Want to Improve Designer-Client Relationships? Try These Six Things. / by David Sherwin

Designer Client Relationships

This is an introduction I wrote for the recent translation of my book Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers into Simplified Chinese (Cheers Publishing, 2019). While this piece was written for designers and businesses working in China, much of what’s here is applicable for designers working in any culture.

One of the hardest truths I’ve learned from two decades working in the design field is this: Cultural compatibility should never be taken for granted. This is true even when working with companies in your own city or country. 

Success by Design was written for designers and design students who want to start their own design studios, or who are working at an agency or studio and want a better understanding of how they can help make it more successful. It was written from my point of view: an American designer that had worked at multiple design studios, including frog, a global product design and strategy firm, for a wide range of international clients.

While I wrote Success by Design to serve as a primer for the business fundamentals that you need to profitably operate a design studio or agency in the United States, you’ll need to examine how those fundamentals should be used with your own clients. Each of your business dealings will require careful attention to cultural indicators.

Here are six things that I wish I’d included in the first edition of Success by Design. These things will help you be more perceptive regarding the business culture of your clients and appropriately navigate that culture to create quality design work.

1. Start your new client relationships with a small project.

The fastest way to build trust with a new client is to demonstrate that you have what it takes to do a great job. For this reason, I recommend starting your new client relationships with a small project. 

This has a number of benefits for both parties. By starting with a small project, you can:

  • Gauge the cultural compatibility between you and your client, to see if each of you wants to invest in a longer-term relationship

  • Get to know some of the project stakeholders that you weren’t able to meet in advance of starting your work

  • Identify the best ways to present and socialize your work to your stakeholders

  • Learn how decisions are made with regards to your design work, and how your opinion will be factored into those decisions

  • Demonstrate that you have the skills and capabilities that you’d advertised to your client

In some markets, designers can start new client relationships with large projects right away. However, this is rare in China. Starting a client relationship with the idea of a partnership “is somewhat presumptuous,” says Peter Kim, an independent user experience consultant and former creative director at organizations such as R/GA, frog, and Coupang. “To get to that role with a client takes years of trust-building.” 

To secure that role, do your best work as a vendor to your client, and build your relationship from there. Before you start the project, make sure that you speak up regarding what you see as the client’s unique challenges and potential opportunities for solving them. As you build personal and professional relationships with your potential clients, this will help them understand that you can bring something valuable and unique to the business arrangement. 

2. Openly communicate about scope and client expectations as you fulfill the work.

No matter whether you have a formal contract in place, or if you’re negotiating the project deliverables and scope as you move through your projects, you need to rigorously communicate what you will deliver at each step and listen well to ensure that what you’re delivering is valued by your client. 

In the Contracts chapter of the book, I talk about how in the United States, a signed contract is seen as a legally binding arrangement between designer and client. The contract describes what deliverables the designer will create for the client over a fixed amount of time, and what the client will provide to the designer in order to help him or her complete the work successfully—including payment for the work. Each party is expected to fulfill their end of the written arrangement for the project to be completed successfully. The contract is signed before work begins between the two parties. 

However, since I wrote this chapter, I have worked on multiple projects where it wasn’t clear at the start of the project exactly what deliverables would provide the most value to the client. I had to begin work on the project in order to define what success would look like, and then adjust what deliverables were appropriate to provide along the way. 

If you decide to define the deliverables as you are working, you will need to provide visibility into the project work along the way. This sounds simple, but it can be difficult for some designers who want to polish every deliverable before sharing work with their clients. While it’s important to make sure design deliverables meet your quality standards, you’ll have to socialize your work on a regular basis to solicit input. Don’t let too much time elapse between each point of communication with your client; this allows you to control the conversation as the project progresses. 

3. Take the appropriate time for gathering feedback on your work.

In the chapter in the book on Feedback, I say: “The inability to manage client feedback causes your design work to suffer.” That’s true. However, there is another aspect of feedback to consider: How feedback is best gathered from your clients as you share your work.

