There’s so much more to working with clients than getting a brief and giving the work back in return.
The strongest client-designer relationships require interpersonal skills you need in just about any other relationship: building trust, setting boundaries, allowing for flexibility, and, when a conflict arises, working together to get to the heart of the issue.
It’s okay for the design process to be a little messy. But why not add a little structure to the creative chaos? Instituting these best practices will help you establish a smooth process both you and the client can be happy with.
1. Be honest
This is true for all relationships, personal and professional. Right from the get-go, it’s important that both yourself and your clients can be upfront about project expectations.
It is never enjoyable to hear, but great clients are also honest when something isn’t working. This kind of direct, honest feedback can save hours of unnecessary back and forth. We need to guide clients to this level of transparency and trust. Sometimes, wishy-washy feedback comes from a misunderstanding about when specific elements of a project are worked on.
Before starting a project, take a client through your working process so they know what to expect and at what phase to expect it.
If the project is stuck in a feedback loop, ask your client to be specific and transparent about their concerns.
2. Get to the heart of the problem
To find the right design solution, you—and the client—have to understand what you’re actually solving for. What are their business goals? Which part of their business is not performing how they’d like? What do they want to change, and why?
Determining the “why” will lead you towards solving the “how.” It also helps you redirect any ideas on the table, yours or the clients, towards a design that definitely answers the brief.
Ultimately, when a client comes to you with a problem and doesn’t have all the answers, that shows trust. Trust that your skills and talent will help them reach the right solution.
If a client is only coming to you with unworkable or out of scope solutions, ask questions about what success looks for them - try get to the root of the problem.
If a client finds it hard to express what success looks like, ask them to provide examples from other businesses which they admire and gravitate towards.
3. Establish boundaries
No joke, there are entire books on boundaries in client-partner relationships. Chances are if you have honest and transparent clients, they will naturally build boundaries into the project brief and around their expectations. The best time to agree on boundaries is at the start of a project.
Good boundaries also mean everyone knows their role. It leaves space for collaboration without stepping on toes or micro-managing every little thing. We’re looking at you “final.FINAL.draft.WIP.version1.jpg”.
It is not uncommon to let clients know you have only accommodated for a set amount of revisions - after that the scope of the project may need to be revised.
Let your clients know your working hours, and if a deadline is approaching, a good client will appreciate the nudge to promptly reply with feedback so that deadlines can be met.
4. Be flexible
You always want to do your best by your clients, and clients always want the best. But there’s a reason we call them “best practices” and not “best mandatories”. It’s important to build a little flexibility into the process, all projects evolve over time (within reason - see Boundaries above). Adjusting expectations for the final product, and adapting to feedback isn’t a sign of conceding or compromising, that’s true collaboration. That goes for both sides of the relationship.
Clients won’t always know the latest trends or have your keen eye for design. But if the client loves something, even if it’s not to your personal taste, try to meet them halfway with an option.
If you strongly feel your recommendation is the most appropriate, provide a breakdown of pros and cons for each option on the table without bias.
5. Trust your expertise
Relationships go both ways. It’s not always on the client to make sure you’ve got a healthy working relationship. Only you can choose to bring your talent, your expertise, and a collaborative attitude to each project you’re a part of. Own the work.
Check in with yourself at the start of the workday and before replying to emails, perhaps something outside of the project is affecting how you feel.
Be authentically you.