Working with clients can be the best part of my job, or the worst part of my job. It all depends on who the client is. I think that college definitely left me unprepared for the total mind game that working with non-designers on a design project can be. Often, I find myself torn. I want to make my client happy, but I also feel unsure. When is it appropriate to try to step in and work with their decisions to make stay true to my vision, versus just doing what they want and not being ‘difficult’?
I feel so passionately about design that sometimes I may come off as snobby and uncompromising (thanks for pointing that out to me, Mom…) Really, I just see all the possibilities out there. I feel frustrated when people hire me, and then don’t seem to want my opinion. It’s also frustrating when they settle for the first thing they see. Sometimes I take it personally when a client doesn’t immediately jump on board the design boat. I want them to be as excited as I am about all possibilities.
So, I would say a huge (HUGE!) part of my learning curve has been learning what constitutes a ‘bad’ client. Most of the people I have ever worked with have been just delightful. However, sometimes I falter when I lack the confidence to stick to my guns, and end up with a finished product I don’t feel is my best work.
I recently worked with someone who ended up being something of a textbook ‘bad client’. She required a LOT of meetings and hand-holding, and our conversations about the design were not so much conversations as they were her not being willing to listen to my advice, and also not being willing to communicate with me in a way that was helpful. What ended up happening was I created a product that was not as functional as I would have liked. Since I had known her personally, I didn’t make her sign a contract. When the project was basically finished, she changed her mind and decided not to pay me.
Even though the whole process was drawn out and obviously did not end in my favor, I still think I learned some valuable lessons from the experience.
1) Listen to your gut. I just had a feeling going into this that it could potentially end badly. Unfortunately for me, I can be blindly optimistic sometimes, and didn’t take any measures to protect myself. While it may have been awkward asking her to sign a contract and make a deposit, I can tell you it would have been a lot less awkward than hearing she didn’t intend to compensate me for my time.
2) Communication is key. I need to be proactive and stay in touch with my clients. They shouldn’t be afraid to tell me what they are honestly thinking about the work I am doing for them. In my ideal scenario coming up with a design is an ongoing conversation, a give and take of identifying problems, coming up with solutions, and re-examining the areas that don’t feel quite right. I should also be able to communicate how the whole process will work, and what I will be able to do, so I don’t end up wasting time in a string of meetings or redesigns that accomplish nothing.
3) Have some confidence. In school, when I worked on a project, I was the student asking the experts for advice. In my internships, I was the intern who needed guidance. Now, I am the one making the decisions, and while I can’t just build confidence overnight, I need to trust my instincts and be accountable for my decisions. I know the components for a successful working relationship, and when I am working with clients who have never worked with a designer before, I should take charge and lead the way.
This article by the AIGA is a pretty valuable overview of some good client relations strategies. Sometimes it’s not you, it’s them. It is extremely important to me to cultivate relationships with ‘good’ clients. The three questions I ask myself during projects are:
I need to answer yes to two of those questions to consider a ‘good’ project.
Working with other people is always tricky, but it is my hope as I go down this path that I can continue to build strong relationships with my clients, and work on projects that are both challenging and satisfying for everyone involved.