Mastering the Art of Client-Designer Relationships


Working with clients can be a delicate balance. Our clients know their product better than anyone, but they need us to help visually communicate their brand. Just because they hire us designers to drive them towards an end goal, it doesn’t mean they should sit in the back seat and enjoy the ride.

In my opinion, our best work is produced when our clients participate and collaborate with us throughout the entire process. Working “with” is always more enjoyable than working “for,” don’t you think?

So how can a non-designer collaborate with a designer? An all star client-designer relationship starts at the very beginning, even before we sign the contract.

Get to know who you are working with.
Before you sign a dotted line, learn as much about your prospective client as you can. Who have they worked with in the past? If anyone, why are they no longer working with that firm and what made them choose you next? Ask for references. Ask if they give timely feedback, ask if they are collaborative, ask if their are respectful, even ask if they pay on time.

Interview the client as they interview you.
After you’ve done a little background research on your own, interview the prospective client. What type of relationship are they looking to have with you as their designer? Is the communication on-par from the first meeting? Are they looking for a collaborative process? Are you on the same page (or even planet) regarding the budget? Does their goal make sense to you? Can you help this client? Do you really want to work with this client for reasons other than the paycheck?

Knowing the answers to these questions early on can help to determine whether you’re truly a good fit for each other or not. Remember: you’re choosing your client as much as they’re choosing you. Don’t be afraid to politely turn someone away if you don’t feel that your work styles will match up.

Note: If it doesn’t end up working out, make sure that any potential clients walk away with some value. At Image Conscious Studios we always try to point people in the right direction, even if it means towards another firm or designer that might be better suited for them.

Once a client is taken on, get them settled in.

Start the on-boarding process and determine communication habits.
Have a kick-off meeting so the client can meet everyone he or she will be working with. Go over each team member’s role and indicate point persons your client can turn to for communication.

Once physically introduced, educate them on your “workflow.” Let them know how and when to communicate with you whether it’s by phone, email or your management system. Set the tone early here: most clients are looking to us for how this process will work. At Image Conscious Studios, we like to use Basecamp for regular check in’s and Google Hangouts for weekly progress updates.

Set realistic expectations (and limits).
Start planning the project, together. Make lists of primary, secondary and even tertiary goals based on the client’s needs and budget, and your resources and time. Establishing what your client wants to achieve and what you will and will not be doing avoids false promises and shattered dreams.

Determine a schedule
With the goals established, set milestones and stick with them. Keep your ego in check, and always allow for some extra time to deal with unforeseen changes or difficulties – they almost always arise. Most importantly, recognize when the schedule is adjusted internally, whether you’re ahead or behind, and be upfront with the client. Many conflicts can be avoided by simply letting your clients know when things are going off-track. After all, most clients are reasonable people who understand that sometimes, stuff happens.

Don’t over promise and under deliver. Always Under promise and over deliver. Keep the client happy. Happy, but in check.

And lastly, as you’re off working on your own, make sure the client isn’t just sitting around waiting with a blindfold on.

Give your client their own homework.
While you’re working on your end, give your client their own deadlines. Make sure they know that this is a collaborative process, and that they have to do some work as well. In most of our projects clients will often underestimate how hard it is to develop or gather content for their site. Even if you have agreed to take on the copywriting, ask the client to participate in gathering of preliminary notes, photos, documents…any of the necessary items you need.

By giving your client homework like deliverables and deadlines for feedback, they gain an understanding for the hard work it takes to do what you are doing, and allows them to be an active participant in the overall outcome of their project. Giving them that kind of ownership and involvement is key to fostering a strong, healthy relationship, and makes your client to feel more vested in the process.

Like Leslie Bradshaw said during the Fast, Cheap, or Great panel at FutureM, another great way to foster a positive ongoing client relationship is to work side by side. While your client will not really be designing or developing with you, involve them in ways they can contribute, regardless of their skill level.

Include them in the brainstorming. Make sure their voice is being heard and that you are delivering on their idea. Remember: you’re not designing for you, you’re designing for them (well, for their audience and target market). While we — as designers — may know the best solutions for a client’s business problems, we can’t design in a vacuum.

Ask for feedback. Be sure to ask for their input during key project milestones. Show them that you value their ideas as much as they value your expertise and hard work. Sometimes, a client may not particularly like — or understand — why we’re proposing the solution we are. Working closely together throughout the project makes it easier to get our client on board with our design solutions.

We’ve learned much of this information through trial-and-error. With plenty of errors along the way. Always remember, your clients are on the same team as you. You’re both looking to create fantastic creative work, and the more you can foster a collaborative, team-based atmosphere, the more likely you are to build a healthy, long-term relationship that will be mutually beneficial for years to come.

What are some ideas that you have that have helped you maintain a great client / designer relationship? As we said, we always like to collaborate, so please share your thoughts via the comment chain!