2011-03-22

The Client is NOT Always Right

Too often designers see clients make poor decisions. We are familiar with the phrase “the customer is always right”. This phrase is never to be taken literally – even in the medical profession where the customer can make a medically stupid decision, the right to decide is still theirs. The phrase is probably better reworded as “the customer has the right to decide”, “the customer should never be made to feel they are wrong”, and “the customer signs the cheque so they are in effect right or you’re fired!”

The purist form of graphic design communication is where both the client and designer are removed from the equation and the work becomes the delivery of a message via a medium in a way that it is clearly understood by the target audience. Ideally all decisions should be made based upon what works best for the purist equation. The selfless designer knows to remove themselves from the equation, but it can be difficult to have the client remove themselves. Clients add a whole new political dimension to the design process.

The client might have strong aesthetic preferences that do not match the purist equation. The client might see design as a chance to express themselves in ways that make no sense to the audience or add no value for the audience.

Sometimes clients are motivated by the desire to art direct designers thinking that the client makes the aesthetic decisions while the designer drives the computer. Such clients see the design process as a chance for them to be creative – often with no understanding of what creativity means in graphic design. If the client art-directs by continually making aesthetic comments about the work then try to change the conversation back to the purist equation. Get them talking about how the design enhances communication to the audience.

Respond to client suggestions positively. Show the client that you have considered their idea and have something better to show them – even if that’s still your original idea. Dismissing client suggestions outright can make them hostile and put future work with them in doubt.

The common phrases “educate the client” and “sell the design” are useful but this is best done indirectly by focusing on how your proposed design best serves communicating to the target audience. Convincing clients is easier once you have gained their trust in your abilities as a designer. This might mean backing up your opinions with research and the authority that comes from experience – but don’t be arrogant about it.

The client does know more than the designer in some areas so always listen to their opinions and reasoning. The client generally knows more about the target audience, the competition, the business environment and the unique value proposition they bring to their customers. Take advantage of their greater knowledge by directing the feedback you ask for from them. Where the designer generally has stronger knowledge is in the tactical decision of using aesthetics and media savvy to communicate the client’s message. Inexperienced designers do need to be careful here.

In the end, if you can’t convince the client then you either do what they say or you fire them. The choices are that stark. A client who orders you about is probably not likely to give much repeat business because they do not respect your abilities to make aesthetic and communication judgements. Bring all your interpersonal skills to bear to build a positive relationship where trust grows.

In summary, try to make the conversation about the purist equation and not about the aesthetics. Talk about how the design improves communication of the message to the target audience.