On communication between designers and clients

I was briefly interviewed by Web Designer magazine about designer/client communication.

Telephone pole
Photo by Johnh111003

Q/ When communicating with a new client, what advice do you have to ensure that all parties understand what they expect to be delivered?

A/ Projects run more smoothly when everyone involved asks what the others expect. It’s also helpful when working terms are agreed upon.

Q/ Is it a lack of a detailed brief that often leads to misunderstandings?

A/ From my early experiences? Certainly. There were times when I didn’t ask nearly enough questions, so the client was more likely to end up with a design that didn’t meet expectations.

Q/ Why do you think communication breaks down? Do clients often change their minds, leading to confusion?

A/ It could be the client, it could be the designer. No one always gets it right.

A few past clients preferred me to work without too much in the way of back and forth. Sometimes that was successful, sometimes not, and when it wasn’t, projects ran for longer than necessary — ideas weren’t agreed upon and it became obvious that more mid-project discussions were needed.

Also, some client/designer combinations aren’t a good fit — a designer might prefer a different design niche than what the client needs, and the client might want something the designer doesn’t offer. That’s another reason to ask plenty of questions before money changes hands.

Just as clients are unlikely to hire the first designer they find, designers shouldn’t accept every project on the table. It pays to say no.

Q/ Is there always a risk that when a designer interprets a brief it doesn’t actually fulfil the clients’ wishes?

A/ All projects have risks, but interpretation generally only goes wrong if the brief isn’t thorough. When it comes to the end result, the most interesting interpretations are generally proportional to the size of the risk (bigger risk, better result). A lot of that comes down to clients and how open they are to pushing boundaries and really standing out.

Q/ How can communications remain clear when some briefs seem to be design by committee?

A/ Even if you’re dealing with a sole proprietor, he or she is likely to ask a friend or relative for an opinion, so in that regard it’s rare when just one person is involved in the decision-making. But it’s hugely helpful when one person has the final say, and I tend to cover that at the start of a project when sharing expectations.

Q/ What’s your advice on how to handle a client relationship that begins to break down?

A/ Look first at yourself. You’re not necessarily in the wrong, but don’t blame others before thinking about what you could’ve done better. If you can’t meet your client face-to-face then pick-up the phone. Put yourself in your client’s position. Ask what’s needed in order to move forward.

A few previous posts on similar lines:
Thoughts on the designer/client relationship
The ideal design process?
Ask about the budget

← Older post

Newer post →

13 comments

  1. That’s a very insightful interview, David. With experience we all work out how to approach client relations; good preparation and communication are key. Being upfront at the very beginning about your expectations, and asking the client to share theirs, sounds like a valuable exercise in determining whether you’re a good fit (as you mentioned).

    Sometimes problems emerge further along in the design process: deadlines come forward, a new manager (or a spouse/family member) is brought into the loop with different ideas, the budget for the work is cut, scope creep happens, etc. Excellent preparation can’t immunise your project against everything but it can and does increase the chances of it running as smoothly as can be anticipated. Plus, you’re more likely to earn the respect of your client by being open and thorough from the start.

  2. This is a great go-to article for anyone dealing with clients. Handling a relationship that’s going sour and communication that’s breaking down (which will likely be related) are definitely two of the toughest aspects of it all.

    Usually if you have all the other points covered, and are respectful, you’re on the right track. Dealing with problems and setbacks though is something that is, in my experience, part preparation, and part experience, meaning you have to eventually go through some adversity to really hone those skills and instincts (and your business).

  3. Thanks, David. Some good advice here.

  4. “Excellent preparation can’t immunise your project against everything but it can and does increase the chances of it running as smoothly as can be anticipated.”

    Well put, Tracey. How’s Hobart treating you these days?

    Yaco, as you rightly say, we need to go through our own difficulties before picking up the pace. Reading will only take us so far.

  5. Dalveer

    Nice interview and when are the book giveaway results?

  6. Hi Dalveer, I’ve just updated the giveaway post with the names that were randomly drawn.

  7. Dalveer

    I will win… one day. Haha.

  8. Great advice! Thanks so much – really instills more confidence in me as a designer.

  9. It is always two way communication.

    Client wants to influence design (usually).

    Designer wants to deliver a project (but not to give in too much to client wishes if they are unreasonable).

    Too much stubbornest on either side and project is going down the drain.

    Neno

  10. Great interview! Love this quote: ” Look first at yourself. You’re not necessarily in the wrong, but don’t blame others before thinking about what you could’ve done better.”

  11. Some great advice here David. Agree with Tracey that good preparation is invaluable.
    Also staying in touch with clients throughout a project and keeping them informed along the way can be important. Without doing this you can sometimes find yourself veering off course and wasting a whole lot of time going in a direction the client would never want to go.

  12. This is a great post David. Very good advice, thank you.

  13. Thanks for a great read!

    I don’t have much experience as a graphic designer but what I’ve learned so far is that the success of the project depends 60% on good communication with client, 40% skills of the designer.

    Even the worst briefs (“I would like something pretty, fast”) have a solution. I think you just have to take it out from the client by patiently asking questions and not giving up. Clients very often just don’t understand how important small details can be.

    Of course there are also cases where even patience cannot help.

Leave a Reply