Web design is essential to every business. There are some incredible web designers out there. both as freelancers and members of design studios, they create wondrous sites out of little pixels. The process can be easy and transparent or torturous and a huge failure. Unfortunately, there are reasons why both designer and client bump heads sometimes. Usually it has to do with communication problems as well as trust. Both parties need to know when to work together and when to stand back. Most of all, everyone needs to know what is expected of them to make a design project shine.
There are clients who sit back and allow the professionals to work their craft and clients who want to be a part of the process every step of the way, not trusting those who design sites every day to do what they do best. Sometimes it’s ego but most of the time it’s because a designer failed to follow the vision and directions of the client… or the client didn’t bother to communicate those wishes. A designer who hears a client say, “I’ll know what I like when I see it” sees it as ridiculous as reading minds is not a reality and for a client, hearing a designer say, “I know what you want, but I did this,” is an insult as they are paying the bills (at least the designer hopes so).
So, how do clients and designers work well together. Transparency and communication is key. The big question is why is that so hard for some people?
What are Designers Thinking?
A young web designer e-mailed me after seeing a post of mine on a business networking site. He asked, “After reading your profile, I would love to hear anything else you have to offer regarding the inside of the web design industry!”
I wrote back, “Yikes! That would take ten minutes, at least (I was joking, of course). Not much I can say without breaking non-disclosures with my clients. What did you have in mind?”
He replied back, “Well, being on the other side of the table as an Art Director, what did you look for in freelance creatives? Anything you can impart would be appreciated. Thanks!”
I thought about the answer. What really got me interested in using new talent? What told me I could TRUST new talent?
“Mostly talent and a certain style I can see applied to product,” I wrote. “There are many great designers I just couldn’t use because their work didn’t lend itself to the design direction or demographics of a project.
As for dealing with creatives, there were those I found and approached, those who approached me and those who did everything they could to annoy and insult me.
The key, if I had to draw a conclusion, is to have great promotional pieces, stay in contact with those who buy design, have patience and persistence and, most of all, don’t screw up a project. I can’t tell you how many people screwed themselves out of the chance to break into the place I was working because they went nuts. Don’t get overexcited, don’t smell of desperation and don’t take a rejection personally and act as if it IS personal.
Then there were the people who got their chance and blew it by not following directions and made my job harder. It’s difficult to tell someone they won’t be used again when they are so excited by a regular client and future income. Not easy for them to hear and not easy to tell them.
Just be VERY professional (even when your clients are not) and roll with the punches. Sometimes the guy at the bottom gets the blame when no one else will accept it. Just keep moving forward. Treasure the great clients, court the occasional client and forget the bad clients.”
I suppose I could end this article with just that but experience has taught me that readers love a good horror story of creatives acting like inhuman maniacs.
Most of my stories revolve around people who either missed deadlines or failed to follow instructions. If you use the instructions as a checklist, it’s not that hard. One regular freelancer, who worked for a publication before I took the position as art director, was habitually late with her assignments. I sat her down and explained why it was important she made the set deadline. She went home and posted on the internet about how I was “busting (her) chops” about deadlines. She also had some choice words and suggestions about the matting habits I should practice with my family members. Naturally, she was a bit upset when I stopped giving her assignments.
It’s hard for clients to understand the creative desires of the people building his/her website. In the article, “What Designers Want?” the poll within sheds some interesting light on important factors to consider:
Clients who know what they’re looking for at the outset of their design project score points with designers — 51% of designers surveyed consider that one of the most important characteristics in a client. 47% of designers say responsiveness is key, and 46% want clients who give them creative freedom.
The Horror of Not Listening
My favorite horror stories deal with people who just couldn’t follow a line in the dirt without getting lost.
There was the temp designer who smelled so bad I had to put him in an empty office, as the art staff couldn’t stand him. Checking in after a full day, he hadn’t accomplished a thing. Although he was hired to do InDesign work and acknowledged he was “expert,” he admitted later he couldn’t handle the InDesign work and proudly proclaimed, “Photoshop is my tool!”
