On clients and confidence

This article was co-written with Jake Jennings for ShellsuitZombie magazine, published in May 2012


One of the most intricate relationships to perfect is that of designer and client. We believe there is a consistent misunderstanding of the design process whether we work alongside large corporates or small one-man operations; dentists or musicians.

Yet this doesn’t mean it’s OK to client-bash. After all design is our speciality, whereas they have a more objective, quantitative and business-led focus. Clients have not been trained to recognise creative ideas without visuals being placed in front of them. Instead their thoughts are focused on execution and style as this is the level of design they are exposed to in everyday life. Is there a need to educate and guide the client through the creative process? Do we need to show them the importance of the many intermediate steps which are integral to our understanding of their business and brand?

Yet is the client really the core problem we face? Instead, we feel that the issue could lie within us, the creatives, and the lack of confidence in ourselves and our industry as a whole. Perhaps we are unsettled due to the recent recession, the increasing number of poorly skilled amateurs that taint our profession, or more likely, the rising levels of competition with a larger number of agencies and people in the creative industry than ever before. Our relationship is ultimately about trust and with the lack of confidence in ourselves as an industry, how can we expect a client to believe in us or the service we offer?

The result of our anxieties? A client’s trust is left incomplete, demanding they look elsewhere for additional security, for example through post-creative market research groups. Having recently been involved in a four-month series of focus groups debating a logo choice, we understand these are an effort for clients to return to their base teachings, to quantify solutions rather than utilising creative expertise and instinct. We let them. Is our lack of challenge a suggestion we do not believe in our own judgements? Surely having deeply immersed ourselves within a brief, identifying the problem(s) and fully understanding the market before prioritising creative, focus groups should not be required as a final confirmation to our efforts. Our solutions become co-ordinated by mass committee, not only removing negative aspects but also the quirky, risky and unique elements too.

Similarly, pitched work highlights that the client doesn’t know who they can trust, before, during or after the creative process. Whilst we feel credentials presentations are important for determining the right collaborative relationships, there are an ever-increasing number of free or creative pitches. Can we say no? The terror that someone else is there waiting for the opportunity should we decline keeps many from doing so. The ever-expanding chain continues. How can we tell a brand’s story when we are failing with our own?

Take the highly respected profession of medicine as an example. Patients work with a doctor to achieve a diagnosis and treatment by describing their symptoms in detail. Patients don’t dictate their cure. Designers should be treated similarly – as experts in the field of communication. Yet this is not the case, perhaps due to a lack of communication about the design process. Presently shrouded in mystery to the outsider, we could make our profession more transparent by explaining our process with the client.

It ultimately comes down to what we know makes designers unique: ideas. Conforming to a current style or trend is not necessarily what makes us special, concepts are. This creative spark is a highly prized skill and one to be commended amongst the ever-expanding ranks. It is what defines British designers on an international scale. We believe in the term ‘idea’ to describe the unique way a proposed design directly relates to a brand and their activities, unlike the current practice for the phrase in frequently documenting and disguising styling.

“Anyone can be a designer, not everyone can be a good one.”

Andy Russell

We need to bestow on our clients the knowledge to make a distinction between amateurs with a copy of Photoshop and designers who have real skill and remarkable creative minds. Whilst the former focus on styling, the latter have the remarkable ability to create concepts that relate to a brand, telling its unique story. By re-establishing what the word ‘idea’ really means, our opinion is that we can eliminate the majority thought that anyone can become a professional designer without previously needing specialist creative training.

Similarly, we feel that we need to regain our own faith in this viewpoint. It is our duty as designers to choose what works best for a client and stand behind these decisions. There are agencies well known for presenting a single idea, confident in their team’s incredible abilities to provide the most effective solution. Compare this to those who approach clients with eight or more solutions. Whilst we can’t force-feed a client, only ‘show [them] the door, [they’re] the one that has to go through it’, we still should be seen as, and believe we are, the expertise that will deliver amazing results and help position the client as number one in their sector.

“Find out what the next thing is that you can push, that you can invent, that you can be ignorant about … because in the end, that’s how you grow.”

Paula Scher

One of the greatest things about our industry is a passion to challenge, to continually create new ideas and break boundaries. Striving for the impossible and refusing to be told what we can’t do. In our experience however, there are many designers who have settled back to let things continue as they are, having lost their drive to go where no-one else has gone before. What makes a great designer is one that is forever learning, forever challenging. We are committed to doing great work for great people, but must endeavour to ensure a stronger environment is present for this to happen each and every time. One of the remarkable things about our industry is how we strive to improve brands, now we must strive to do better for our own industry.

However we must have confidence with good reason. Design is a perpetual learning process and it’s OK to not know everything. We feel every new project should always be approached assuming we know nothing about the subject. What we do need is confidence in our craft and skills to deliver great ideas and the perfect end result.

As we have discussed above, it’s easy to moan about the many issues facing our industry. Yet how are we as a creative community going to solve, and act, on these? Let us stop thinking negatively (we have already done enough of that for you) and focus on the positive. We are the thinkers, the idea generators, the world-changers. We know this is the most exciting industry to work in.

We believe there is room for a more supportive leading body within the profession, one that unites us in our expertise. To no longer function as singular islands, hiding ourselves away like students in an exam, but as a united profession. We feel there is inspiration to be taken from well established and respected professions such as architects (RIBA), engineers (IET) or doctors (GMC), even design committees found on other continents (AGDA). One of their key features is the use of accreditation to enhance the role of the ‘professional’ and establish a deeper respect. In a climate where everyone thinks they are a designer this is an important separation. Similarly, we envision a collective manifesto, describing rules of practice that is backed and enforced across the industry to strengthen our cause. Educating our clients is a small part of the solution. Through providing a copy of this designers’ manifesto, a client would realise just what they are paying for; the process and importance of design. Their trust re-established. In order to achieve a quality design solution there will be an understanding, by adhering to industry-wide rules, of the importance for using accredited agencies. We know that once a small number of clients adjust, the avalanche effect will take place with everyone wishing to be seen to use ‘professional designers’. Whilst we all need to act together, our government also needs to back us; unlike their current stance for recommending, even demanding, creative pitches. We believe each and every one of us has the power to change things for the better. We tell our clients to challenge themselves, but do we have the confidence to challenge ourselves?