Smashing Magazine just wrote a great piece on Designing With Your Clients. This is a topic that I’m super passionate about. I’ve had a lot of experience taking a very collaborative approach to designing with clients and this post will discuss some of the methods I use. It’s not something that many designers or agencies do but is something I’ve seen work time and time again.
Let me start by saying that I’ve received design ideas from many clients in many different ways such as: sketches, PSD files, MS Word (yep), Excel (yep) and probably more than I can remember right now. Earlier in my career before I started designing collaboratively, whenever this happened I’d cringe and try to hold back those sometimes negative feelings associated with someone else “doing your job.” When I became – what I like to think – more enlightened, I learned to let go of this feeling and really focus on why clients did this. In a client/consultant relationship there can be more than one reason why clients feel the need to do this but at the core, there is only ever one reason; that reason is communication.
Drawing is one of the best ways that we know how to communicate. Sometimes words alone are not enough. If you have an idea in your head one of the easiest ways to share and communicate that idea or thought is to draw or design it. (In this post these two words really mean the same thing). Talking and drawing are some of the first things we learn to do as humans. So, why – as designers – should we be upset when a client or anyone designs something to communicate? We shouldn’t! Aside from communicating, sometimes there are other legitimate reasons clients design during the design process. Here are a few.
We’re Just Not Nailing It
As a more seasoned designer, I usually have a pretty good sense of if I’m on the right path with a design before sending it off. A big part of having this confidence comes from the collaborative design approach I take, which I’ll get into in a bit. However, as designers, we must recognize when our designs are off the mark. If a client senses this and especially if it happens more than a couple times in a row, there is often a desire for the client to start dictating or playing a heavier hand in the design process. At this point it’s very important to regain your client’s confidence by doing whatever it takes to get to the right design.
The Client Has Strong Design Opinions
You may work with clients that have very strong opinions about design or even some history or background in design. I welcome this, but this can become problematic if the person or client cannot see past their own design faults or weaknesses. One of the first things I learned in college was: don’t fall in love with your work. Not everyone learns this lesson and can quickly come to the idea that their design is the best because it came from their head. It’s a very easy trap to fall into and if you have a client that is designing but doesn’t know when something is not good or does not work – it can become a struggle and you may constantly find yourself trying to justify why your approach might work better. If this is the case and your design approaches truly do work better and the client can’t see that – it may be a losing battle.
Not Understanding What the Client Wants or Needs
You’ve probably heard the Albert Einstein quote:
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
What does this really mean? Well, it’s very easy to jump into the design because it’s the fun thing to do. Designs though are only as good as our understanding of what we’re trying to do and why. I spend a lot of time uncovering these things before the actual design process starts – so much so that I can almost envision in my head a design concept before sitting down at the computer. There are usually two different and equally important parts to truly understanding: one is strategic and one is visual. The strategic side includes things like: what is the problem we’re solving with design, why are we solving it, who benefits from the solution, what is the user’s goal, what is the business goal of the client and so on. The visual piece is really concerned with what design aesthetics. With any design project there is much work to be done to understand what types of visual design approaches are appropriate or work for the client or project. There are many great exercises that help to get on the same page as I will start to outline. For both of these pieces, all of my projects start by not only having these conversations, but documenting them and sharing the documentation, research and findings with the client. So now, before we even start the design process we are on the same page about the direction we’re headed in.
How to Design With Your Client
There are a few different methods I use to design with my clients, in a guided and facilitated way. The latter half of that sentence is really important. We must be mindful and give our clients a structured way to be part of the design process.
Collaborative Sketching or “Design Studio”
Design Studio is an exercise where I engage key stakeholders of different roles or backgrounds to take part in a focused and time series of collaborative sketching. For example, we may have a group of anywhere from 3-6 people (anymore than this can become too big/time consuming). Different roles or backgrounds is really key as these different people bring different, unique perspectives to the table. We have a very focused goal such as sketching new ideas for a reorganization of one screen or interface. With a brief introduction of what we’re doing and how the process works, I set a timer and we all sketch as much as we can during that time. Then we break to present and discuss. The timing of the sessions can vary but they are usually around 3-7 minutes each. They go by very fast and in the beginning the goal is to focus on quantity over quality. Through iterations and a series of these timed sketching exercises, the focus naturally shifts to quality from quantity because people in the group borrow good ideas and start to focus on things that are really working. It’s not uncommon that by the end, everyone is sketching similar approaches. This is when you know it’s working.
20 Second Gut Test
The 20 Second Gut Test is an awesome exercise to engage the team on establishing design direction – visual design direction. It’s fun and very quick. This exercise facilitates the group in quickly auditing and ranking different visual design approaches. By the end of it, you should have a very solid understanding of what the group likes, doesn’t like and why – this excels your own design process by leaps and bounds. The 20 Second Gut Test format is very well explained over here at Good Kickoff Meetings.
Design Pattern Review
This is less of an exercise and more of a way to get the group thinking in terms of design patterns, specifically what is industry standard for the space (eCommerce) or the format (mobile). This helps people in the group give better feedback and enables everyone to have better conversations and overall understanding. It also allows everyone to more thoroughly understand the rules before you can break them – i.e. innovate.
The Benefits of Designing With Your Client
If you’re still reading this post, congratulations – you’ve gotten to the best part! There are tremendous benefits to designing with your client and they are very simple but hugely impactful on the success of the project. By using some or all of the methods outlined in this post you will – from the very beginning – build trust with your client. Trust is the key to everything. Only when your client trusts you, can the design process really flourish. Aside from trust, these methods make your client feel like they are part of the design process but in a really facilitated way; it’s a great way to start to get buy-in from you client and if you can do this – you are much less likely to get those design suggestions (in Excel or MS Word) later on in the process. When we design with our clients in this way – everybody gets a chance to have their voices heard and naturally good ideas can get refined in a short amount of time.
Design is not a precious thing that we need to protect, guard and isolate the client from. Many times by tweaking how we do things, we can do better design, in less time and with more teamwork.