He and his tool were dismissed before the end of the day and the small office in which he sat was closed, locked and treated as if it was radioactive. As the client,s I gave him clear directions ato what was needed to design the project. He either didn’t listen to what I was saying or had no intention of listening in the first place.
A new hire decided he had to comment aloud on a female coworker’s… physical attributes. He lasted three hours! Two of those with Human resources. He couldn’t follow the directions the hiring manager laid out as to the basic rules of working within our office. Common sense also seemed to escape him.
A new designer showed up three hours late on her first day and claimed the subways weren’t running. She came from the same neighborhood as I did and there were no delays on the trains. She switched her excuse to not realizing we didn’t start work at 11:00 am.
Her second day revealed the discovery that she didn’t know how to make a clipping path, despite her boasts of being an expert at Photoshop. It took a day of her creating the wrong clipping path on two hundred images to help the decision to not use her any further.
A new designer was given an all day project that needed to be done immediately for the magazine I was art directing. Grunt work, but he was new and needed to build his clout with the staff. He was shown what needed to be done. I then stepped into all day meetings.
Coming back to the art department at the end of the day, after hours of corporate weirdness, and I asked if he was done.
“Check this out!” he said, holding up a highly rendered pencil sketch on a good piece of the magazine’s drawing paper.
He had spent the day drawing what he thought should be the next cover of the magazine. I stood dumbstruck. Who in their right mind would do something so outrageous?
The editor came in to check on the status of the project and saw I was pale from the loss of blood in the upper half of my body. The designer showed the editor his drawing and the editor looked over at me. He turned back to the designer and softly said, “one does not start their career doing covers for this magazine — one ends their career,” and he smiled, turned and walked away.
I turned back to the designer and asked how much he had accomplished on the project. Now he went pale. He hadn’t gotten to it. He was crying as I walked him out of the building. So was I at three in the morning while I finished the work he didn’t do.
Please don’t think me cruel for firing these people. I felt very bad about doing it. They were so excited and high from their chance to work for top, iconic brands. They probably told all their friends and family about their new job/client and now had to explain that they lasted one day, or less in a couple of cases. All they needed to do was follow instructions, and simple ones at that. I always felt bad for freelancers who ruined their big break. I admit having done it a few times as a young designer, right out of art school. I learned quickly to listen and follow directions. As my experience grew, I learned to ask the right questions so I would know the right directions, even if the client hadn’t relayed them in the first place.
Clients Screw Up, Too!
Speaking of asking the right questions, it was a huge career hit that taught me a big lesson about asking the right questions… essentially dragging the directions out of the client.
I was given a project by the president of a company at which I worked. She was known for being difficult, as well as vindictive, and I swear I almost fainted when her secretary called me into the president’s office. The assignment was simple: come up with new stationery for the company that would rebrand everything. She said, “I want something sophisticated!”
I looked up sophisticated in the dictionary, and started by designing three choices for her. When I showed them to the president, she was a bit upset. “I said I want something sophisticated!” she scolded.
I designed three more, all corporate with a European fashion flair. When I showed them to her, she grew angrier, and demanded to know why I couldn’t get something “sophisticated.”
I tried again, and again with no luck. After the eleventh design attempt, I looked around her office, which was decorated with 1970′s kitsch, toys, and retro furniture. The word “sophisticated” suddenly took on a different meaning to me. “Would you show me an example of some sophisticated designs that inspire you?” I asked her.
She pulled out a letterhead she had received, and shoved it at me, probably trying to paper cut my throat. I looked at it, and said, “Oh, you want something whimsical!”
The next design hit it on the head. It wasn’t that I couldn’t design “sophisticated” — she just couldn’t communicate the visual she wanted by using the right words, and wasn’t pleased I embarrassed her.