Every client that you work with will have a different way of delivering feedback. Some clients will deliver all of the feedback immediately upon seeing the work. In larger client organizations, however, it can take additional time to solicit the appropriate feedback from your key decision makers. I always wait a certain amount of time before acting upon client feedback, and ensure that I have everything that I need from key decision makers. Without communicating that there is a fixed ‘feedback window’ for deliverables, it’s tough to balance waiting for input and wanting to act quickly. 

In China, “the core feedback [on your work] is often shared afterwards through another channel,” says Rainer Wessler, head of digital at Gensler in Shanghai and former vice president of creative at frog. “What’s being said to you in a meeting is in consideration of those relationships and not always of the work that you have shown. You need to pay attention to not only what the client says, but also what they don’t say.” When you do receive that feedback, you’ll begin the delicate work of discerning what feedback should be acted upon, and when.

You can ease the impact of stakeholder feedback by presenting your work with a clear rationale regarding why you made particular design decisions. Educate your clients about why you made certain choices. When describing your decision-making, it’s easy to lose a client in design jargon. Instead, use simple, straightforward language in your descriptions at first, and gradually introduce complex terms and processes. In doing so, they’ll learn more about how designers work, have a better understanding of how you made particular decisions, and take that information into consideration when they deliver feedback to you in the future.

4. If you think you did something wrong, ask your clients for their input.

It’s important to solicit feedback from your clients—not only on your project work, but also on your performance as a vendor. If you think you’ve missed something during a project that could have led to your work being better, then you should find the appropriate way to solicit input from your client about that issue. The benefit of this is clear: You ease your client’s worries in the short-term, and you learn lessons that can be applied to future projects over the long-term.

There is a way to do this skillfully. Ian Lee, who has led innovation strategy and design at both S.Point and frog in Shanghai, suggests asking the following question to the appropriate client. You should always ask this question in person, not via email, on the phone, or chat:

“I really want our project to be successful and I feel that there were some things along the way where my understanding of the situation was incomplete. I wanted to get your opinion on what you think. Can you name one or two things that I could have done differently?”

Lee notes that he won’t always be the one asking this question. Instead, he says, “I may ask someone more junior or a project manager to deliver the message to their counterpart on the client side.” You can secure a lot of respect in these types of situations, because you’ve shown the courage to broach the subject with your client. Additionally, you’ve indicated that you’re willing to listen and incorporate feedback on your past performance.

5. If your client is using your work, you should be paid for it.

Throughout your career, you will have projects where the client may want to withhold payment, even after you’ve delivered the majority of the project work. This can even occur when your client has been telling you that everything that you’ve created for them has been acceptable. My perspective on this situation is this: If the client is materially using what you’ve provided, then they have gained some form of value from it. You should be compensated for the value that you’ve generated for that client.

As designers, we want our clients to succeed, while at the same time, we have to consider our own needs around our business. It’s important to recognize the values and ethics that lead to these situations. You’ll need to determine how to respond in order to reach the best outcome for your business. It’s important to stand your ground regarding what you know to be quality work, and you should clearly communicate your expectations regarding how you should be compensated. 

If a client says you need to deliver more work, ask the right questions to uncover the reasons why they feel that way. From your client’s perspective, they may believe there’s a problem that the work has not yet addressed. Work with your client to determine what they need in order for the project to be a success. And again, be clear about your expectations for compensation throughout the process.

This may be a difficult negotiation for each party, but you need to enter into these conversations with a personal sense of what quality design work looks like, and how to maintain it for your own business and portfolio. 

6. Don’t aim for perfection. Strive for the right direction.

In your first deliverables for your client, try to show that you are moving in the right direction to help fulfill their need. “The client wants to know your unique spin on their problem. Lead with that,” says Lee. This is your first opportunity to show your client your expertise and insight. Then, as you work your way through each project, help your client can act on it. Lee’s former boss at S.Point liked to say, “Fifty percent is having a direction, and the other half is doing it and getting it out there.”

I wrote Success by Design because so many designers I’ve worked with have struggled to get the fundamentals in place for their businesses. This kept them from doing work that they enjoyed, in a way where they could make money and take care of their needs. I hope that this book will help you be able to create a business that sustains you, as you do the work that you love.

Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers is currently available in English, Korean, and Chinese editions.