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Simply put: We depend on clients to hire us and to pay us. (I think employers can be considered clients as well) Still, we tend to comment on them as the evil element in our industry. We refer to them as dumb, stupid, uneducated. Clients can amaze in their reaction — both in good or bad ways. A client’s participation makes for all the difference in the work we get and produce. Potentially, great projects can become duds with the wrong clients connected to them and on the other hand, projects that seem to be merely bread and butter jobs might turn into great assignments because clients can help elevate them to that level.

A few days ago I had a meeting with an architectural firm. I presented work to them for the second time. I felt pretty good about the work that I was bringing along, which was based on good input I had received from them during the first presentation. Sure enough, the presentation was a success. I left the meeting thinking that all presentations should go that well.

The reason why it went so well was simple: Client participation.

Not only was the client available to answer questions we submitted during a research phase, but further, was very much involved in the initial presentation and offered much more than the generic: “all of these are very interesting directions.” One of the guys in the meeting, a senior architect, gave me an initial gut reaction, then he went on to analyze, reference to art and design movements, architectural elements and recent world events. He pulled out books and showed references of what the work reminded him of, and he commented on what he considered the pros and cons as they applied to the project. He was not only extremely well versed in art and design history, but he also knew how to explain his thought process.

Looking back, it became clear to me, that during the first review of concepts, he became a true team-member and his input was very much reflected in the second presentation. I believe that if my refinements would have failed to deliver, both myself the designer, but also him, the client, we both would not have done our jobs. Obviously, we cannot expect that every client can provide as much as this client did, but still, an experience as such gives fuel to the argument that you should actively go out and pick your clients, rather than letting them pick you.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Mar.25.2004 BY Peter Scherrer
Sarah B.’s comment is:

I agree... but sometimes, a client can be too involved in a bad way. If I put my foot down too much, I might lose the project, but for goodness sake, the most recent wanted to use "BrushScript" - - just frustrating.

I envy you, I would very much like a "team player"/"team effort"!!

On Mar.25.2004 at 12:14 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Couldn't agree more Peter.

Some of my most creatively satisfying work has been the result of a good client partnership. The key lies in turning what's often an adversarial process into a collaborative process.

Sure, there are bad clients out there. I've had some who've outright lied or have had agendas from the outset. But as the designer, I have the task of managing the process, the client interaction and involvement, and the design approaches and implementation. So if a design product that I produce is a failure -- regardless of who was to blame or what blew up, the responsibility lies squarely on me as the designer. That's what I get paid to do.

Designers must learn to incorporate client involvement, not just tolerate or endure it. The key lies in crafting your process to collaborate where it makes the most sense and has the least potential for conflict.

Too many designers blame clients for mediocre work. I say work smarter.

On Mar.25.2004 at 12:48 PM
Armin’s comment is:

I am so tired of hearing the client is stupid from designers. [Not that you said that Peter, I'm just stringing in the idea]. In the last HOW issue there was an article about it — it's online. I mean, seriously? Do we want somebody that is not a designer curiously picking up HOW and reading how all designers think clients are stupid? It might be a funny inside joke, but I don't hear many laughing much anymore.

Yes, there are clients who are less capable of working with designers but it is not because they are dumb, it's because they are not designers — how many times have you left your car with the mechanic with absolutely no clue what the hell is wrong with your car? Now imagine that when you leave, they all discuss how stupid you are. Not cool, huh?

With that rant out of the way I second Tan's notion: blaming bad work on clients, as a general cry, is a pure cop-out.

On Mar.25.2004 at 01:28 PM
Peter Scherrer (ps)’s comment is:

With that rant out of the way I second Tan's notion: blaming bad work on clients, as a general cry, is a pure cop-out.

agreed. i think its our job is not only to output good creative, but also to select "good" clients or educate them so that they can become good clients. Too often, designers are unwilling to listen to their clients and want to push their own agenda more than the client's.

On Mar.25.2004 at 02:01 PM
Armin’s comment is:

So what makes a client good? Besides deep pockets.

