humiliating us in front of all the staff team. It was very degrading. And more annoyingly it was unwarranted.
The things he was blaming us for were all decision his team had made. We’d offered other options. We’d tried to explain why the choices they were making would be problematic. We’d even worked up a whole alternative campaign that gave a better approach that we knew would have delivered better results – and we’d walked them through the reasoning why it would produce better results for them. But they had wanted to be the surgeon. They had ignored the best advice of the specialists (that they had chosen to employ) and had decided to change the design to match the ideas they had produced themselves. Ideas that bore little traction for the target audience and therefore did not deliver enough of a response – which we had clearly stated would be the result at the time.
They were barking themselves and more than that they were actively muzzling the dog. In fact, Bob was barking very loudly at us and insisted the work was redone at our expense! Maybe he didn’t know that his team was responsible for the look and direction of the final campaign. But he wasn’t willing to hear any reasoned response either – although my boss at the time was so scared of harming the relationship that he didn’t actually try too hard to dispute the rather twisted interpretation coming from Bob.
Another example I could site was when I was working with a client to produce a new logo and packaging range for an industry-leading product. As I’ve said the usual recognised design process is one of iteration, testing and refinement. Normally, we can manage that process and agree on a realistic time frame for all that to happen.
But this particular client was new to us. In our discovery phase, they had assured us of their internal working practices, the decision-making hierarchy and that the key stakeholder would be involved from day one of the process – so on the face of it everything looked to be fine. But in reality, their internal consultation process was rather ‘disjointed’ to say the least. They had an external board who evidently needed to approve every single decision – and who seems not to have seeded any real authority to the managers in the hot seat.
That micro-managing culture of this business appeared to have had roled downhill throughout their structures and that transpired into them not wishing to allow their designers to do their job. Every alteration to the design had to be ‘shown’ to every level of the managers and board. Everyone had a view and everyone wanted to see their suggestions actioned in a new visual.
As the design team, it was quickly evident that we were not truly empowered to bring our expertise to the project. They simply wanted us to produce what they wanted to see. They would suggest things and we’d inform them that we’d already considered and discarded the idea – and why we’d discarded it. But the request always came back – ‘could we just try it? Just show us how that would look’.
At the end of the process of re-branding the product and producing the new packaging for the brand (destined for supermarket shelves across the globe), we had produced so many variations and had such a convoluted process that we requested asked for a meeting with the MD to review the process. If they wanted us to work with them again, as they suggested, then we needed to a frank conversation!
The meeting went well. They were pleased with the final design and initial market testing was favourable. The supermarket buyers were making positive noises about the new direction. Then I showed him our original design direction concepts. Placed side-by-side with the final design again the differences were minimal. The basic layout was essentially the same, the hierarchy of information was identical, the colour palettes matched and only minor differences could be seen. The only real difference was a graduated tonal element that had been brought in from one of our other original concepts to replaced a solid block of colour on the chosen design.
I then explained that in travelling from stage one to the final design we had created over 60 variations. Every aspect had been adapted, the layout the colours, the hierarchy of information – everything. Decisions that their own management team had agreed with us would then be revisited by the external board with multiple minor alterations needed so they could again ‘see for themselves’. It had been a very lengthy process. We had taken an incredibly circuitous route to return to the original concept. We had changed almost every aspect of the original design only to come full circle to the original starting point again.
My point was obvious. A lot of time and money could have been saved had they trusted their designers more. Had they understood that we had considered the elements they then asked to see and knew they were not the right things to do – based on our experience and the research provided to us. But they wanted to ‘be the surgeon’ themselves.
I have heard countless similar horror stories over drinks with colleagues and have other examples of similar situations from my own 30 years+ of working in the design world.
I’d also acknowledge that there are always two-sides to a story and there can be unknown elements to decisions that a client may not always be aware of at the beginning of the process, or are unwilling to share for whatever reason. But if you are in the business of purchasing design and communications work of any sort then I’d suggest that the best way to go about it is to find a designer whose practice and process you trust. Talk to them about what you need – be open and share as much detail as they request. If you don’t understand why that information is relevant, ask them? Your design partner is not a mind reader – give them the information they request. Find a design partner who has a proven track record – who’s work you like and who you feel comfortable with. And then trust them to do their job.
Our individual response to any design can be very subjective and personal. It is a very individual thing. But your designer has a great deal of training. They are well used to creating work that will have the required impact on the target audience that’s been identified. If you don’t trust your designer to lead you through the process and have your best interests at heart then why are you working with them? They will have encountered some of the pitfalls and common mistakes people make before. They are fully aware that their work is judged on results – so it’s in their interest to produce the best possible outcome for you!
They know how to bark, they’ve been trained to do it – so take the muzzle off and let them do their thing.