Conversation with a client

I have decided that I’m going to start writing about some of my client communications here on this site. I’m under the impression that I need to speak my mind with my clients (within reason, of course) and give them my advice when it comes to the projects that they’ve hired me for. If I don’t, I feel like I’m wasting their money just delivering back a comp or making design revisions that were handed down by someone with no design sense and/or understanding of the intricacies of the design process. (Granted, I always have a discussion about my role with new clients, making sure that they want to hear what I have to say.)

When I’m called in to art direct or run creative on a project on a freelance basis, I’m a consultant. Therefore, consulting with my clients is one of the main responsibilities. In that place, it is my job as a service professional to open a dialogue with my clients taking full note of all of their desires and main objectives, and making sure that I manage the communication throughout the entire process, which includes giving them suggestions and ideas if necessary.

Have faith in your knowledge and confidence in your ideas. Make your recommendations and explain why. It won’t always work out how you suggest, but it will have a positive effect on the process more often than not. The point isn’t to sell your designs or to make things the way you want to. Rather, you are responsible for helping your clients understand what you are doing for them, and why. Remember, this is your profession, not theirs. Also remember, this is their money, not yours.

So, here’s a recent back and forth with one of my clients. The names and projects have been omitted for privacy reasons, but that shouldn’t be of any real concern. I hope that this helps in some way. I’m going to give this to you backwards…with the initial response to the comps I delivered shown first:

Quoting the client (initial comp feedback):
Yo. slight curveball for ya….can you retro fit the home page look and the profile page and the feel like {client’s favorite site}? {Name here}…the lead guy is really hoping to just copy the general look of that site.

Quoting me (my response):
{Client Name},
The short answer is “yes, I can.” The long answer is much more involved and filled with opinion and advice. And, since you’re paying me, I’ve gotta give it to you.{Project name} is going to be a huge site. It’s currently #3 or #4 when searching for “{some keyword}” on Google. So, imagine the traffic and the readership immediately upon launch. It’s large. I think it’s absolutely shooting yourselves in the foot to copy, emulate, or even heavily borrow on the design ideas of another greatly successful site and brand. With all the focus on music distribution online, this brand has left a rather indelible mark on folks.With {project name} we should be attempting to set ourselves up with a new brand, with something strong that can stand on its own. Not something that will make someone think or feel like they’ve seen this site before. And the backlash in the design industry will be quick and severe if we piggyback on the design concepts and layout structures of last.fm. It’s one thing to do that with an adult site…in fact, it’s almost expected on some level that a great site design will end up with a counterpart in the adult industry.

So my recommendation is that you really mull this one over. It’s not a small decision. What if we decided that we liked say, SoBe drinks’ logo, and fashioned {project name} after it? It’s not like SoBe has the recognition of Coca-Cola or anything, but it’s a brand recognizable enough to trigger a reaction like the one I described above. You don’t want people to associate your brand with anything else. You want your brand to stand on its own. No other great site out there emulates another when it redesigns.

What we’ve created thus far does just that; and I’m not speaking in defense of the design that I’ve completed. I always know that this is your money, and you can do what you want with it. I’m not fighting for my design. I’m merely saying that this design is something that can stand on its own. I would just hate to see you guys shoot yourself in the foot before the starter’s gun has sounded. I don’t want {project name} to limp out of the gate – I want to charge.

So please think about it, and talk it through. Let’s create something that is eye-catching and strong in and of itself.

In a good way,
Greg

Quoting the client (final response):
cool…i agree…so i think i need you to look at why we like {client’s favorite site}’s soft feel…or {another client favorite}’s soft feel…and come up with something new like those. i like your design but i feel like it needs to be a little softer. give me a shout whenever.

So, the end result was not exactly what I wanted, and I had to go back and rework some of the design, but I was able to help my client avoid design suicide. I remember at all times that my clients have hired me, and I am responsible for much more than just delivering source files, HTML, or animations. In my opinion, I am responsible for helping guide them past potential pitfalls and short-sightedness (not due to any defect of their own, again, web design is not their job, it’s mine).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with clients making requests like the one made above. They like a couple of different sites and would like for their site to have the same feel. And they trust me to help advise them; I am more than just a hired ranch-hand spitting out design emulation. I will tell clients straight out that I am not the best designer if that’s what they want – I will tire too quickly if I’m being asked to copy something else, and I’m far more expensive than other cats who’ll do it for next to nothing and claim credit for the design.

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, please share your experiences. I’d love to hear more.

One thought on “Conversation with a client”

  1. I can appreciate this post. The finesse required to handle these type of discussions with clients is something that I have had to mature to. I had to stop taking things so personal; client work is not my own personal art exhibition. Right? Why does a client choose one designer over another? I assume that people choose to work with me because they like my aesthetic; they hire for my sensibility/vision and not just for my skill-set. If that were not the case they would just grab a student or a production artist to execute their vision. Before I take on a project I try to establish an understanding and trust with the client. I promise to meet all of their needs if they promise not to touch my crayons or leggos. That sounds like a mature approach doesn’t it?

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