The Resistance: Designers and Clients Go Head-to-Head

As no military plan survives contact with the enemy, no design concept survives contact with the client. Both situations feature laboriously (if not lovingly) crafted plans blown away by reality. The endgames differ in that designers define victory as gaining that initial approval.

Ideally, the design proposal would emerge unscathed. As if. Amongst themselves, designers acknowledge the possibility of having to deviate. But capability statements prominently tout variants on the term “strategy.” Designers may cite adaptability in their skill set. However, having to exercise the ability isn't popular. It's bad enough when it's just due to stuff happening, like technical glitches. But to change course due to someone's uninformed opinion can be galling.

The favored client is one that gets out of the way. Otherwise, for designers (and generals), resistance is to be overcome. Minimally, it's an irritant. The role of opposition obviously isn't well regarded. However, it's one that bears reappraisal. Clients generally do need to be more sophisticated. But the reasons and results aren't what one might assume. And while strategy is vital, flexibility needs to move up in the hierarchy. The ability to change course effectively should be valued just the same as charting a course, then following it unwaveringly.

Good work is usually thought to occur despite, not because of client involvement. In most descriptions of designer activity, the client quickly disappears after demonstrating the good taste of selecting the designer. If they reappear during the process, it's usually to impede the designer by offering an opinion that interrupts the smooth execution of the strategy. Preferably, they only reenter in the last act to embrace the solution with near-orgasmic glee or congenial admiration for a new-found peer.

This narrative is most prevalent at the elite levels of design. Notoriety in the field arguably comes from a designer's ability to regularly avoid concession—or have it be negligible. Such purity is rare. But given the choice, designers would overwhelmingly opt for an unfettered practice.

The necessity to compromise, to adapt to circumstances, makes design difficult to practice. This is especially true if practitioners doctrinally follow particular formal and/or conceptual approaches. To avoid concession, designers attempt to “educate” clients out of obstructionism. This amounts to launching a PR campaign for old tactics rather than actually changing them.

Though compromise is a fact of life, it's a troublesome topic in our individualistic culture. Graphic design's stature as art to its practitioners (however strident claims to the contrary may be), and the popular view of art as “self-expression,” makes compromise akin to selling out. What else could explain the popularity of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead amongst designers? It ain't the prose style.

Designers do make a strong case that their way is best, as they dedicate their time and livelihoods to mastering visual rhetoric. Even if designers merely manipulate graphic grammar, they're the most adept at it. Educated clients should realize this and give designers latitude.

Design eagerly anticipates the emergence of these patrons and the nirvana to follow. However, the educated client may not be the savior designers presume. Their appearance will signal not the start but the end of a golden age.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, designers—especially at the elite level—largely have their way. Clients regularly concede points and power. They're susceptible to personality and patter. Legendary designer/client relationships, such as Paul Rand and IBM, set a bad precedent. They distorted the roles and raised unrealistic expectations.

A new, sophisticated client will ask informed questions and expect substantive responses. Those answers may not be forthcoming. Designers have limited experience facing a worthy opponent. So far, clients have failed to mount a substantive challenge to designers' spiel.

If design is (as often claimed) gaining stature, challenge may come soon and often. Will designers be prepared? Practice might be gained from some in-house resistance in the form of criticism. Unfortunately, it's been marginalized, driven underground. (It's design's version of “Don't ask, don't tell.”)

Design's lack of notoriety and respect as a substantive cultural activity (such as journalism or architecture, to name two) is due in part to the lack of productive resistance. Identity is significantly shaped by the quality of one's opponents. They can serve as a hone. That sparks fly isn't always an indicator of trouble.

The state of design cannot be attributed to designer or client alone. It's a dynamic that may be adversarial and advantageous. Clients need to be given their props as contributors to good design.

The way to produce the sophisticated adversary is an open question. Designers may have little or no influence. But they can modify their attitudes and behaviors. Too often, client input is regarded as a de facto detriment, irrespective of content. And freewheeling, personal aesthetic achievement is regarded as design's highest prize. True collaboration and accommodation, not simply its rhetoric, should be the goal. The result will be a process that can truly be called the good fight.