Clients Who Play Designer: End the Frustration

Have you ever worked with a client who decided they were the better designer and decided to direct the design process? Of course you have, we all have! That’s why we say the client is playing designer. Somewhere along the line when you’re handling a clients project some dynamic changes and suddenly you have no more control than a monkey in a cage. You are at the whim of the client and his 3rd grade drawing skills.

And the design appeal of the project suddenly spirals downhill like an old Chevy without brakes at the Grand Canyon.

The tipping point
Whenever I find myself in the presence of a client that wants to play designer I reflect on how the situation might have tipped. The client trusted our design sense at some point — likely when they reviewed our portfolio and hired us. The question is: what could be done to always engage their trust in our design sense?

Did I appear to lack confidence?

Was our design off-strategy?

Did the client hate the design?

Did I do a bad job presenting the design?

Were the sun, moon, and up to eight but not nine planets aligned at the moment the client saw the design? (ok so that wasn’t funny)

There is no tipping point
After reflecting on two recent experiences, I think it isn’t any of these things. Instead, I believe it’s a character trait and a social situation. I say social situation because I believe this trend is more likely to happen when your client doesn’t have a central point of contact. Projects got out of hand when your client is multiple people. The reason is that there are multiple personalities and every one of them has design ideas. So when they see a design presented they all feel like they should have something to say. It just creates a mess because the most eloquent person doesn’t always have the best idea. What happens is that as more ideas are thrown into the mix people decide that change is needed.

The presentation
Do you present one design or multiple designs? It’s up to you but I have discovered that if the client only has one design to look at they tend to see the imperfections and make massive changes.

When the client is presented with more than one design they see options. Pick option A or option B. It’s a mindset and something to think about when dealing with clients. A workaround is to design one layout concept with several variations. Sometimes this works just as well (depends entirely on the design).

A single design concept or multiple concepts?
I’m still on the fence about this issue. Presenting just a single design shows the customer that you’re the expert and THIS is going to be the solution (or something like it). It allows you to focus all of your available time on a single solution so the theory is it will be better than if you made two designs. This however creates a problem because it doesn’t give the customer a choice. If they don’t like your layout they might not be able to communicate to you what exactly they don’t like about it. So they just nit pick and suggest changes one at a time until you’ve molded it into something they like. We like to call this the person who doesn’t know what they want until they see it.

Reduce the risk of infection: Stay in control

  1. Present multiple design concepts. It helps the client make a choice, not think about what’s wrong.
  2. Suggest to the client that they choose a single decisionmaker. You need to suggest early on in the relationship that the client choose a main person responsible for design decisions. Discussion and ideas are fine, however one single person needs to be responsible for approving them.
  3. Be an authority. Act like you’re an expert because you are. Believe it. Have great enthusiasm for your design and show it when you present.
  4. Create a CD of pumped up music and listen to it on the way to your meeting. On my CD I have songs like We Will Rock You, Another One Bites The Dust, and even We Are The Champions. My sales coach made it for me years ago and I play it really loud on the way to meetings.

In closing, I’d like to say that I’ve worked with a handful of clients who play designer in the last few years and at times it can be a good learning experience. It causes you to re-analyze your fees, look at your presentation style, and can even result in some interesting design improvements you might not have expected.

Sometimes the greatest clients can be the difficult ones because they challenge you to go to the next level.

How do you manage clients who want to play designer? Please share.

6 responses to “Clients Who Play Designer: End the Frustration”

  1. I really like tip #4, sounds so obvious but I haven’t tried that yet and do feel that it will work great!

  2. Also,

    I like to tell the client hey… “this is my expert advice, but I will do what you want”

    If they don’t want to go with your ideas, a designer should be ready for that and make the client happy.

    There is no point in “fighting” with a client, let them be a designer, in a way it makes your job easier and the responsibilty falls on them.

  3. Pete – You absolutely must. It’s the bomb and it’s so much fun to play with friends. Totally helps with the nerves. The other technique I’ve heard is if you’re nervious before a meeting scream really loud in your car. It causes your body to release some sort of chemical which calms you.

  4. “It causes your body to release some sort of chemical which calms you.” – I think it might be endorphins.

  5. Funnily enough, none of our clients have been really bad at this – i think because we do offer several options most of the time and definatley listen to their opinions. Sometimes however, working wiht other design companis is a whole other story. It’s almost like the customer has lost so much confidence they feel like they have to take the project on themselves. Because in those situations, we’re not the contact point, the story we tell gets muddled along the ay, leading to dissatisfied customers, dissatisfied us and an out of control project. Nightmare time! 🙂 Point number #3 really rings true for me in those situations

  6. So what kind of music do you listen to on the way to a presentation? I’m always looking for suggestions of music that will get me amped.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.