Designers and clients come from different worlds. The creative arts and business sometimes seem to be at cross-purposes. The focus of design professionals often centers around producing work that is artistic, fresh, conceptual and delivered with a high degree of craftsmanship. Business clients, on the other hand, while understanding the value of innovation and quality, are primarily concerned with achieving strategic business goals such as promoting products, acquiring new customers and maximizing profits. While at first glance this apparent dichotomy may seem problematic, these differences in priorities can provide excellent opportunities for both innovation and effectiveness. The most effective business communications are often born out of a symbiotic relationship between talented designers and savvy clients. It’s when creatives and clients work as a team, each respecting and deferring to the expertise and experience of the other, that the best work occurs.
Here are some tips on fostering that kind of productive relationship:
Learn to leverage one another’s strengths
It’s best for each party to allow the other to exercise their particular skills and expertise. In general, business clients should avoid dictating design solutions, and creatives should defer to their clients for insights about their products, markets, and customers. That being said, designers shouldn’t assume their clients lack imagination and clients should never underestimate a designer’s business sense. In the course of my career, I’ve often been delighted by my clients’ brilliant creative suggestions! Man of the world’s most innovative people operate in the world of business. Creativity is not confined to the arts. The point is, it’s a team effort, but it’s wise to let each party do what they do best. In the end, everyone should work toward the same goals.
Define the project clearly
What is the objective of the project? Who is it for? What key messages should be communicated? Should a particular “tone” be use to represent the company and the product? What is the budget? These and other key questions are best addressed before the project begins—preferably in writing. A good creative brief can serve as a blueprint when generating ideas and can go a long way toward objectifying what is often a very subjective process. It’s always easier when all parties involved start from the same place.
Clients: Focus on the problem rather than a preconceived solution
Clients sometimes hire designers merely because they need a brochure, package, website or ad produced, but it’s always better to start with a well-defined business problem rather than a preconceived solution. For example, the goal may be to introduce a product’s unique features and benefits to a particular audience. A brochure might be the perfect vehicle to accomplish that—but maybe not. A creative professional may suggest other alternatives that could be more effective and is at his or her best when looking at a problem from all sides and imagining a variety of possible approaches. Don’t tie your designer’s hands by jumping to a solution too early in the process. When you engage the services of a designer, the result may be a logo, brochure or website, but what you’re really paying for is their ability to solve business communication problems and convey ideas visually.
Designers: It’s not self-expression—it’s business
Sometimes young designers graduate from school with the idea that their work is all creative expression. It’s not. Businesses make use of people with creative skills because creative ideas get attention, are memorable, and can give a company’s products and brand a clear identity and make them appear unique in the eyes of consumers. But it’s really all about business. When creatives work on behalf of a client, they should be telling their client’s story and packaging it in a way that best represents those business’s interests, not just their own creative urges. Companies should seek out creative partners that understand their business goals and are committed to them.
Clients: Avoid micro-managing
Every once in a while I encounter a client that already knows what they want—even down to what pictures to use and what size the type should be. This is never a healthy situation. It relegates the creative professional to a production artist and doesn’t take full advantage of his or her expertise. It’s always best to give designers a lot of creative latitude—especially at the beginning of a project. You can reign them in later if necessary, but if you begin by putting limits on their thinking, you are almost certainly missing opportunities for innovation. Great work never happens this way.
Designers: Explain your work
You’ve outdone yourself! The work you just presented to your client looks fantastic. So why are they staring at you blankly? Beautiful work is not enough in and of itself. It’s not self-explanatory. Always explain the rationale behind your work and why you believe it will be effective. Learn to speak the language of business. Express your reasoning in those terms and discuss how your solution addresses the underlying business problem. Remember, your client may need to sell your idea within their company and explain your concepts clearly in terms their colleagues will understand—even if you aren’t there.
Clients: Explain your changes
Changes to the writing or design of a project are routine and to be expected. Designers shouldn’t be frustrated if clients require changes along the way. It’s a regular part of the process. Clients should realize, however, that a lot of thinking has gone into those ideas and if changes are necessary, it’s helpful to explain. For example, rather than saying that the type needs to be bigger, it would be more useful to explain that it’s important to emphasize a particular section because it makes a critical point. You never know. There might be an even better way to accomplish that goal!
Place a premium on communication
Though designers and clients may be approaching a project with different motivations, it’s important to find common ground. The best way to accomplish this is to discuss it and ask a lot of questions. The more you discuss project objectives and the expectations of all involved, the better the outcome will be.
Foster a spirit of mutual respect
Designers should never assume that business clients don’t understand good design and clients shouldn’t think that creatives don’t know about business. Each may not have the skills to do what the other does, but they may be better informed than you think. For example, a client may not be able to create an award-winning design, but they likely know good work when they see it. Work toward a spirit of mutual respect while appreciating and taking advantage of the others’ strengths.
At it’s best, the creative-client relationship is like a marriage where different personalities find common ground and set common goals. It isn’t always easy, but when done right, the results can be exciting.