On Mar.25.2004 at 02:10 PM
Tracey Rosenberg’s comment is:

It's really funny. Just two days I ago, I was looking through the most recent HOW, and was horrified when I read the aforementioned article. I am actually considering writing a letter to the magazine.

And then, such a coincidence to see that this discussion is highlighted here. I am glad designers are talking about this.

I think that the lack of respect a lot of graphic designer's have for their clients is one of the trouble spots in our profession.

On Mar.25.2004 at 02:13 PM
Peter Scherrer (ps)’s comment is:

here a few: availability to listen, examine, explore. to share information that pertains to a project... be it positive or negative. understanding that a designer is working to make a profit.

On Mar.25.2004 at 02:16 PM
Armin’s comment is:

How about personality? Obviously, it's ideal to work with people you like, but is it advisable to work with somebody who you don't "gel" with but the project at hand is actually enjoyable and good for you or your firm?

I can't remember where I read this, it was almost a year ago, perhaps it was even here and for some reason I think it was Stephen Doyle (but do NOT hold me to this) who said it — sigh, so many speculations — anyway: the deal was that there are three Fs when doing design work.

Fame — as in getting awards and recognition

Fortune — as in getting paid well to do it

Fun — as in, well, having fun.

So if a project didn't fulfill at least two of the three Fs, he wouldn't take on the job.

* Disclaimer: I do not endorse this method, I'm just pointing it out.

On Mar.25.2004 at 02:39 PM
kevinhopp’s comment is:

A client with more than a business background is a blessing.

A freelance designer without a business background, or enough intellect to read up on selling methods, is just as "dumb, stupid, uneducated" as "we" think clients are.

Usually a client has an end in mind - the more a designer knows about the client's objectives the better, right. So why not listen, and inquire, and listen, and inquire, and so on.

My point is, don't blame the client because you failed to ask the right questions, the proper way, and gather the information correctly. Information, boring to you or not, is key. It's up to you to make the piece wiorthwhile.

You'd think that Peter's story would be inspiring, but it really sheds a light on how pathetic cool design people are when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world. The mentality that "we" think clients are "uneducated, dumb, and stupid" doesn't say much about our culture, or value system nor how educated you perceive us to be - dumb and stupid, in the same sentence!? Whatever clever.

On Mar.25.2004 at 02:43 PM
Lea’s comment is:

I think the type of client really helps. I.e. type of corporation and business they run. Peter's example has an Architectural firm—so I wasn't the least surprised when the person he was speaking to knew a little bit about art and design! Architecture has a lot of art and design background.

Same thing for working for any other Arts-related client (music industry, film industry, etc). They tend to be more flexible, and also know the value of what you are pitching because most likely, they are into similar scenes and have been educated about it in the past.

On Mar.25.2004 at 03:21 PM
Naz’s comment is:

Finding clients who 'get it' right off the bat is sort of rare, and it's a blessing to work with people who understand what you are tryint to achieve.

At the same time, it is your job to educate a client on why they might want to approach a project from your viewpoint or why it's best for them.

Good clients are ones who are open to discussion and put trust in you to do your job and in return you put your trust in them to deliver what they have in mind in an open dialogue and exchange of ideas. When you can go beyond that 'business-like' persona and be more of a confidant and in some cases, friends even, then you have the potential for a great working relationship.

Not always possible, but if those barriers can be broken, awww, it's a joy.

On Mar.25.2004 at 04:17 PM
Greg’s comment is:

I like working for clients, even the "stupid" ones. I love the challenge of incorporating something that is obviously antiquated in thought or practice, and trying to come out with something that is good in the end. You don't like Brush Script, and the client insists on it? Give them something that incorporates their thought and make it yours. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but in the end the client is happy, and isn't that why we're here?

On Mar.25.2004 at 04:32 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Lea, in my experience, creative companies actually make the worst clients.

