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Working With Design Clients: A New Philosophy

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John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

Working collaboratively with clients is an essential skill for any SEO agency or web design agency that want to succeed. Yet many of us treat client relations as a secondary concern. Even worse, some agencies are missing the opportunity to make their design clients partners in the creative process. Let’s look at some of the reasons that this phenomenon occurs, and how the design community can help make this situation better for everyone involved.

Because the client and the designer both see the design strategy from different perspectives, there is always going to be a bit of friction over design strategy. What we should be doing as designers is getting a good understanding of the problems we are being hired to solve. Most of us know to do research on the various conditions involved in each job. Where our design strategies break down is in our communication with our clients.

Clients come to us with their design projects, trusting us to take care of the processes of which we are more knowledgeable than they are. Let’s take a minute to think about what this means from the client’s perspective. If we have a legal problem, we would hire a lawyer, because they are familiar with the law, and if we tried to tackle our problem on our own, we might end up in a worse place than where we began. Similarly, if we have a medical condition, we would consult with a doctor, because they are the experts, and they can help solve a serious problem that directly affects us.

Now just imagine for a minute that your doctor or lawyer are making critical decisions, but not explaining why they were making those decisions. You would probably be highly upset and now, instead of only being stressed out about the original situation, you would now also be stressed out about the developer you hired to solve your problem in the first place. If we want to take our design services to the next level, we need to live by a new philosophy. We’re not in the business of design, we’re in the business of client services.

Our job is not to add more stress to the client’s load, but to take it away. When we disagree with the direction that the project is taking because the client disagrees with us, we really need to ask ourselves if the lines of communication have been open during the entire process. We need to involve the client in the process of design, for a couple of good reasons. As designers, we tend to think of our client’s problems in terms of how we would solve them, anticipating a certain set of problems that we are trying to solve. The client’s best needs might be something entirely different, but we might never know that unless we communicate effectively with them.

The second reason for involving clients in the design process is to make sure that we can explain our design decisions adequately, and let the client know exactly why we are choosing one design element over another. The real danger is that both client and designer come in, each with a preconceived notion of how the problem must be solved, or how the page must look, without properly considering the actual goal that must be met. Without proper communication, our time and effort, and the client’s money, may be going in the wrong direction.

It is imperative that we keep clear and frequent lines of communication open with our client, so that they know why we are suggesting the solutions that we are putting forth. Good designers understand that they aren’t being paid only for designing and coding the project, but also for selling their design choices to the client. The most important thing we are being paid for is for the overall experience of buying design and giving the client peace of mind.

There’s one more crucial reason that the client needs to be part of our team: they are the foremost experts on their project. We cannot possibly hope to know how to approach the client’s particular design problem without their valuable input. They will be able to warn you of the risks of their project, tell you who the target audience is, and inform you of the overall scope of the project.

The client relationship is the very heart of our business, not the projects that we build. Projects are the easy part. Code may be poetry, but the relationships that we establish and maintain with our clients are going the difference maker in our design business.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

3 comments on “Working With Design Clients: A New Philosophy

  1. Great post John!

    While I agree that we are in the business of client services, there is a thin line we walk when involving a client in the design process. Obviously they have an idea in their mind as to what the initial outcome will be, and once we gather the needs of a clients goal, we begin to have a broader picture all together.

    I think it’s important to focus on client services just as much as it is to focus on the professional, creative side that we as designers offer. It’s not difficult to have a client turn us into a machine that just points and clicks to make something look exactly how the client has foreseen. While this can be used as an advantage, most clients that would turn us into this machine have little to no design skills or knowhow of what “looks good”.

  2. I agree Joseph, that no designer wants to be transformed into an extension of the client’s whimsy. That’s not something I advocate either, because it cripples our input. When they reach out to us as design experts, they are acknowledging that they need help. Part of what I’m saying is they know what problem it is that needs solving. Sometimes in our zeal to prove how awesome we are at designing, we forget to diagnose the problem we’re trying to solve correctly, and that’s where the client can help. Paul Boag talks about this a lot in his Client Centric Design books and podcasts.

    The other big part of this idea is selling the experience as a whole, not just our design and code. This is the hardest part for a lot of designers to wrap their head around. Here, check out the copy on this page, and tell me what you think. Most of what this designer says, I agree with the spirit of, but when he gets to the part where he’s talking down to the client, that part I can’t agree with.

    The confrontational nature that exists between designers and clients is what really needs to be healed up. Sites like Clients From Hell, while true stories, don’t help the overall problem. In fact, I think that confrontational attitude hurts us in the long run.

    True, we walk a thin line by choosing to involve the client more, but we have to set aside time in the project to sell our design, and charge for that time as well. In my short career, I’ve yet to meet a client that didn’t need to be sold on the design that would actually solve their problem and talked down from a few ideas that would hurt their goals. This is part of the job, not an impediment to it.

    Involving the client more, to me, means bringing them a better overall experience, without caving in to bad design decisions. The goal is to educate them as to why design decisions get made with out making them feel as if they’re on the defensive.

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