Is the Client the Enemy?

Can you believe designers actually read books like this?

Books about how to deal with clients? How to get our voice heard? How to get work to the finish line? Seeing books like this, you might think that designers consider the client the enemy… That obviously can’t be the case right? After all, the customer is always right, and design is inherently a customized service, right?

Clients might be surprised how many times they are looked at as the enemy by designers. Literally anything that stands in the way of a successful project is the enemy. It’s the not so quiet secret of our industry. There are stereotypical client statements like: “Can you make the logo bigger?”, “What if we try it in blue?”, “Can we see a couple different options?” These are old weathered jokes among designers. The kind of jokes that eventually cease to be funny as they find accuracy.

So why would designers ever poke fun at the people who are paying their wages? Why would there be anything funny about a client asking for something of someone in a service based industry? It’s a question of framing.

When a client comes to a design studio, they’re looking for something. They may ask the studio for a website, or a logo. But what they’re really asking for is a solution to a problem. When a designer hears a client ask:

“Can you redesign our website, and add a flash intro?”

What the designer hears is:

“Can you find a way to entice the people in our target audience to commit more succinctly, and quickly to a sale?”

As designers we build tools that do jobs. We’re not set decorators, fine artists, or computer jockeys. We’re problem solvers that believe passionately that the answer we provide is the correct one. We pride ourselves on being rabid consumers. Connoisseurs of the emotional impact that graphics make on us. We’re students of the fine edge that is hierarchy. We see things in the written word that most others can only imagine (Usually more of a curse than a blessing). We effort daily to improve the instrument of our taste.

Seemingly arbitrary changes to the sizes of elements, shapes, colors, typography can have a much deeper impact on a project than some clients realize. It puts designers in a difficult position. The role of the designer is not to be a “yes man” -the designers’ role is to sell product, put butts in seats, create buzz, make people feel when they see. So it’s an inherently awkward position for a designer when clients ask for changes. Real changes are never a problem. People make mistakes, things change, projects evolve. But the changes that are aesthetic, arbitrary, based on preference, or stemming from internal indecision are the thorny ones.

This is when a designer must make a decision. If they truly believe that a change will jeopardize the success of the project, – should they make it? Would a doctor amputate a leg just because the patient asked? Would a mechanic loosen you lug nuts based on the car owner’s whim? Extreme examples to be sure. But they cast some definition on an otherwise grey area. The question of what exactly is expected of a professional service.

If design is a commodity, it makes sense that personal preference would weigh heavily on the end product. If you look at design as a way to solve business problems, – preference necessarily takes a back seat.

So when a client asks a designer if they can make the logo bigger. It’s not a question of whether the software is capable. It’s not merely a question of budget, or artistic integrity. It’s a question of whether or not it jeopardizes the success of the project. The change could, for example, become a question of whether the logo will begin to battle the headline for dominance. It could be a question of whether or not the product photo will be overshadowed, and the subtlety of the message lost. It quickly becomes a question of whether pleasing the client in the short term could contribute to the project failing in the long term, and thereby cause the client/designer relationship to eventually fail. Which is quite decidedly no joking matter.

So, yes, designers really read books about dealing with clients. They read books about how to be persuasive, and be heard. They research these topics, not because the client is the enemy, but because failure is the enemy. The critical thing, -the most important thing, is that impediments are surmounted. Whatever form they might take. It’s imperative that the design is great. It’s imperative that any push-back that a designer gives to the client comes not from bravado, or ego, but from a knife-like certainty that the solution is correct.

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