Why couldn’t she pick the correct words? Because non-creatives often can’t put a visual in their mind together with the right descriptor. They’re not morons, mind you — they just can’t communicate a look with words. By the same token, they don’t understand creatives who describe a design direction and get the picture in their heads.
It was that experience that taught me about creative briefs and how some clients need to have information dragged out of them… and some designers need it stuffed into the. The article, “Why a Creative Brief is the Key to Success” demonstrates that both parties can work towards a common ground and best solution:
The creative brief, written up, and sent out by the art department served to hold people responsible. In regular meetings during the project, it made it easier to ask other departments where they stood on their milestones, and why, inevitably, they were late. With a sympathetic, and strong project leader, responsibility, and meeting deadlines will make sure that creatives won’t have a week to create the final project when other departments were to take only two weeks out of a two-month project.
It seems that at most companies this is the standard operating procedure. It’s rare that a project manager can or will keep tight reign on milestones. It’s even more rare that there’s a professional project manager at companies. Usually, someone will be assigned as a project manager, and they might not have enough experience, or the corporate level to demand strict adherence to milestones on a project. In a corporate setting, this usually leads to problems with getting a project done on time. In a freelance situation, your time is your money, and when you end up either working an extra week, or so on a flat fee, trying to charge for extra hours, or working an extreme rush to make a deadline, it’s a losing situation for you, and can lead to a project that probably won’t be your best work. In the end you’ll get the blame, and although unfair, well… welcome to business!
It’s not about blame and excuses. The article goes on to make important professional reasons for putting everything in writing:
You will also find that creative briefs are handy for repeat clients. In web design, it’s important to retain clients to service their ever-changing web needs. As technology evolves, and companies grow, the original creative brief serves to remind you of how the client prefers to work with you. Reviewing past project files, and briefs can also remind you when it’s time to contact a client to pitch updates to their site. It’s a wonderful tool that’s valuable to your business. So, run out to your local office supply store, buy some file folders, design a creative brief sheet with your logo on it, and you’ll see how easy a great creative brief, and project folder can make your life and business.
In the end, it’s all about communications and if that needs to be written down for both parties, then so be it if that creates a better situation!
Divas and Control Freaks
Am I speaking of designers or clients? Yes! In the article, “You Ruined the Project!” The points made all come down to communication problems, as well as assigning blame. In any project, it has to be a team and not a collection of individuals. In the article it starts with as ensible outlook on the problem:
Who said that? Both parties often do. Both the client and the designer often accuse each other of ruining a web project. Why? What is it both parties expect that the other can’t or won’t fulfill. Is it a breakdown in communications, and if it is, what can be done to prevent it?
You know all of the funny horror stories. The client doesn’t know what they’ll like until they see it, they have an eight year-old niece who won a finger painting contest when she was only five and is a creative genius, they thought the whole site wouldn’t cost so much to design because their great-great grandfather had an entire web site designed for a nickel in 1903, blah-blah-blah. Well they have their stories and complaints about us, too, only they aren’t creative enough to publish sites like clientsfromhell.net and call it something like artsyfartsycrybabies.com.
Such a separation of understanding and thinking between creative and customer makes one wonder who is ultimately to blame for the complaints we all have. The truth, if we all would care to admit it, is that we are all to blame.
*For clients to understand a bit more about designers, read: “What Kind of Designer Do You Want to Strangle?”
The Clear Conclusion
Transparency is the key to working together. Clients don’t understand the design process… and some not as much as they think they do, or pretend to do. It’s like trying to convince a car mechanic you know what he/she is telling you about your broken vehicle. You nod a lot and reach for some automotive term, so you don’t get fleeced with parts you don’t need. In the end, the mechanic spots you for the non-mechanic you are.
It’s a lot of hand-holding, dumbing-down design language, and a constant updating of the project to the client so they feel comfortable with the process. The easiest way to assure yourself of a smooth project, is a clear creative brief, a strong contract, constant communication, simple language, and, it seems from those who post on Clients From Hell, lots and lots of questions, and explanations throughout the process.
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