The secret to better client-designer relationships? Treat them like a date

Hizam Haron manages the brand integrity for a Fortune 15 healthcare company, creating and tending to the visual language.

Managing good client-designer relationships is a lot like dating. But being a good date—or turning a potentially bad relationship into a decent one—depends on more than just chemistry. Since I went in-house, most of my clients are internal, too, and they interact with me daily. This means I go on a lot more dates now and, given our proximity, I need them all to end well. I have to manage client expectations and stay true to my creative side.

Before I went in-house I had my own studio. For one job we were asked to propose on signage for XYZ Convention Center, but XYZ didn’t have a clear scope or budget in mind. We saw a large opportunity, so we set out to create a proposal that would help them choose among options and prices. We included artist sketches, designed the presentation format and spent a few thousand dollars printing the proposal. When we presented it to the client, he flipped right to the prices and said, “That’s too many zeros.” Since we had actually bid low, we didn’t get the job.

This was a bad date. There wasn’t enough conversation first or an agreement about where we were going, who would pay, what it would take to make the date better, and so on.

A good date means understanding the client’s world. I used to ask clients to brief me in full before I got to work. Replacing a common process with a brief sets us up for failure because it misses what your client (and, by extension, you) are up against. Picture designer and client dating in a high school cafeteria. You may agree to get ice cream after school, but who else is watching? What are your friends thinking? Who else has ideas? Who might see advantages to sabotaging your relationship? In other words, while your client contact may try their very best to develop a full brief, there are politics to consider. Creating a written, shared process reminds us that the effort is a relationship, not a mandate. You will be much more successful if you listen, educate and convince as you go, rather than just designing.

A good date occurs in the context of of a relationship that not only makes the creative process comprehensible, it also defines when and where there will be feedback, conversations, or opportunities to educate, listen and sign off. Working in-house, I create brand review process workflows. Borrowing the visual cue from the engineering world, each workflow clearly shows what will happen, who submits to whom and when, possible outcomes, loop-backs and pauses as well as forward movements. But more importantly, workflows allow me to own a process that leads to good design.

Being empathetic is always part of a good date. The notion that “the client has no idea what good design is” isn’t helpful. Sometimes it isn’t true: the client simply has other priorities. Other times the client doesn’t know design, but the client knows other things that will get a successful design in front of its intended audience. I try to ask the right questions to understand where clients are coming from as well as the challenges they face, because if they’re successful, I’ll be successful. These are questions like “Why now, and not six months ago?” or “Who isn’t in agreement?” or “How will success be measured?” or “Have other design initiatives failed, and if so, why?”

Another good date practice is to explain things in ways that the client can relate to and repeat to their colleagues. I like to explain what a brand is in metaphor: female or male, young or old, energetic or smart, how they’re dressed, who their friends are, and so on. I’ve also explained brand visuals as a wardrobe: there are your formal clothes, your casual wear, your accessories, outfits for special occasions and so on. A relatable metaphor goes a long way.

Finally, don’t give up. Not every bad date wrecks the relationship. A year after my studio’s failed XYZ proposal, the company’s corporate group critiqued their signage system. The director pulled our proposal off the shelf (probably in desperation) and we were immediately hired for a branding project that was twice as lucrative as our original proposal. The second time around, we started by putting together a common process and spoke the same language—and we succeeded.