The Design Method is a new book by Eric Karjaluoto, creative director and founding partner of smashLAB. He kindly took time to answer a few questions on his latest work.

Both the client and designer play important roles in the creation of good design. However, each one holds certain strengths and insights that the other doesn't. As such, think carefully about the part each group plays, and try to avoid stepping on the other's toes.

You talk about presenting just one idea to your clients. I get occasional enquiries where I’m asked to create a number of designs. Have any of your clients been adamant about seeing more than one idea?

Although many clients start by asking for three options, I explain to them why aiming for one target is more sensible: Doing so minimizes tangential directions that can take the project off course, helps keeps the project on track/budget, and reduces the number of decisions they’re forced to contend with.

I explain that we run many (often hundreds of) variations in studio, and edit down the choices before presenting the most workable option for their review. If they disagree with our recommended direction, we note what isn’t working, and then iterate.

We don’t mind going back to the drawing board if necessary; we just want to ensure that we’re moving the client and project forward in one clear direction. When I explain this, most clients see the logic and agree that it makes more sense than the alternative.

IKEA's designers employ a number of consistent rules when producing assets. As a result, you could change the text to gibberish and most would still be able to identify the brand.

You say the voice of the designer is irrelevant — what do you mean?

I’m speaking specifically about individual personality and style. Design is often considered a close cousin to art, and this misunderstanding clouds what our industry is about. New designers, in particular, want to imbue their work with their own sensibilities, but this desire isn’t actually that important.

Clients, for the most part, don’t want the designer’s personality to show through the work they produce; instead, they need design that is built around their needs and amplifies their organization’s values and aspirations. Designers need to gear themselves to think about their clients’ needs first.

Leg warmers
It's understandable that you'll find trends compelling, but it's a real drag to look back and realize that you were lured into the same pointless fads as everyone else.

How do you present your project quotes? Are they solely for what the client requests, or do you break it down into options, perhaps with a lower and a higher value in order to offer more choice?

Providing design quotes is almost always difficult, as the nature of design projects tends to be quite variable. On the odd occasion, a job is cut and dried, and I simply look back on past projects we’ve completed, with a similar scope of work, and use that (alongside a look at the billable efficiency of that project) to determine a suitable price. For the most part, we tend to provide a fixed cost; however, if the prospective client tells us that they have less to spend, we can sometimes reduce scope to meet their budget.

Increasingly, though, we’re asking prospective clients to contract us to complete some initial Discovery and Planning work, as a trial run of sorts. This approach allows us to really dig into their situation, needs, and expectations, and subsequently produce a plan for them. Upon having done so, they’re free to take the plan to another organization and leave us behind, should they choose.

Most times, they have us continue with the project, as they now have a better sense for our agency, how we think, and the way we work. Additionally, our pricing tends to be more accurate at this point, as having done this work allows us to really understand the scope of the project, instead of guessing what’s involved — which most studios are forced to do if they haven’t conducted any initial Discovery and Planning.

Stages and phases
The Design Method relies on four key process stages; however, the working phases you employ are informed by the kind of design you do and the project milestones you establish.

How do you protect your studio from potential legal issues that might arise after a project has started (where a client might not pay yet still use your work, for example)?

We produce a clear document at the outset of a project that lays out the scope of the project, timeline, and needs, as well as the associated requirements on the client’s behalf. After that, we request progress payments at key stages throughout the project.

Most of the engagements we take on are long and involved, and this allows us to really get to know our clients (and vice versa). Therefore, we tend to get a sense in advance if there might be some kind of discomfort/frustration on the client’s behalf. We then address such concerns before the situation gets ugly.

I’m sure that at some point we’ll need to bring in lawyers to help with a project that goes completely off the rails, but we’ve never yet found ourselves in that spot. Frankly, by the time you need to bring in lawyers to deal with such a situation, you’ve likely not been running your studio the way you should have been.

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During a few of my past projects it became clear that the client wanted to drive the design, asking for this to go here, and that to go there, etc., almost to the point of relegating me to a pixel pusher. Has this ever happened to you? And if so, how did you handle the requests?

Yes — it happens all the time, and this will never change. The work designers do is very personal to those who hire us, and they’re going to want to get their hands “in there.” In my mind, both the client and designer play very distinct roles in this sort of work, and the designer needs to define these roles clearly in order to produce good design for their clients.

The client/designer engagement needs to be thought about practically. Most clients aren’t experts in creating brands, defining visual identities, producing elegant user experience, and the like. Meanwhile, most designers don’t really know their customer’s business, clients, history, operations requirements, and so on.

Therefore, each party needs to own their role and try to avoid infringing on the other’s — for the good of the work they’re trying to produce. This is an issue of perspective: Neither the designer, nor the client, should be concerned with what their individual visual preferences; instead, they need to ask how they’re going to reach the objectives set out at the outset of the project. Most times, this means concentrating on how the choices they’re making might impact the user.

So, when you’re struggling with a client getting a little too close to the work you’re helping them with, try to get them to pull back a little. Keep asking what will work best for the audience/user, and you should be able to steer the project back on course.

Exit signs
Although both signs seem like reasonable approaches, which one do you expect will make the most sense to someone who doesn't speak English?

You say in the book that “if you want to get new business, taking prospective clients out for lunch may be more effective than chasing awards.” What proportion of your clients are local, and does it affect your working relationship when you’re unable to meet face-to-face?

The ratio tends to vary. At this moment, most of our work is for clients who aren’t in Vancouver. That being said, it’s the relationships that started with local groups that led to a number of these projects. For example, the website we built for The Vancouver Aquarium has been very well received by groups abroad. As a result of that project, we started working with organizations including WWF Canada, The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, and The Nature Conservancy. Personally, I like meeting our clients in face-to-face, but that isn’t always possible. For those who are close, though, we try to get together for lunch every here and there — not necessarily for sales purposes, but instead just to get a sense of what they’re up to. We’re lucky to work with a lot of nice people.

The Design Method is available from Peachpit and on /

Eric in the archives: What employers look for.