Last night I went to an AIGA meeting featuring a panel of design industry leaders in Los Angeles. The panel’s focus was on the future of design in 2012 and how it might be
changing with new technologies, social media and other dramatic cultural shifts such as the loss of Steve Jobs.
A theme that emerged was on the nature of the designer/client relationship as panelists talked about their own firms and how they interact with their clients. It supported and informed something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, which is how to transform
this relationship into something that lets us, as designers, truly help our clients to solve problems.
The relationship a client has with your design team is possibly the key factor in the type and quality of the work that emerges. There are three types of relationships I’ve noticed over the years that I’ll name “boss/worker”, “friends”, and “partners.”
The boss/worker situation is when the client knows exactly what they want from the design and provides specific, detailed direction to the designer. “We need a brochure for the conference that needs to look exactly like this.” Direction will include details
such as the specific placement of content elements in relation to each other, colors to use, relative sizes of elements, etc. Essentially, the client is designing the piece and the designer is simply executing the client’s vision.
In a friends relationship the client understands their brand, and has specific goals in mind they want to achieve, such as “create a brochure to hand out at the conference.” In this case direction will be more hands-off. The client will want to be sure the
brand is maintained, may provide complete copy and images, but overall wants the designer to use their professional judgment as to how to arrange the various elements, relative sizes, colors, etc.
In a partners relationship, something very different starts to happen. Here, the client and designer discuss the larger context and history of the organization and its communications (sometimes across multiple media), business and marketing goals, and personal
goals of stakeholders. Specific problems are identified, such as “we need to attract attention to our product at the conference.” Priorities are established, such as “It’s more important that people remember our name than that they understand every detail
of what we do.” Here the designer and client work closely together to identify design solutions to the problem. In our conference example the solution may end up being a brochure, or it may end up being something far more creative that truly does attract significant
attention to the product at the conference and make the client’s name extremely memorable.
Working together as partners is clearly where real problem solving in design can start to happen. To achieve this relationship both sides must practice truthfulness, transparency, and teaching.
I believe in the power of partnership and of open, two-way communications. When I work on projects with clients where there’s a true partnership relationship we accomplish truly great work, and it’s work that
works … it solves problems, it helps goals become a reality, and ultimately it helps us and our clients to grow together.
In 2002, Marcy launched WireMedia to provide strategic communications to organizations that work to improve lives, communities, and environments. Marcy’s expertise is in communications strategies, creative concepts, and technical solutions. With a strong
background in both design and technology, her deep set of skills includes online campaign strategy and concepts, website creative and technical planning, ad campaign strategy and concepts, and brand strategy and development. Over the past decade, work under
her creative direction has won numerous Pollie Awards from the American Association of Political Consultants. And a logo design under her creative direction was selected to appear in the 2011 Typography Annual from Communications Arts magazine. Marcy designed
the course syllabus and taught website design & technology courses for over seven years at Parsons School of Design and at the New School Online University. An active member of the National Association of Women Business Owners – Los Angeles, she currently
serves on the communications and education committees. Marcy holds a Master of Fine Arts in design and technology from Parsons The New School for Design and a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives in Los
Angeles, CA and enjoys practicing taekwondo, painting, and wine tasting.
I was also interested in the idea of irreconcilable differences and how two extremes could be combined into a coherent whole. As an example, I looked for the most beautiful typeface in the history of typography—as well as the ugliest one—and for a way to meld them.
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There are three general types or client/designer relationships: boss/worker, friends and partners. All three types have their place, but only one of them offers the potential for truly great design to emerge.
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