Client relationships aren’t built by swooping in at the beginning & end of a project. You gotta roll up your sleeves WITH them.

– August 17, 2015

On Drawing & Design, Part VII

You might think of the client/designer relationship as one in which two people are standing on opposite banks of a river or creek. Clients have intimate knowledge of the business, product or service, and the message that they want to share. They just don’t know how to share it. On the other hand, designers know how, they just don’t have any of the intimate knowledge.

To make matters worse, it seems like designers and clients speak in wildly different languages. Designers are creative, expressive, and visual people; and clients are, well, are not.

The real challenge is that in spite of the differences in the way we think, what we know, and how we communicate, designer and client have to share the same thoughts, they have to become of one mind. That is no small task.

As a rule, clients generally have more difficulty thinking visually then we designers do. But God love ’em, they sure do try, even if sometimes they try a little too hard.

Clients open the relationship by trying to explain what they know and what it is that they are thinking. As designers, we listen, and then attempt to repeat it back to them as a visual. If you ever played the telephone game as an and activity in some kind of youth group or organization, you understand how easy it is to misinterpret what someone whispers into your ear. Professional communication is no different. The series of sketches and rough layouts should be the start of a dialogue where the designer asks, “this is what I’ve heard you say. How accurate is my interpretation, and where did I miss the mark?”

Keep in mind that designer and client are still just beginning to understand each other. Clients really do want to be visual, but often this means that they take things a little too literally. They see something and tend to lock in on it, believing that their visual vice-grip is helpful in discussing the process. It’s a phenomenon that comes from inexperience, mostly, but I’ve encountered repeatedly through the years. When I show a client a tightly rendered computer layout, even as a rough, they have difficulty seeing the potential beyond what is presented to them on the page. They see it as finished, un-kerned type and all.

Just as I subconsciously remain more open to revisions in a hand-drawn rough layout, so too does the client. Whether they are aware of it or not, clients simply respond differently to a clean drawing of a concept than they do to a clean printout of a concept. It shouldn’t be surprising that they are better able to visualize when there is more left open for them to imagine. A drawing can be imagined as a photo, but a google image is already a photo, even if it's not the right photo. It is more firmly imprinted.

In the early stages of any design project, the back and forth dialog that we have is the key. Drawing allows the designer to talk with the client instead of talking at them because it invites feedback. Otherwise, we tend to come off as the “expert” talking at the client, pronouncing what they should do. Yes, we are experts, but so are our clients in their own areas. This early dialog is how we build relationships and grow our practice instead of chasing that revolving door of one-and-done customers. It is an important component that goes missing in crowdsourcing or design contest exchanges.

Anyone can use today’s software to create a trendy “logo” and then tell a client that it’s the solution that they didn’t realize they were looking for. But real design is the extension of a conversation that we have with our client. After all, we can only supply one-half of a successful message. The other half, the content, has to come from our co-conversationalist.

Do your part to be an interesting conversationalist. Draw. From the beginning.