I've done design/brand work for a web agency (not POP) and an interior design agency. In both instances, it was difficult for the agency to assume a client role, and resist from claiming ownership of the creative process. In the case of the interior design firm, there was a total lack of respect and understanding for our design team. They assumed that all design process were the same and that they were more than educated on how it was supposed to be. It made our work 10 times more difficult to dispell this notion so we can do what we were hired to do.

Both relationships ended hostile -- though the design products were award-winning.

On Mar.25.2004 at 04:46 PM
Armin’s comment is:

How do ya'll deal with friends/acquaintances/relatives that become clients? There is always that little sense of awkwardness, isn't it?

On Mar.25.2004 at 07:29 PM
pk’s comment is:

i'm having a huge problem with a friend-turned-client as we speak. i took the job as a low-priced favor (strike one) from a person starting their first business (strike two) after transitioning themselves from a creative director (strike three, and i'm out) to a more consultant role to administration. the project was originaly begun with the assumption that materials needed to be complete in two months.

seven months later, we have one logo, one business card, and a hideously micro-managed postcard design that's still not finished after three months (and counting). also a client who will not get off my books, won't deliver feedback in any coherent fashion (at one point actually contradicted themselves three times in the same email), and simply won't make up their minds.

the only good thing i'm getting out of this is lovely work for the portfolio (at least the client has some style). i keep forgetting that i should never ever ever take former designers as clients. not to mention friends who need favors (in both the economic and creative sense).

On Mar.25.2004 at 09:03 PM
Sam’s comment is:

When you can go beyond that 'business-like' persona and be more of a confidant and in some cases, friends even, then you have the potential for a great working relationship.

I really like this strategy. Relationship-building is key, but long-term relationships seem so much more rare nowadays. Ridiculous deadlines are a large problem. No time to discuss the project in detail; no time to understand the client's needs, let alone time for them to communicate it to you. Heck, I've received client information that was little more than a bulleted list in an e-mail (the kind with no punctuation, to boot).

In the end, though, the responsibility sits on our shoulders. We're the subject matter experts. We need strategies to nudge and guide the client's into better design decisions.

Very good topic. A very important one.

On Mar.25.2004 at 11:16 PM
Jason’s comment is:

My most memorable clients have been smarter than me. Savvy and worldly, these people had a wealth of experience that rewarded me with an education, good work, and money.

Those clients wanted to participate and I was glad that they did. They asked tough questions, posed alternatives, and informed my creative directions. It wasn't that they were driving the project creatively, because they had respect for my role as designer. Those instances are priceless.

I've had what can be called "bad clients": friends, family, or friends or friends. These people, who are closest to me, expected something for nothing. It's just been a string of bad experiences. I don't fault them, and I've learned a thing or two about such dealings. I'm willing to help, but now I tread softly and lay down some rules beforehand.

No matter who the client, you must have respect for each other. If not, it all goes to hell in a handbag.

On Mar.26.2004 at 12:26 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

How do ya'll deal with friends/acquaintances/relatives that become clients?

Peter's example has an Architectural firm—so I wasn't the least surprised when the person he was speaking to knew a little bit about art and design! Architecture has a lot of art and design background.

What do you do when your client is a friend/acquaintance/relative and is involved in the creative world (i.e. architecture)?

Armin and I have been working on a project for a relative for quite a while now.

A new business venture: architecture and urbanism.

It needed to happen fast and there are 3 partners: the artistic one, the business head, and the make it all happen guy.

Incredible brilliant, with knowledge (about anything) up the wazoo, fun and cutting edge. Wonderful? Almost a year later we have a logo, a badly printed business card and are still dragging the website that keeps wanting to change based on other “cool stuff” they find when surfing the web.

…in my experience, creative companies actually make the worst clients.

Tan, I hear you.

On Mar.26.2004 at 08:55 AM
Rob’s comment is:

I think this is a great concept and it's clearly successful when it happens and works. But, I think those occasions are way to rare because most clients don't want to get involved.

