A Designer’s Guide to Communicating with Clients
It’s no secret that designers and clients can struggle with communication, much the same way doctors and patients do. We have all experienced a situation where a doctor explained a simple procedure with dizzying terminology. The design industry is no different. Sometimes we use industry specific language that is natural to us, but unfamiliar to our clients.
Whether you’re working with a virgin client or someone who has experienced a few design projects, there will be times you may not share a common vernacular. This can lead to simple misunderstandings, or worse, a damaged relationship.
It’s safe to say that most clients do not have a deep understanding of design and that is why they are hiring you. Communicating effectively with clients is a critical component of being a great designer. Each client is different and requires an individual approach to communication. As you learn the art of communicating with clients, you will begin to develop a sense of how best to communicate with each individual, and should adjust your communication accordingly.
Here are 5 tips that will help you improve your communication for a higher level of interaction, more successful design solutions and much happier clients.
1. Understand Their Business
Learning about the client’s business and why it’s different and better than those they compete with is one of the most difficult things to ascertain. Typical protocol includes requesting baseline information, gathering assets, conducting consumer and competitive research, interviewing key management or stakeholders, observation, and so forth.
Ashleigh Hansberger, partner and brand strategist at Motto, recalls a recent project where understanding the client’s business was a challenge. “We were hired by a quantitative trading firm on Wall Street to develop a college recruitment campaign. In the initial calls, our client was using industry specific terminology that was natural to them, but unfamiliar to us.” With the campaign on a tight deadline, Motto quickly scoured trade journals, blogs, and held interviews with the company’s staff to sharpen their understanding of the world of financial trading. Hansberger said, “In order for us to get on the same page and build credibility for an effective solution, we had to walk on Wall Street and immerse ourselves in the discourse.” As a result, client communication was streamlined and Motto was able to develop a campaign strategy and design solution that delivered high-level messages that resonated with the client’s audience.
2. Nix Design-Speak
It’s wrong to expect that clients understand our specialized language. In fact, it frustrates clients when designers speak with terms and phrases they don’t understand, resulting in miscommunication and failed solutions.
It’s not that easy to explain what a vector file is. File formats are becoming more complicated and the programs used for design less similar to those used in a business environment so they come with their own set of jargon. Explaining all the different file formats can be overwhelming for a client, especially when designers start using terms like “pixel based” and “line art.”
Additionally, listen to the client to pick up on their vocabulary and use it whenever you can. Using the client’s jargon can help reassure them that you get it and your reasons for making certain design decisions is based on understanding of their business. It will show that you’re not just designing solutions that have aesthetic value, but make business sense as well.
3. Replace Verbal Communication with Visual Communication
Both miscommunication and misinterpretation are common problems when talking about design. Think about all the words that are used when a client is telling you what they want: Sexy, bold, sleek, bright, colorful, modern, hip, funky, simple and so on. The problem with words is that they are highly subjective. They can be interpreted any number of ways depending on who says them and who hears them. One solution to this problem is to translate words in the verbal brief to pictures in a visual brief. The point of providing visuals up front is to help eliminate the element of surprise – which is typically the kiss of death, when it comes to presenting your design ideas.
Then you can present a clear indication of where we intend to go through the design direction.
Most clients struggle with seeing the project all the way through, which is often a designer’s gift. Make it easier for your clients to see the end result by presenting work on a tangible level. Instead of explaining to your client that you intend to use a richly textured paper such as Strathmore Grandee for their stationary system, show them an actual sample so they can feel the tactile richness instead of envision it.
4. Explain Your Reasoning
As you offer your expertise throughout the process it is important that you also explain to the client why you are giving that advice. Clients will often want you to do something that you don’t think is a good idea. When those situations arise, rather than just doing it the way they want or doing it your way with no explanation, take the time to demonstrate to them why you think it is important and what the potential impacts can be. Designers sometimes default to explaining their choices subjectively, which can lead to an exchange of diverging or opposite views.
For example, instead of saying this: “We chose PMS 7543 because customers respond affirmatively to shades in the cool spectrum,” say this: “This gray blue conveys stability and reliability and will help your customers feel confident in your brand.” Or, alternatively, try adding a statement like, “A study from the Color Institute shows that female ‘tweens gravitate toward orange but don’t embrace red. Would you like a copy of the article that talked about it?” is a great way to justify, inform, and educate.”
5. Ask Questions
Many clients won’t provide detailed information about their business or their customers unless you ask, simply because they may assume you don’t need to fully understand their business to provide creative solutions. Clients who don’t have a good understanding of what is involved in creating a successful solution may think that a skilled designer can pick up a new project and create something special without really taking the client’s specific situation into consideration. In these cases, you will have to be proactive and ask a number of questions. Listen not only to the answers that are given to the questions that you raise. Don’t be afraid to ask a client questions to clarify things you may not understand. Your customers are busy, just like you are, so they may be in a hurry when you are talking to them, but don’t let that discourage you from getting the information that will help you do your job for them.
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