Common Ground: 5 Tips for Communicating with Clients

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in HOW Magazine. Check out the latest issues in MyDesignShop or subscribe.

Vector files. ROI. Huh? Designers and clients come to collaborations speaking different languages. Here are 5 tips for communicating with clients so projects run smoothly.

by Sunny Bonnell

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ILLUSTRATION BY COLIN JOHNSON www.colinjohnsonillustration.com

Recently, I made a trip to my veterinarian because my dog was favoring his back leg. When the vet came in to discuss the X-rays, he prattled on about tibias, fibulas, tendons and a host of other anatomical terms I couldn’t possibly reiterate. Forty-five seconds in, I began to glaze over. After five minutes of his doctorspeak, I craved the company of my pocket dictionary.

Finally, I just asked, “Doc, is it broken?” To which he replied, “Yes.” All that mumbo-jumbo for what should have been an easier conversation: “The leg is broken. We’ll make a cast. It will heal in six weeks. The cost is $400.” Simple. This got me thinking: How often do clients experience this frustration when communicating with designers?

Most clients don’t have a deep understanding of design; that’s why they hire us. From the seasoned creative professional to the newbie freelancer, communicating effectively with clients is a critical component of being or becoming a great designer. Whether you’re working with a rookie client or someone who’s been in a few rodeos, there will be times when you don’t share a common vernacular. This can lead to simple misunderstandings—or worse, a damaged relationship.

Each client is different and requires an individual approach to communication. Joe Duffy, founder and creative director of Duffy & Partners in Minneapolis says, “We have clients who are bold, brash and opinionated, while others are meek, mild and couldn’t be nicer—and everything in between. The best designers learn to communicate in that particular person’s language.”

As you learn the art of communicating with clients, you’ll develop a sense of how best to connect with each individual, and you’ll adjust your style and language accordingly. Here are five tips that will help you improve your communication for a higher level of interaction, more successful design solutions and much happier clients.

1. UNDERSTAND THEIR BUSINESS

For many designers, learning about the client’s business and why it’s different and better than those they compete with is a challenge. But that should be priority No. 1. Clients hire designers with the intellectual wherewithal to understand their business as a way of ensuring that the solutions are tied to strategies and goals. While clients might not be designers, they obviously know their brand much better than you do. Understanding the client’s business is key to a solid designer/client relationship. Typical protocol includes requesting baseline information, gathering assets, conducting consumer and competitive research, interviewing key management or stakeholders, observation and so on.

Ashleigh Hansberger, my business partner at Motto, our Myrtle Beach, SC-based brand strategy and design firm, recalls a recent project where understanding the client’s business was a particular challenge: “We were hired by a quantitative trading firm on Wall Street to develop a college recruitment campaign. In the initial calls, the client was using industry-specific terminology that was natural to them, but unfamiliar to us.”

With the campaign on a tight deadline, the Motto team quickly scoured trade journals and blogs, and interviewed the company’s staff to sharpen their understanding of the world of financial trading. “In order for us to get on the same page and build credibility for an effective solution, we had to walk on Wall Street and immerse ourselves in the discourse,” Hansberger says.

As a result, we streamlined client communication and developed a campaign strategy and design solution that delivered high-level messages that resonated with the client’s audience.

2. NIX DESIGN-SPEAK

In school, designers spend years in critique, honing both their craft and their ability to talk about design with other designers. It’s wrong to expect that clients understand that specialized language. “Designers do the design business a disservice by making it sound mysterious or complicated,” Duffy says.

It frustrates clients when designers speak in terms and phrases they don’t understand, resulting in miscommunication and failed solutions. Using design-speak equals bad communication, and bad communicators are inherently bad designers. Breaking down technical jargon can be equally frustrating for designers. It’s not that easy to explain what a vector file is. File formats are becoming more complicated, and the programs used for design are becoming less similar to those used in a business environment, so they come with their own lingo. Explaining all the different file formats can be overwhelming for a client, especially when designers start using terms like “pixelbased” and “line art.”

