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Everything You Wanted to Know About Your Client But Were Afraid to Ask

If you’ve been in the business of graphic design longer than 15 minutes, I’m sure differences of communication have arisen between you and your client. Let’s see if we can shed some light on how to anticipate or correct potential mis-communications.

In the first article in the series we addressed a vital attitude to remember: any precedent you set will follow you, so set good ones. From the first time you speak with a prospect on the phone to the moment you’re sending in an invoice and closing out the completed project, be aware of the way you treat yourself, the way your client treats you, and the overall situation you’re in. Obviously, in the first phase of a new client relationship, the desire is to have everything run smoothly. However, certain misunderstandings may arise, and you may worry that speaking up will create the perception of being difficult to work with.

One way to avoid this is to carefully review the client’s contract with them. As an aside, you should always deliver your own contract to the client. If they offer you a standard contract, you can discuss and settle any differences and then merge the two.

You should also know that good business people have more respect for equally savvy business people. If you portray this detailed knowledge of your business and a confidence to raise the issues, the client will conclude several things:

First, your anticipatory nature will head off problems in design, production, and vendor relations concerning their projects.

Second, your meticulous personality will prevent errors in any negotiations.

Third, you will handle their account (or an allotted budget) responsibly and may become a good negotiator on their behalf.
So take the time to view things critically, formulate strategies, and raise issues and your proposed solutions for them quickly.

Profiling Your Client

Clients seem to fall into two personality profiles. Of course, one should occasionally recheck to make sure a client still fits the profile, but in general it’s helpful to assess a client along these lines.

Consciously Assertive Clients

You know them. They are constantly testing your limits. They ask for in-depth clarification and explanations of your decisions. They need to hear elaborate reasoning behind your design directions. They want to be assured constantly that “we’re doing the right thing” and “we feel good about it.”

Thus, if you provide them with adequate commentary they are satisfied and generally appreciate your thorough understanding of their particular identity, design, or marketing problem/solutions. If, however, you are not used to this type of client/designer interaction, this personality can be interpreted as a very challenging and possibly mistrustful person. After repeatedly asking “Why did you do that?” at each segment of a presentation, it’s easy to imagine one day, when you are proposing some new design project, the client will finally exclaim: “Ah-ha! I knew you didn’t know the psychographic profile of that market segment! The gig’s off! We’re going elsewhere!”

The reality is that the majority of clients of this type are actually trusting and loyal. They simply need to hear things explained, sometimes in far more detail than one is used to, and this requires a bit of extra energy on your end. And, truthfully, there are instances where even the most dedicated designer will sleepwalk through a design and need to be queried. Over the long term, the assertive client pushes you to outdo yourself, and as long as you are being compensated properly for your time and the value you bring to the client’s company, it is a very symbiotic relationship.

However, it is essential to note and distinguish between the two directions in which these characteristics can go: pushing you to conceive newer, more innovative brochure cover concepts (valued added) versus pushing for more spot illustrations in the brochure without additional fees (exploitative).

Passively Assertive Clients

The other profile —what our firm calls the “What Ifs”— is more difficult to deal with over the long term. A typical What-If situation can gradually grow out of control. Usually, after the first presentation, the project is circulated around the client’s company and colleagues may contribute comments. Thus, the scope begins to develop and grow.

The design may inspire the client to see new potential in areas they never expected. This is terrifically exciting for everyone involved, and it’s great for you as a designer, but it’s important for you to step back as a business person. The client may begin calling you with ideas inspired by your design creations and solutions. They will say, “We all just love that cover concept you came up with! And some great ideas came out of our discussion. We were curious about your thoughts. What if we….” They can then go in any number of different directions.

Of course, it is flattering that your design can foment such new inspiration. But now is not the time to lose sight of what you originally agreed upon in the contract. The client may now want to take your design from a single fold to a gatefold cover or add a die-cut window to better show off one of your elements. It’s vital that you listen to their ideas thoroughly and seriously consider them from a design perspective. Then take a timeout. Now it’s your job as a serious businessperson to evaluate what the additional work will entail. You can then call the client back and inform them of two things: what your opinion is of the power of their creative concepts and how the concepts will need to be translated into a change-of-scope estimate, with revised fees and expenses. The client will appreciate your thoroughness and your assessment of how they may have to balance the concept’s effectiveness with what their budget allows for additional expenses.

This may seem like obvious advice on larger projects, but the danger actually lies in small projects. Let’s look at a minor project like “Just take our logo and put it on this mug.” Very few designers will be content to simply position the logo. Particularly if you’re handling a complete identity system. You must have consistency across the board. Yet, few of us can charge for the actual time it takes to produce a promotional mug design. Ramp-up, design and production, and vendor-negotiation time are all involved. One has to accept this as a loss-leader component of a much larger project.

When you put together some simple treatments, the client may ask, “What If…” and try to encourage you to do a little more tweaking or push you a little further. At times this encouragement can stem from noble sources. However, the passive client can sometimes turn the curiosity/excitement/you’re-part-of-the-team camaraderie into exploiting the energy you’ve budgeted for the project. Be realistic. You’re not designing the Eiffel Tower. You’re creating a giveaway for an audience of unqualified leads. You want a direct, dynamic, simple design with the proper branding. Do that and move on. Assuming you delivered an accommodating piece, and the client still wants to fudge with more concepts, you may have to diplomatically tell the client any additional concepting or design time is like using a sledge hammer to drive a thumb tack. In other words, both your and their time is more valuable than these mugs. 

I guarantee you one thing with either client profile: they will never say: “You know what, you’ve worked way too hard on this project already and never even asked us for any additional compensation. Let’s just stop here and call it a day. I don’t want you to lose any more money on this project.” That may sound harsh, but remember that the client was hired to look out for their own company’s best interests and they expect you to do the same for your own. Anything less on your behalf is foolish. Keep in mind that the precedent you set will result in mutual respect.

Avoid “Mission Creep”

With either client profile, having the relationship balanced in your favor is something you have to constantly maintain. “Mission creep” is a term we use in my firm to define the loss of a project’s scope on the designer’s terms.

Remember that you are the only person who can control a project’s creeping scope. Vigilance over production schedules, of both your responsibilities, and when and which materials your client has to deliver to you rests on your shoulders. As you would send a change-of-scope form to cover additional work and fees, submitting revised production schedules is essential to protect yourself as well as rationalize the later addition of rush fees.

If your client fits either of these profiles, or some hybrid of the two, it’s important to remember that good, old personal chemistry can play a significant role in both turning a prospect into a committed client and a passable client/designer relationship into a great one.


Pete Friedrich is co-owner of Charette Communication Design in San Francisco and Co-Chair of the Northern California Chapter Membership Committee. Charette provides all aspects of web and print design to its client base of technology, law, and Internet companies. Among those are BancAmerica Robertson Stephens, Bronson Bronson & McKinnon, Chronicle Books, Hard Wired, Latham & Watkins, and Narrowline.


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Turn short-term clients into long-term partners and build a revenue foundation for your growing creative professional services business. Von Glitschka tailored his presentation to independent creatives wanting to expand their potential.

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