Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 50 seconds

When I started out at my first agency job back in 2000, I had quite a romanticised view of what my job as a web designer would look like. I imagined myself being glued to my screen, creative juices flowing as I produced digital works of art in record time with zero client interaction. Boy, was I wrong.

The lesson I learned early on in my career is that the client is a crucial part of the design process. Not just in terms of communication and expectations, but the actual creative work you put out. To some, this is painfully obvious, but you’d be surprised how many designers and front-end developers ignore this fact – and to this day suffer the mediocre and horrible end-game of failed creative projects. The consequences don’t only affect the final product, but everything tethered to it. I’m talking user-experience, usability, stakeholders that form part of the entire project pipeline etc.

So the question is: How can I, as a creative – when engaging with the client – leverage the most out of each meeting, call or email, in order to produce work of the highest standard? Here are a few things I’ve picked up over the years which helped me greatly in navigating the gauntlet of client interaction to get the best results:

Do your homework

I can’t stress enough how important this is. I’ve sat in meetings where I was hilariously underprepared in terms of what the client’s business was about, what their vision was etc. I ended up with the client holding my hand throughout the entire meeting, educating me as I asked dumb questions which were no-brainers to them. This will not inspire confidence in the client’s mind and if left unchecked, could have disastrous consequences up to the point where each interaction is a frustration for both parties.

The solution is easy. Let’s say your new client is a ‘soil conservationist’. You would do well to dig up anything you can find on dirt, conservation, agriculture and so on. In broadening your knowledge base of your client’s profession, you’ll have less conversations about the dirt itself and more interaction along the lines of “how can we make your dirt work for you in the digital space”. In short: Google is your friend.

Extracting the info you need from the client’s brain

Ever heard this line in a meeting before? “I don’t know what I want. You’re the designer. I’m sure anything you design would be perfect for us!” The biggest mistake you can make is to walk away from that meeting, taking the client at his word that whatever you design will be fine, without getting much-needed info about the client’s needs. In most cases where this situation happened with me, the majority of clients were unhappy with my work. Why? Despite the client’s confidence in your designs skills, client expectation and finished product wasn’t the same thing. They were able to tell me what they don’t like, but at the same time had great difficulty in telling me what they do like from a creative standpoint.

So, how does one go about aligning expectation (even if the client states there is none) to the final product? The solution: A kind of ‘soft creative interrogation’ of the client’s likes and dislikes. If a client isn’t sure of what they want, it’s your responsibility as design lead to guide the client through a series of questions to establish what they favour and what they dislike. A starter question I always ask as part of my ‘interrogation’ is what colour the client favours. This might seem like a childish exercise, but in the absence of an established corporate identity or even a company logo, this is crucial to the development of the client’s brand – even if it’s not on the table at that moment. Also, a client might be biased toward a specific colour due to the fact that his or her competition utilises that colour in their brand (think of the difference between brands like Nikon’s yellow versus Canon’s red). From colour, you can move on to shapes, imagery, fonts and more. All of these facets then combine to form a clearer picture of what the client wants, making your life easier and saving valuable time.

I’ll be honest, the first time I walked a client through this process, it was quite difficult. Was it worth it? Definitely. I’ve had clients with frowns on their faces at the start and smiles at the end of the meeting, and why? Because they too, were starting to see the bigger picture and how the product was beginning to shape up. They became more invested and started to share in the creative journey of the project.

Getting things ‘in the clear’

The worst clients I’ve ever had to deal with weren’t actually ‘bad’ clients. They were clients that had either a misconception or unrealistic view about the process and/or timelines. The reason for this? Not being clear about the finer detail of the creative, technical and business processes.
As a junior at my first job, I was at one time constantly bombarded with a few clients literally demanding the impossible (one client even wanted a designer to edit a photo of a person facing the shot so that the person’s back would be visible! Yes, pretty insane stuff). After doing some investigation I found out that a certain account manager promised our clients the world on a platter and whenever those clients wanted something, simply gave in to their requests to get more out of the deal. Instead of being realistic, clear and acknowledging the obvious limits that exist within the scope of the project, the ‘sky’s the limit’ sales-pitch created a totally warped view of the resident designers’ capabilities. Needless to say, some time later we ended up with a disillusioned client who didn’t understand why we couldn’t deliver what was promised.
How to fix this? A few easy steps:

Be honest and bold

If the client makes a request that is unrealistic or detrimental to the project in any way, it is your responsibility as a professional in your field to speak up and inform the client of possible issues or pit-falls. I know it’s not easy and sometimes these kind of interactions can be borderline confrontational, but If you don’t, it will be on you when delivery dates draw near and there’s no solution in sight. Don’t be afraid to challenge an idea or present an alternative! Remember, if the client could have come up with a solution on their own, they would have. That’s why they’re investing in you/your company to provide them with the solution. You have creative licence to lead the client to that solution. Just. Do. It.

Know your limits

Don’t oversell yourself or the company you represent. If the client requests a demo reel of their product line or services and your video editing skills are at an all-time low, it’s probably best not to promise the client a masterpiece that’s worthy of an Oscar nomination for editing and cinematography. If the client insists, be honest about it and discuss a solution that involves collaboration with professionals in that specific field. With that being said, remember: there’s nothing wrong with collaborating. Augment your skillset by tapping into other professionals’ skillsets in your network or sphere of influence to leverage a solution that benefits all stakeholders involved.

Documentation is your friend

This one is a really big deal for me. As creatives we’re prone to jumping straight into Photoshop or Illustrator to get going with a concept, but step no.1 should be to open Word or Pages and to start working on a Functional Design Specification or Scope Document. Obviously the process of drafting a specification document and where it fits in in the product’s workflow will differ from company to company (where I’m from it’s all up to the BAs). It will also change depending on the client, product or service the point I’d like to make is about the client’s involvement.

If there’s a runaway client that steamrolls the team and scope-creep just doesn’t end, the issue can almost always be traced back to zero documentation. Having these documents isn’t just for record-keeping or to make your life difficult. They’re powerful tools that keep expectations and deliverables on track and more importantly act as a shield against clients going on never-ending tangents that will take the project out-of-scope. Scope documents must be up-to-date, signed by the client and present at each meeting. Did I mention they need to be signed by the client? The client’s signature on documentation is a powerful debunker when it comes to the ‘fog-of-war’ that can exist in client interaction.

Taking one step back from your screen and mouse, getting expectations and deliverables set out unambiguously, is the best way to begin a mutually beneficial relationship with your client, and encourage ongoing smooth sailing. After all, those creative juices are likely to experience a severe bottle-neck if the client-designer relationship is limping along like a wounded buffalo!