Navigating Client Relationships

Lost in Translation – When Communication Between Designer & Client Breaks Down

We’ve all been there. That moment when conversations with a client suddenly become awkward and the collaboration process becomes a “he said, she said” debacle. That moment when something, somehow got lost in translation and the fast-and-easy project, becomes the project from hell with no end in sight.

As a creative professional, I’ve been in this situation a few times and looking back at each of them, I have found that most of the misunderstandings come from those things that were not said, questions that were not asked, and research that was just not thorough enough.

Below are two common scenarios where communication between designer and client often breaks down. This fallout is rarely malicious, it simply stems from fundamental differences between the discipline of design and the discipline of business.

Example 1- Client says: “I like it, but it’s not exactly what we were looking for.”

The client probably sent samples, gave verbal direction, and now they aren’t happy with the result. Both sides are frustrated, and more likely than not, both sides are at fault.

Tips for designers:

Ask the right questions from the start. Sure, you have samples, but did you ask the client what they like about the samples…and more importantly, what they don’t like? Did you nail down the nitty-gritty details about format, placement, and function? If you didn’t, it’s not too late. Pick up the phone.

Don’t make assumptions. Your client won’t always know exactly which details you’ll need to take a project to its conclusion. They aren’t the design expert, YOU are, so act like it. Your clients will respect you for asking questions.

Tips for clients:

Share everything. Design is not just about colors and layouts. A good designer will know that the output needs to influence a person’s psyche. To do this effectively, your agency will need details about your target audience, your product’s value proposition, and your customer’s pain points. Don’t overlook the details, because that’s usually what separates mediocrity from superiority. Context is everything.

Ask for multiple design options. This will be more expensive, but usually well worth the extra cost. It allows your designer to explore multiple creative avenues instead of betting the farm on one option. You’ll get a greater range and clearer picture of what you want.

Check-in with your designer, and allow adequate time for revision rounds. Many clients think that getting to a first draft means that the bulk of the work is done, which is not usually true. Make sure you are involved in the process, give feedback, and allow your designer to adjust where necessary.

Example 2 – Client Says,“I have a simple project for you, and I need it done by Friday, how much will you charge me?”

I’ve heard this line many times. What the client thinks is simple, usually is not. And simple never means that the client’s expectations will be lowered.

Tips for designers:

Spend time getting all the details. Even if you only have two days to get the job done, never skip over proper scoping of the work. You can’t give an accurate estimate of the work, and you certainly can’t commit to the timeline if you don’t ask all the usual questions. It will save you (and your client) time in the long run.

Ask for more time. If the deadline they’ve requested is unrealistic, then say so. Killing yourself to meet an insane timeline will create distorted expectations with your clients. If the client insists on a short timeline, then charge an appropriate overtime or rush fee. Don’t be shy about it.

Tips for clients:

Come prepared. If you know you are asking a lot of your agency or designer, come to the table prepared with a creative brief, all the technical specs, and a budget. This will save time so that the agency can launch right into the work.

Be flexible & ask for ideas. If you are in a bind, and need a creative solution like yesterday, then don’t be afraid to ask your agency for ideas. More likely than not, your designer works across a number of brands and industries. They may have ideas and solutions that can help you achieve your goals in a more timely and/or cost-effective way.

The nature of the business is quite simple, a project needs to get done and many rounds of changes will happen. And I mean many.

Communication throughout the creative process is key. The trouble is, clients and designers don’t always speak the same language. To bridge the gap, both sides need to ask questions, and roles and expectations need to be documented and agreed.

Creativity is a process, so enjoy the journey!

Happy trails!

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