First, a lesson on time vs budget
My first Creative Director, a tattooed Yankees fan with a knack for all things design-ey, once gave me a piece of advice that I still refer to each day.
We had been discussing the amount of hours that needed to be allocated for two different projects. Client A was an internationally recognized consumer brand with a big, fat wallet (they make a lot of ketchup). Client B was a very, very small local clothing business with an equally minuscule budget. So, although the timelines were about the same, obviously client A could afford more hours than client B.
Being a newborn designer, I assumed the solution was to utilize the entirety of my design smarts on Client A, then ensure that client B was done to the point of just "good enough". When I tried to confirm this with my Creative Director he replied "No. Every client deserves great design."
This equation did not compute. Great design requires significantly more time than just good design, right? How could I possibly be expected to provide the same quality when I had more hours to create for one client vs the other?
Something had to give.
We mustn't disturb the delicate genius
In my early years as a designer—before I truly understood what my Creative Director meant—I often lied about the hours I spent on projects so he wouldn’t know how long it took me to actually come up with “equally great” design.
Once I was briefed on a project, I would retreat to my desk, wire into my playlist, pump coffee through my veins, and push pixels until I felt like I had undoubtedly nailed it. Then, magically, I would reappear hours (or days, or weeks) later with a visual solution that I liked, but our client almost always inevitably hated.
Countless projects and temper-tantrums later, I started to hate "design." There was not enough caffeine in the world to support the over time I was accumulating. My naive, fresh-out-of-school, agency-injected mentality believed being a great designer meant serving up a platter of the prettiest visuals that my client would immediately fall in lust with—for the simple fact that I was the Designer, and they were the client. No questions asked. End of story.
The reality of it? I was treating design as a siloed game of chance. I had thought my job was to take all of the information given to me and create something—a solution—based on my own ideology, that looked really stellar. That was great design. But why didn’t my clients ever feel the same? I was the designer. All they had to do was just let me create and ultimately trust my decision.
It took a lot of un-learning to come to the realization that changed the entire approach to how I work: design is not a thing—it's a process. And when this process is executed properly every client—regardless of budget—can, in fact, have great design. The amount of hours allocated to finding the solution is almost irrelevant. Just like my Creative Director said.
By striving to create a true Designer/Client partnership. Creating necessary steps in the process to allow us to work together toward a common goal that we both understand and participated in creating, allows a mutual trust to form. Once that is established, we no longer have to play tug-of-war. Efficiency happens, which means less time required to find an agreeable, great solution. Of course, every agency/firm/company will have their own processes in place, but don’t be afraid to speak up and make known what exactly is needed for either of you to get the job done right. What this means for me personally evolves every day, but the following steps are a good template as to what I’ve found works so far:
1) GET PERSONAL
Often times, as designers, we read the brief and then—usually motivated by a deadline—we run off to our corner of the ring to design. This is typically where the silo begins to form, and you as the client begin to feel as if you’re not part of the solution.
Instead of diving into the deliverable, I find its best to open the lines of communication immediately by setting aside project agendas and getting personal.
Typically I ask for a phone call. If that can't be arranged an online chat will do. Trust and collaboration begin first by making a connection and understanding each other. If this doesn't happen, chances are the success of the solution will be shamefully low.
So, introduce yourself! Research your point of contact —not just their employer or company. If they’re on LinkedIn, look at where they lived or places they’ve worked. Find commonalities. No client of mine has ever been anything but happy that I took the time to get to know them, and here’s why: while we may be collaborating on the end solution together, we must take the time to understand collaborating 1-on-1 first.
Motives aside, we are now able to genuinely listen. After reviewing the brief, I often ask my clients to describe the problem in their own words, and I've found this to be worth its weight in gold. Speaking candidly sometimes reveals an entirely new set of needs, a different perspective to the task at hand, or an entirely different problem altogether. Those needs become holes in the larger fabric of the project, and by taking the time to poke and listen, those holes will be exposed. In this part of the process, I begin to see how they can be mended and later used as reasoning to the solution.
3) FORM A SUPER-TEAM
Maintaining a healthy flow of chatter while the work is being done is crucial to maintaining the working trust built thus far. With larger scale, long-term projects, I take deliberate steps to involve my client in aspects of the design process, ideas, and sometimes in internal conversations.
Asking questions—instead of guessing—is important on both sides of the table, and empathy goes a long way. As a Designer this back-and-forth allows me to help guide my client to the best solution through understanding. I’m a firm believer that solutions should never be a surprise. And Designers, you think it's fun to surprise your client—I hope you’ll think it's equally fun to start from scratch.
4) PRESENT WITH REASONING
Presenting the solution may seem daunting, but in fact, I feel its just the opposite. This is the opportunity show off how well you’ve collaborated as a team, and confidently reveal the shiny results that have come from it! Siloed work can be spotted miles away, so as a Designer I make an exceptional effort to emphasize the “whys.”
A good solution will have come from collected research, answers solved from questions asked, and recalling those holes in the project fabric found earlier in our process. Emphasize a circular, collaborative process by pointing the solutions back to the problem itself.
5) NAVIGATE CHANGES TOGETHER
In my experience, the best part about this process is how surprisingly minimal feedback can be. As a Designer/Client team, we’ve taken steps to get personal, establish trust, listen, and involve each other, so if there are changes to be made they typically come from other project stakeholders.
Aside from smaller tasks, taking any big changes on together will be the least path of resistance to finding success in the next round. As with any relationship, disagreements could happen. The good news is by now compromise is a much easier target to reach because you’ve cultivated mutual trust and working communication.
I can only speak to my experience, but focusing on the relationship with my client first and foremost is of the utmost importance. After that, the logistics, the meetings, the unexpected bumps in the road on the way to a great solution are much simpler to overcome, together.
Every client deserves great design. Every client deserves great SEO. Every client deserves great UX.
Whatever service you're providing, it’s success is no more than a direct reflection of the relationship you’ve established—and that’s the real deliverable.