Find Common Verbal Ground

by Sunny Bonnell

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 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 doctor-speak, I craved the company of my pocket dictionary. Finally, I asked, “Doc, is it broken?” He said, “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. 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.”

Here are 4 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
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 know their brand much better than you do. The designer’s typical protocol includes requesting baseline information, gathering assets, conducting consumer and competitive research, interviewing key management or stakeholders, and so on.

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.

3. Communicate Visually, Not Verbally
Miscommunication and misinterpretation are common problems in conversations about design. Think about the words clients use when they tell you what they want: Sexy, bold, sleek, bright, colorful, modern, hip, funky …. But words like these are highly subjective. 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 translates the words in the verbal brief to pictures in the visual brief. 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.”

4. Explain Your Reasons
Business writer Eric McNulty, advises that you have data to back up your decisions 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.”

You talk vectors and DPI. Your clients talk operations and ROI. In communication, it’s the designer’s job to bridge the gap.

Excerpted from HOW January 2011Illustration by Colin Johnson.

Quick Tips
1. Translate verbal to visual. Many design teams create mood boards or other visual reference materials to define a client’s brand, audience and product. Instead of keeping that to yourself, share it with the client to create a common touch point for developing design solutions.

2. Own your ignorance. Leaving a client meeting confused or muddied by language or business concepts is pointless. Admit your ignorance. Ask pointed questions. Be curious. Get the information you need.

3. Listen in two ways. Pay attention not only to what the client is telling you, but how she’s expressing it. What language does she use? Listen for key phrases, and then use that language when you’re explaining your design solution. What’s the mood? Does the client get excited discussing a business challenge, or is he concerned? Take these emotional cues into consideration when you’re communicating.

Dig Deeper!
1. Business writer Eric McNulty is a great resource for smart thinking on management, branding and innovation. Find an archive of his older writing for the Harvard Business Review, or check out his website, Richer Earth.

2. Listen to Joe Duffy talk about branding, and how designers can work effectively with clients on branding projects in his MasterClass presentation.

4 thoughts on “Find Common Verbal Ground

  1. anne rush

    sunny, great, great , greatest article on this issue. i am often trying to educate my team on how to speak to our business partners. I also wish our business partners would remember to use the same perspective when addresses my creative team. Sell through, BOM, and other business-speak signal nap time for us too!
    best, anne rush

  2. Rachna Gill

    Sunny, This is a great article and you really address the most common communication problems that I have had in the past and still do, from time to time, with my clients. I like the simplicity and clarity of the article. Thank you!

  3. Sunny Bonnell


    Thank you for your comments! The art of communication is so important, particularly in this field. It can really wreck or save a project depending on how you handle the situations as they arise. I’m happy you were able to find some help by reading the article.