Putting My Thoughts Out There

Putting My Thoughts Out There

December 8, 2011

Earlier today, Mark Boulton tweeted the following:

Designers: If you do your job right, client's subjective views just shouldn't come into the equation. Explain your rationale.

In principle, and in an ideal world, I completely agree. I rarely take part in, or respond to topics about the design industry, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's a lack of confidence, my youth in the industry, my atypical background in design, or just a fear of confrontation. But I do believe in healthy discussion and I do have my own opinions. This topic is one that is nothing new, but I felt as though, even if just for my own benefit, I should get the words out of my head and into the ether. So I responded;

@markboulton what about the clients who respond to your well explained rationale with 'I don't care what you recommend, this is what I want'

I understand from tweets between various people on twitter that 'snarky remarks' have been sent in response to the original comment (and in response to other unrelated tweets from many high profile designers). Mine was in no way intended to come across as snarky, and I sincerely hope that Mark Boulton did not read it in that way, I was simply curious. Mark has a well deserved level of respect in the design community, and has contributed a truly admirable volume of knowledge to it. I also think if used appropriately, Twitter can engage people in discussions who otherwise would never have any contact with one another. I was merely interested in how someone much more successful, and in a different point in their career than I am currently, would respond to that type of client. Mark's response was:

@poppetdesigns They're not good clients to have.

Hallelujah! They certainly aren't good clients to have, I wholeheartedly agree with that. In an open tweet, Mark then followed with:

For people saying 'that doesn't happen in the real world' re subjectivity. I say you're having the wrong discussions with your clients, then

But what if you are saying all the right things?

Let us assume then, that a designer is having the right conversation with their client, that they are expressing themselves maturely, concisely and coherently, and probably even using real world examples to back up whatever proposal they are putting forward to their client. The ideal expressed by Mark's comments still seem to assume certain things, such as...

...that your client is a reasonable human being

Not every person on the planet is capable of taking part in a mature and rational conversation. Some people are self-important, some are ignorant, and some are just twats that would not respond well to the most justified rationale from the most respected designers out there.

Such clients may, however, be worth a designer giving in to their ridiculous whims. Perhaps they pay promptly (even the best clients can be forgetful when it comes to payments), perhaps they recommend you to their business contacts and bring in more work, perhaps they have a strong voice in local business circles. Whatever the benefits offered by retaining a defiant client, lots of designers will likely have come across this sort of situation. I would love to be able to turn down any client that demonstrates even a hint of producing Clients From Hell worthy retorts to my most rationale arguments.

...that your client showed their true colours from word go

Sometimes people seem perfectly reasonable. I've had conversations with clients in the past at initial meetings that went wonderfully. Potential hurdles in their project have been identified, I've explained technical, aesthetic and best-practice reasons for suggesting certain solutions, and they've responded well. Countless times I've heard various incarnations of the phrase 'I trust you, you're the expert on this.' Sometimes though, the person in this meeting was Dr Jekyll. The good, reasonable doctor may well remain for a while, but somewhere down the line clients can occasionally turn into Mr Hyde. This is by no means a reflection on how I feel about clients as a whole, it's simply the way of the human race - sometimes, people turn out to be complete nutters. Nutters as clients can take you by surprise at any point in a project, and they can often not be reasoned with, not even by Victor Finkel and Fiona Prowse (the 2011 winners of the World Universities Debating Championships).

...that your client is not a committee

Government organisations are one of the biggest culprits for design by committee overpowering the expertise of those hired to do the job. Both my partner and I have seen the rubbish results of allowing a committee of non-designers to have input on a project, be it technically based software development, creative web design or anything even vaguely related. A well explained rationale in these situations is even more likely to be met with resistance, and an insistence that while what you're telling them may well be true, the committee thinks differently, and would rather disregard your expertise, despite paying you for said knowledge.

...that you can afford to turn unreasonable people down

Designers across the world are in varying states of financial security. It makes sense then, that we draw our line for nonsense we're prepared to take from clients at different points. Unfortunately for most people, including successful people, money is essential to survive in the modern world. It's simple - that line cannot exist in the same place for everyone, success, reputation and experience change that line. Not to mention the hind-sight that you can gain from surviving those really frustrating projects.

...that the line between what is a client's opinion and what is best-practice is well defined

It's not. Working in a creative industry means we're used to blurry lines. I'm a web designer, but I front-end code and also design logos and am getting into custom lettering lately. Other web-designers don't code, some can't code. Some print illustrators design successful websites too, and so on. Everything about this industry is fluid, and it's wonderful, but it can also lead some clients to be stubborn because they see an industry made up of hobbyists and professionals and everything in between. They chose the colour on their living room walls, so they may think they know that the best colour for a serene spa retreat website is bright red and orange with flashing green 'book now' buttons. Some people are more stubborn than others, and will believe that grabbing a customers attention with a psychedelic website is more important than creating an elegant and serene site to suit the service they provide. The self-important client that I mentioned earlier may be stubborn enough to believe they're right, no matter how many Psychology of Colour articles you present them with.

Not everyone can stick to the ideal scenario

I don't mean that in snide manner - ultimately we're all working to better ourselves and that surely means bettering the sort of clients we are able to work with, to make every client-designer relationship a positive one. If it weren't for 'ideal-world' views about the way we should operate in creative industries, nothing would improve, clients as a whole wouldn't be educated about what they can gain from a positive and mutually respectful relationship with their designers, and we'd be going nowhere. If I were in a position to, I would likely draw my line of where a client becomes 'not a good client to have' in a different place.

But assuming all clients can be reasoned with is the same as assuming that no one in the world queue-jumps because it's rude. Some people queue-jump because they are twats. Every designer needs to know where they draw their own line - can they afford the time, hassle and cost that may be associated with ending a relationship with a client, or are some ignorant clients worth keeping in the long run. Sometimes I'll tell a queue jumper to quick march it back to the end of the line with all the rationale and reasoning that I can muster, but sometimes said queue jumper is twice my size and mean looking. Other times they might be the same person who later helps me up in the carpark when I've tripped over.

P.S. I have some delightful clients too.