Clients are from Mars, Designers are from Venus and Other Bad Analogies for Working Together

Design often has the properties of good looks, which perhaps is why it’s often confused with style. But design is about the underlying structure of communicating—the idea, not merely the surface qualities. The late, great designer Saul Bass called this “idea nudity”—messages that stand on their unadorned own. Certainly, it’s possible for a good idea to be poorly executed. But bad ideas can’t be rescued.
— -AIGA Design Business & Ethics

The First Date

Frequently I am approached by people in need of a designer. But within a a few minutes, it can be very clear what they really need is a 'digitizer'. Or what I usually refer to is production design. Someone to parrot or duplicate a visual in a digital realm. They show up with a solution and hope you'll make it 'look pretty'. Certainly there are times when an idea just needs some tweaks, but more often than not, the core idea isn't great. And no amount of finesse will make it a good design. This is when its important for a client and designer to establish their ideal relationship. I don't want your solution. I want your problems. Or as Emily Armstrong sings it, " I know what you want, but it's not gonna be what you like!"   We should foremost, establish expectations. 

Ideas give design its weight, its ability to influence audiences positively, negatively or not at all.

Be Honest & Openminded

Some people walk into a doctor's office with a cold and demand antibiotics, and likewise others show up with a fully-sketched logo and just need designer to make it look good. While doctors are licensed to perscribe drugs and designers are capable of digitizing your napkin drawing,  both of their optimal roles are not in handing out pain-killers. And you can find doctors and designers that'll hand out literal and metaphorical pain killers to get you out the door. This is generally an unethical practice and a perversion of their professional role.

 

Pay for Dinner

A good designer or doctor will work to understand your problems, your vision, your history and devise a solution with you to fulfill your goals and needs. Guys in the alley can get you drugs, they also come with a host of emotional baggage and a knife in their waistband. Just don't. Good designers and doctors probably won't be the cheapest one's handing out solutions in the market. But going through the appropriate steps can not only save future errors and changes (Benji's in client-speak) but the product will likely be more profitable and long-lasting (yes, money, yes!)

Design—good design—is not cheap. You would be better served to spend your money on something else if you don’t place a high value on what it can achieve. There’s a view in Buddhism that there’s no “good” karma and no“bad” karma, there’s just karma. The same can’t be said for design. Karma is a universal condition. Design is a human act (which often affects conditions) and, therefore, subject to many variables. When the word “design” is used here, it is always in the context of good design.

Side Thought: I read an article once addressing the criticism of the 'overuse' of CGI in movies. Basically it boiled down to this - people criticize special effects because they only time they notice them is when they're bad. They're extremely prolific and almost no movie goes without them, often in the most banal ways, and you just don't know it. In short, we are quick to point out logos we dislike or  badly rendered film scenes because they stick out - but good design is often gone unnoticed because it just feels natural. Everything is designed, most people just don't think about it until its exceptionally bad. And hopefully, they get warm fuzzies when its really good. But back to the relationship of designers and clients...

Respect the Process

While the common misunderstanding of the designer's role, even among in-house design roles, is a pain point for may designers, it is a good professional designer's job to establish what their role is and how their client can get the most out of them up front. Instead of a passive aggressive tug of war, some basic understanding of how the designer and client prefer to work and what they expect can establish a healthy relationship To shortcut it, a good design relationship largely boils down the same steps taken across almost any problem-solving field, from the scientific method to engineering best practices. Shortcutting this often ends with one or both parties unhappy. 

1. Understand ( Design Brief)

2. Explore

3. Define

4. Ideate

5. Design

6. Choose Solution

7. Refine

8. Present

9. Implement

10. Test

11. Iterate/Redesign

Or more simply put - Ideate, Implement, Test, Repeat

Or more simply put - Ideate, Implement, Test, Repeat

Seek Substance & Longevity

Step one is understanding. Its ideas.  Remember that goes both ways. I highly recommend the AIGA "Design Business and Ethics" Guide to any client working with designers or designers working with clients (all of them). It covers many of these core concepts of value, ethics and process that can change the conversation about what a good designer is. Its certainly more than a pretty portfolio. I mean, you wouldn't marry someone just because they're cute right? Same goes for judging solely on design portfolios - understanding values, workflow, goals, budget and timelines will be the stepping stone to having a beautiful client/designer relationship that can survive the the test of time. Until contract-completion do you part. 

Emily Bunnell