The Empathic Designer: 5 Tips for Better Collaborative Relationships

Design success is as often as much the result of the quality of the relationships formed with clients, as it is the quality of the design. Design is collaborative work and requires that both designer and client pull together. Clients hire designers to help them solve business problems; designers push clients to communicate their unique value in fresh and unexpected ways. The resulting tension can actually push development of ideas that are balanced and that consider multiple sides of a problem. Gaute Godage, founder of the world’s leading independent computer game developer, Funcom, notes that managing this tension can only be achieved through trust.

Interpersonal skills play a big part in developing trusting, creative relationships. Through interviews I conducted with leaders in the design community, five key client relationship skills emerged. Humility, listening, questioning and transparency form a foundation for an open and honest communication between designer and client.


Here are 5 Tips for Better Collaborative Design Relationships.

  1. Humility: Open communication cannot occur when egos are competing. For designers it is easy to get frustrated when clients don’t listen or do not accept recommendations. But the quickest way to kill a relationship is to become defensive. The ability to control emotions at critical times, and maintain a level of detachment is critical for managing productive client/designer relationships.
  2. Listening: Clients want to hear your ideas, but they also want you to listen. When relationships go sour often times its not the work, but the feeling that the client was not being heard. Although hearing is part of our everyday experience, active listening is a skill that must be learned. Active listening techniques include restating back ideas the client has suggested to reinforce the idea that you understand; being aware of body language that might communicate disinterest; focusing on the content of the conversation; prompting for details to better understand the clients point; and finally suspending judgment as to not cut off communication. A client that feels listened to is more forgiving during rough patches and will feel more comfortable providing information to the designer.
  3. Questioning: The flip side of listening is questioning. Being able to ask meaningful and relevant questions not only prompts the client to provide more information, but also positions the designer in a lead role, not just a passive tactical role. The “Five whys”, simply asking “why” five times on any given point of conversation, is a simple technique that allows designers to dig down into the underlying motivations that are driving the client.
  4. Feedback: The ability to give positive and negative feedback is a key factor in creating trusting relationships. Whereas positive feedback is easy to give, negative feedback can cause anxiety. When delivering feedback experts recommend that it is delivered in a timely manner, is to the point, is not sugar coated, is conducted in a face-to-face setting, and that the conversation should end on a positive note.
  5. Transparency: Trust is achieved through understanding. By providing clients a transparent process in which they understand what is going top happen, when it will happen and what their roles and expectations are, designers take a step toward building strong relationships. Creative briefs, schedules, process charts and a charter that outlines the parameters of the working relationship all provide clients and designers a common understanding for moving forward, and can help mitigate misunderstandings.


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