I do a lot of work with internal clients and I can't tell you how many times I end up dealing with just our event coordinator because, according to her, 'the client just wants the job done, they don't really care what it looks like.' Well, I just cringe everytime I hear that and then carefully remind her that at lest need them to fill out a design brief so that I can get at least some detail of what' going on in there heads. The bigger problem is that my direct supervisor doesn't seem to get it at all. He seems to think design happens in a bubble, dosen't involve anything more than laying out some type and picking out pictures. That is the most frustrating aspect of my job and I look forward to being vested in June.

On Mar.26.2004 at 12:38 PM
Naz’s comment is:

How do ya'll deal with friends/acquaintances/relatives that become clients?

I'm actually almost finished on a complete project

(identity, website, biz cards) for a good friend. She's also a designer but not quite the same kind and thus she's entrusted me to do what I do best. She's also paying me my normal rate.

It's been really good going - and I think this also has to do with an open dialogue, thoroughly talking about what needs to be done and how you're going to apporach this and in the end the person's personality.

This is actually one of the best ever projects I've ever worked on.

On Mar.26.2004 at 05:18 PM
Christopher’s comment is:

I agree that always blaming the client, or thinking clients are stupid is a bit lame.

There are a lot of designers out there. And there are a lot of people who call themselves designers that shouldn't. There are also a lot of clients out there.

Point being, there just isn't enough good clients to go around to the good designers. So you will find that everyone is going to get stuck with a client that doesn't appreciate design/communication or is hard to work with. And as designers, unless we are the super top-rung superstars we will always go through at least a spell where we will work with less than perfect clients because the job seems interesting/cool, or because we want the income.

The ideal is that you only take projects you are interested in for clients that appreciate what you do. And if you are any good, you can usually achieve that some to most of the time. But rarely all of the time.

On Mar.26.2004 at 06:56 PM
Jasmine’s comment is:

I just came across this site, and I'm not sure if I should discuss this, but I'm new to the design industry and for me, the lack of confidence is hurting me right now. Just today, a client wanted the rest of her retainer back (which isn't refundable ) and she didn't mention anything negative, but I'm taking it that way. My other clients seem to be happy, but do any of you have regular issues pertaining to cost, your capabilities, etc.?

On Mar.26.2004 at 07:08 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Ok, having said all of the blah, blah about loving clients and all, I have to admit that we have fired a small number of clients after the work was completed. Sometimes there's not a fit, to put it mildly.

Furthermore, in instances when a relationship is severed for good, we hold a cathardic ritual in our office. We take all of the business cards of that company's client contacts, and literally burn them in a little tin box we call the Grip Crypt. It's great to see the logo and names on the cards engulfed in fiery flames, and to smell the smoldering ashes.

I keep the tin box on top of my desk like some sort of twisted crematorial urn.

It's juvenile, I know. But it's amazingly therapeutic. You should try it.

> Do any of you have regular issues pertaining to cost, your capabilities, etc.?

Of course we all do. I'm afraid it's part of running your own business and servicing clients.

My best advice is to learn from your experience, understand the role of contracts in client relationships, and remember that clients aren't friends or family -- they're clients. Treat it as a business relationship, not as a personal one.

Maybe get to know a lawyer as well.

On Mar.26.2004 at 07:12 PM
justin powell’s comment is:

Great comments about taking responsibility beyond the end product. we do need to educate, inquire, and ask questions... not only to get to know the project itself, but the individuals we are working with.

My addition to the conversation revolves around the problems of intermediaries (those who speculate what the client likes/doesn't like). these instances are usually reserved for larger advertising firms with client side operations. this is where my frustration comes in: how can an account executive speculate what the client "likes" when he or she is not the client? it’s so unnatural to separate the client from the process with the designer/art director. i'm not very influential at the company i'm currently employed...but, i'm trying my best to push this issue of division. because, when you enter a third party into the equation the complexity of client side relations only increases. there must be large amounts of respect and communication to produce solid creative solutions in this sort of environment. getting to the point: large client side operations are, many times, more a curse than a blessing to the creative process. i'm sure some of you can relate.

On Mar.28.2004 at 12:23 PM