By: guest blogger Oliver Oike
Students, start practicing and say it with me: “It’s my fault, it’s my fault, it’s my fault…” Because when clients don’t “get it,” it is your responsibility to add clarity and order to the process.
“If you are involved in something that goes wrong, never blame others. Blame no one but yourself. If you have touched something, accept total responsibility for that piece of work. If you accept responsibility, you are in a position to do something about it.” — Paul Arden
That new design smell
We were ready. We had wrapped up the design of a new identity system and accompanying awareness campaign for a new client, and our team was confident that we had uncovered a thoughtful solution to address their wide-ranging audience segments. I had carefully crafted a presentation to walk our client through the ideation process and resulting work. In my mind, it all made sense, and there would be celebrations to follow.
Something smells fishy
On the day of the presentation, our primary client walked into the room with a colleague — someone we had met in passing at the beginning of the process, but who had not been actively involved throughout. It isn’t out of the ordinary for something like this to occur, but the body language and visible tension between the two of them caught my eye and for a brief moment I wondered to myself what should be made of it.
We proceeded with the presentation. I made my case as I revealed the process and work. Our main client was enthusiastic and pleased, but her colleague sat stoically until I had finished and then leaned across the table, looking directly at me. “I thought we would have something that looks a little bit more like this…” With a mild look of derision he gestured for my pen, then flipped the presentation package over and proceeded to draw his own idea for an identity.
I held my breath, momentarily confused. I glanced over at our main client, who had a look of both embarrassment and fear in her eyes. She caught me looking her way and then shifted her gaze to the activity occurring on the paper in front of us.
At that moment I knew that we had made a critical error.
Don’t be so stupid, stupid
It was later revealed that this person was the source of the company’s startup funding and had final approval of the work. We should have known this from the beginning — it was an embarrassing, catastrophic oversight, and it still stings to think about today.
Say it again: “It’s my fault”
Scenarios like this occur every day in design studios: you run headlong into a client who doesn’t “get it.” Or, late in the game, you’re introduced to a new person who holds a position of influence over the project. Or, after a presentation, you hear a variation of “I don’t know what I want, but it’s not that.” In all of these common examples you may feel frustrated and want to point fingers, but it is a situation that you are responsible for: you and your client have been trying to co-exist in an unclear, undocumented and assumption-filled design process. It should have never gone this far, and it’s your job to fix it.
A kinder, gentler process
From the beginning, put your client at ease by demonstrating the level of care, attention and professionalism that you put into all aspects of your practice. Some important steps to work through with your client before beginning a project:
• Document all members from each team and what they are and are not responsible for.
• Be specific and clear about each step of the process.
• Establish a schedule that moves the project forward at a consistent pace.
• Agree to keep feedback loops short after presentations, and agree on the specific kind of feedback you are looking for.
• Ensure they understand the impact that “feature creep” will have on the project.
• Have a fair, transparent sign-off and payment mechanism in place.
Detail all of this in a well-written legal document that protects both parties equally. This is your playbook and safety net. Keep it handy.
It’s your show
Before reviewing work with your clients, be empathetic to their frame of mind when they arrive for the meeting. Maybe they have a pile of other tasks and responsibilities waiting for them back at the office. Maybe the meeting they just came from went badly. Maybe they have a sick child at home.
Presenting work is an opportunity for you to remind them why you were the only choice for the project. Prepare them for what they are about to see. Describe in detail what you’ve shown them previously and what you discussed with them in the interim. Restate the agreed-upon goals of the project and the specific audience it is speaking to. Then, when they appear ready, guide them through the work in a measured and deliberate manner. Don’t show it all at once. Pick and choose specific elements to focus on, and use those elements to reinforce ideas or relate them back to the overall goals. Think of it as a storytelling exercise, with you in the role of narrator and facilitator. Impress them with your intelligence, thoughtfulness and humility.
“What do we owe clients? Loyalty, honesty, dedication, tenacity.” — Michael Bierut
This is all motivated by the desire to do great work. Sometimes the design process goes well with a client; other times, like the scenario described above, it goes very badly. While you cannot ultimately control the reactions and decisions of your clients, you can build structures into your process that clear a path towards a successful outcome. When such structures are combined with a healthy dose of professionalism, humility and empathy, great work has a chance to take root and you may start to find yourself moving down the path past the role of service provider to that of indispensable, trusted partner.
Filling in for Mark Busse this month is guest-blogger Oliver Oike, graphic design instructor at Red River College in Winnipeg and past-president of the Manitoba chapter of The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada. You can follow him on Twitter at @oo
Mark will return to this blog next month.