Clients and Designers Can Find Common Ground

Ashley Carroll

May 7, 2019

I was at a game night a few weeks ago and a new acquaintance (a brilliant engineer) asked, “What do you do?” Of course, I wanted to talk about the world of advertising. But my audience was a room full of engineers—people who understand what makes good design as much as I understand all those lines of code.

As a designer, it’s essential that I understand my audience. And because I traffic in art and ideas in the service of my client, the client always has been and always will be my first audience. The problem is that sometimes clients can feel like that room of engineers—obviously brilliant, but lacking a background in design and sometimes feeling a world apart. So, how do I effectively communicate advertising concepts to clients? The same way I communicate them to consumers—by doing more to understand my audience.

The ideal creative project is a myth

Imagine the following scenario: the client comes in with a singular clear-cut problem and allows absolute creative freedom. The creative process couldn’t have gone better and the project looks great, makes functional sense, and brilliantly solves the business problem. The client loves everything. They approve every round of work, complimenting everything along the way. But in the business world (i.e., the real world) the likelihood of one clear cut problem is…unlikely. And that’s too much trust to place on one side of the partnership anyway. Successful creative solutions are always successful partnerships between the client and the designer. The ideal design process involves both the client and designer working together to find the best way to communicate the big picture.

The client-designer partnership puzzle

In my experience, it’s best to think of the design process like a puzzle—the designer holds half the pieces and the client holds the other half. As a designer, it’s my job is to understand the client’s business so that I can understand where the consumer’s pain points might be. I might never understand the business on the same level as the client, but knowing some of what they know and who they are trying to reach are key components to the puzzle that every creative must have. Understanding a client’s background and listening to the client’s needs offers important context to the creative solution. It’s an enormous part of the initial research.

Know your audience and identify the problem

Together, the client and designer should really dig into the details of the problem and work to create a creative brief—a document of mutual understanding and an outline of the big picture. Another important part of the design puzzle is understanding any constraints the client might have. Because here’s a secret: designers thrive on boundaries. These guidelines could be as simple as staying within a particular look, within a specific budget, or a specific set of technologies. But rules and guidelines help both client and designer to navigate through the timeline of the project and keep everyone on the same page. Once the project begins, the designer can work within the guidelines to solve problems more creatively and effectively.

Provide critical feedback

Once the initial design is done, it’s the client’s job to provide critical feedback. This should be more than just a cursory opinion of color. Critical feedback means evaluating the creative direction to see that it solves the problem in the creative brief, stays within the parameters of the project, and matches the conversations between client and designer. Good designers excel at creative feedback—the work is always in line and shape, mood and tone, and the sum of those things: visual direction. Clients shouldn’t be afraid to ask why a designer solved a problem a certain way. And like all good relationships, the creative-client relationship involves sharing information and ideas. Providing critical feedback helps create positive discussions about what is working and what isn’t. Though they may sometimes seem worlds apart, the designer-client relationship is an essential part of crafting great ideas. And when both parties come together to speak the same big-picture language, audiences (including the client) get better advertising results.