Share Your Vocabulary

by Ian Dapot

Many designers are determined to avoid the perception of “educating” their clients, but introducing your clients to some specific vocabulary and learning a little bit of theirs can help make client interactions more productive.

It is probably unreasonable, and a little bit unwise, to expect your clients to become familiar with the nuances of design language. However clients often want to feel like they had some part in creating or managing creative work that reflects on their company and professional reputation. Depending on your clients role within their organization they may not have familiarity in working with designers and might be challenged to understand how you will work together, or how to provide you with meaningful feedback.

The language we use to explain our work often reflects the attributes to which we assign the most importance. Giving your clients a consistent indication of where to focus their attention will help them give more useful comments and keep the project on track. That language is less likely to be specific technical terms and more likely to reflect issues at the principle level of design.

For example words like hierarchy, clarity, emphasis, understanding, and appropriateness all reflect the aim of the work, not the means of execution and all fall with a reasonable expectation for communication between two people from different fields. Leading your clients in a discussion with questions based on those kinds principles, and what if anything they might change about the present arrangement avoids frustrating breaks in communication that become mired in vague or emotional language when an appropriate technical term is missing.

It is also a good idea to try to elicit the same kind of direction from your client as well, and to pay attention to the differences in language they place importance on. For example your clients objectives may have more to do with issues like cost (surprise), reception within their organization, differentiation from competitors or similar products, and how they will manage any assets you create after the project is over, than they do with formal considerations. While you may be particularly interested in exploring typography, color, navigation, animation, or your intuition, explaining your decisions based on your clients preferred vocabulary both keeps your creativity focused on the right explorations and helps your client see that you have their desires in mind.

Try to elicit direction from your clients by paying attention to the differences in language that they place importance on.

Quick Tips
Survey says: If you experience an particularly challenging communication gap with a client it may help to put in a little extra effort to normalize their comments. For example you can design a feedback form to specifically address particular issues with the design or project at the principle level. Since surveys are a familiar way of collecting input from customers in non-design settings most people will not think twice about filing one out. Feedback forms also have the added benefit of providing a written record of your clients’ response.


Be inclusive: It may also help to direct some of their energy into exercises that benefit your creative process at the outset. If you conduct visual research for a project, have them help sort the images that you have preselected and introduce them to your vocabulary by explaining why you chose any given example.

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