Building informed client-designer relationships

How project dynamics can set the stage for future creative work.

For me, the biggest misconception held by designers starting out when it comes to clients and projects is the belief that a small project will inevitably lead to bigger and better things. Small projects can certainly lead to better opportunities, but this is by no means a guarantee. More often than not, the first project you take often establishes a perception in the minds of the people within the client organization and, whether intentional or not, a cognitive bias of Functional Fixedness can pigeonhole you into a certain kind of creative work and price point in the future.

For people in sales, landing a customer with a small deal and then selling into an organization in order to expand your footprint to more areas within the company is a common tactic. This approach works well when you are selling a service like IT software, or a suite of potential technology services. When applied to the design field, however, a “Land and Expand” business approach can establish a client perception that becomes problematic when you are expecting long term creative growth and partnership.

By way of example, when I was younger, I took on a project to develop an iconography system for a large consumer brand. The client had a big name, and I felt that they would be a great brand to work for and to have on my client roster. Having never worked with me before, they wanted to start small with a handful of icons for the UI of two products that needed to be done in a few weeks. This project led to other icons for other products and services, and after a few years I had produced hundreds of icons across many product lines.

When the company began to develop a new brand system for their smart home line I was sure that I was going to get the project because of all of the work I had done across all of the different departments. When I was not selected to bid the project I asked the client why. They said that I was “the icon guy” and they felt they needed to work with a bigger agency. As you can imagine, I was disappointed and frustrated, but it also made sense. I had been hoping to “Land and Expand” but I had just been happy to “Invoice and Rejoice” on a project by project basis causing the client to lose sight of what I could offer. Regardless of my true capabilities as a creative, the client had a preconceived idea of what I could do for them. They saw me in a functionally fixed way that was not true to what I could actually do for them. In retrospect, perhaps I should have passed on the first project or at the very least communicated more clearly what my expertise was on a broader level.

To use a comparison, how often does an electrician you hire for a small job become the architect to redesign your entire home? The answer is almost never because the electrician, assuredly talented and knowledgeable, is perceived as a specialist that does not have the expertise to redesign your entire house. Similarly, startups and other small companies regularly begin the creative conversation with statements like “Let’s start with the website” or, “Can we test the waters with a presentation we need asap.” Naturally, designers want and need long-term clients, and it is difficult to turn down work. Still, you have to be careful and be prepared for the compromises that may result by taking on something for the wrong reasons — If you take on the work of a creative electrician, don’t assume you will become the architect of the client’s brand down the line.

To remedy this ongoing challenge between your true capabilities and the client’s perception of you, it comes down to shifting — or at the very least aligning — to the mindset and goals of the client. In relationship to brand development and design, many startups and small businesses are purely focused on immediate needs and not long term vision. By contrast, Informed and savvy startups seek to hire creative partners to help them define their brand and grow their business because they understand the powerful role design and brand plays. For every design-informed startup there are just as many companies that are merely trying to keep their business moving from one short term goal to the next.

Organizations that have a broader vision as a brand and understand the competitive power of a cohesive visual and verbal communication system are the partners every creative studio wants to work with. Ideally, this thinking has allowed the client to hire internal creative capabilities that can work with your team to ensure that the work you do can be extended and utilized in the future. In reality many small businesses and startups are not thinking about brand and design as a business tool at all and are not thinking of creative partners as contributors to the broader goal of brand building and business growth. They are, more often than not, just trying to find a design partner for a specific project because they do not have the internal creative resources to do it themselves and it needs to be done quickly. For this client mindset, project goals are prioritized to get to the next round of funding or to the next board meeting, overshadowing the value of building a cohesive visual and verbal brand system that can be extended by internal creative teams.

The tensions that certain business approaches can produce between agency and client are difficult to unlearn once set in motion. Creatives do not produce their best work by operating under an incremental, “fire-drill” project structure. By contrast, once a startup gets a great result from a small creative engagement at an affordable price, they are prone to increase the pace and pile on more. Over time this relationship fuels the fire of discontent as the client demands more and more and the agency gets less and less out of the relationship. To alleviate the cognitive bias produced by short term, one-off projects, some agencies have turned to standardized brand packages that include brand creation, web site, copywriting and marketing in exchange for equity and a reduced fee. This approach gives creative agencies more control and a stake in the success of the businesses they work with, but the work sometimes becomes formulaic and undifferentiated. The client is buying a playbook, not a process that puts their unique needs first.

In an ideal world every startup and small business makes effective communications and long term brand building a fundamental business priority in an effort to fully express the competitive value of any new product or service. All the latest business books and business blogs tell us that how you communicate, the tools you use, and the culture your foster are as important as what you sell. Unfortunately, the day-to-day realities of business culture, the demand for short term fixes, and limited budgets are often in conflict with this thinking.

The short-sighted, “Land and Expand” mentality for working with clients must be replaced by a directive to “Establish and Empower” so that clients and designers can begin to take on a shared responsibility for a project’s success and build strategies to transition long term creative ownership to client teams that they can grow and nurture.

The following suggestions have helped me make smarter decisions when taking on clients and evaluating projects:

Fully understand the clients’ mindset and position.

Both clients and creatives often see projects through rose-colored glasses. Is this a dream job, a carrot for larger work, or just a means to and end? The best way to make an informed decision about a project is to get into the mindset of the client. The more you can see things through their priorities the better. Ask yourself how important the project is for them and how much is at stake for you and the client.

Before you commit to a project, do your homework.

Do some desktop research on the client and the primary stakeholders and ask as many questions as possible. Do they have funding? Do they have a track record of previous successes? Do they value design and brand? One key question I have often overlooked is what kind of creative resources the client has internally. The fewer creative capabilities a client has the more likely you will be doing more work overall and the more difficult the project handoff will be. It is also good to ask if the client has worked with any previous designers or agencies and to get a sense of how those experiences were. The more you can understand the client’s history the better you can determine if you will be a good fit and vice versa.

Be realistic about the opportunity.

Will the project make you happy? Will it make you famous? Will it make you rich? Will you learn something? Will you help others? Dig deep and outline the opportunities that the project holds for you as a creative or your creative team. Every project should have enough benefits that outweigh the deficits. Remember, getting yourself out of your comfort zone is always a positive thing.

Show by example.

Clients need to be reminded of the value and expertise you bring as a creative partner. They are hiring you because they need your help, but you have to realize they are running a business and you are one small part of that equation. Clients often forget what you can do and tend to focus on what you are doing for them right now. By sharing work that demonstrates your larger skill set and showing what you are capable of by way of other client examples is infinitely more powerful than merely telling someone you can do something.

Establish your mission to empower the client’s team.

You want to make sure the client understands that you are a creative partner first and foremost and that part of your responsibility is to educate and empower their team every step of the way. The best kinds of projects are the ones where both the designer and the client feel that there is trust and collaboration and that the output is a product of mutual effort and mutual respect. We are in this together. The more the client has command over their own creative work the better it is for everyone.

Setting the right tone and establishing the right client relationship is never easy. It’s equal parts process, professionalism, talent and gut instinct. As a designer, there is a fine line between being “known” for a certain kind of work and being “stuck” in a certain kind of work. Variety is the spice of life, and project diversity is the best way for designers to evolve. Every project is an opportunity to learn and grow even if it is not necessarily a stepping stone to larger projects or a cash cow. As designers begin to get their sea legs and start to gain confidence in their expertise, the ability to leverage critical thinking and objectivity to acquire the right information and make informed choices is as important as creative ability. One inevitably reinforces the other.

Creative and Project Leader, Partner at Athletics