“The trick is to meet people where they’re comfortable, while still maintaining your expert status,” says Jennifer Visocky O’Grady, owner of Enspace Design in Cleveland.  Additionally, listen to the client to pick up on their vocabulary and use it whenever you can. Using the client’s jargon can help reassure them your reasons for making certain design decisions are based on your understanding of their business. It will show that you’re not just designing solutions that have aesthetic value, but ones that make business sense, as well.


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3. COMMUNICATE VISUALLY, NOT VERBALLY

Both miscommunication and misinterpretation are common problems in conversations about design. Think about all the words that clients use when they tell you what they want: Sexy, bold, sleek, bright, colorful, modern, hip, funky, simple and so on. But words like these are highly subjective; they can be interpreted any number of ways depending on who says them and who hears them.

The Duffy & Partners team averts confusion by translating those words into pictures when they begin a project. “Once we are given an assignment, we are given a verbal brief by the client. What we always do on every project is work to visualize that brief,” Duffy says. “We compose a collage that in effect translates the words in the verbal brief to pictures in the visual brief. The great thing about this is we then have a filter with which we make design decisions and the client has a clear indication of where we intend to go through the design direction.”

The point of providing visuals up front is to help eliminate the element of surprise—which is typically the kiss of death when it comes to presenting your design ideas. And it helps your clients, many of whom are left-brain thinkers, envision what the final solution will look like. “Most clients struggle with seeing the project all the way through, which is often a designer’s gift,” Hansberger says. “Make it easier for your clients to see the end result by presenting work on a tangible level. Instead of explaining to our client that we intend to use a richly textured paper such as Strathmore Grandee for their stationery system, we show them an actual sample so they can feel the tactile richness instead of imagining it.”

4. EXPLAIN YOUR REASONS

As you offer your expertise throughout the process, it’s important that you also explain to the client why you’re giving that advice. Clients will often direct you to do something that you don’t think is a good idea. Rather than either doing it the way they want or doing it your way with no explanation, take the time to demonstrate to them why your recommendation is important and how either solution may affect the project’s success.

Designers sometimes default to explaining their choices subjectively, which can lead to an exchange of diverging or opposite views.

For example, instead of saying this: “We chose PMS 7543 because customers respond affirmatively to shades in the cool spectrum,” say this: “This gray blue conveys stability and reliability and will help your customers feel confident in your brand.”

Eric McNulty, a widely published business writer (Harvard Business Review, Boston Business Journal and online at RicherEarth.com), advises that you have data to back up statements like these and use such conversations as teachable moments. “Clients are used to having to justify their actions with evidence,” he says. “So, try adding a statement like, ‘A study from the Color Institute shows that female tweens gravitate toward orange but don’t embrace red. Would you like a copy of the article that talked about it?’ It’s a great way to justify, inform and educate.”

5. ASK QUESTIONS

Many clients won’t provide detailed information about their business or their customers unless you ask, simply because they may assume you don’t need to fully understand their business to provide creative solutions.

Clients who don’t understand what’s involved in creating a successful solution may think that a skilled designer can pick up a new project and create something special without really taking the client’s specific situation into consideration. In these cases, be proactive and ask questions.

Then listen to what the client tells you—and how. “Part of being a good creative partner is learning to listen as well as you speak,” Visocky O’Grady says. “When we meet with our clients, we have our ears (and eyes) open for more than just the details of their current project. We’re also listening for levels of formality in their language, phrases or ideas that they’re genuinely excited about, interests (perhaps personal) outside of the immediate assignment—heck, even body language and clothing choices can provide insight.”

Don’t be afraid to ask a client questions to clarify things you may not understand. “Leaving a meeting with confusion because we were too bashful to clarify is counterproductive,” Visocky O’Grady says. “We want to create an atmosphere where asking questions is an encouraged part of the dynamic.”

Your clients are busy, so they may be rushed when you’re prodding them for information. But don’t let that discourage you from getting what you need in order to do a great job.

Sunny Bonnell is co-founder and creative director at Motto, a brand strategy and design firm that works with innovative and inspiring companies to help launch, grow and reinvent their brands.


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