5 questions you must ask at the start of every project

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September 19, 2013
5 questions you must ask at the start of every project.

thumbnailMost my clients are focussed on print, so I was super stoked to get my first web design client in a long while.

I had some techniques in mind that I wanted to try out. During the initial client meeting, my mind was racing with ideas on how I wanted the site to look and how it was going to be so much better than what they previously had.

After the meeting, I gathered fonts and pictures I felt worked best with the theme I chose. I informed my clients and my team that I was going to present some mock-ups of the design soon and we would move on from there. I was confident in my design skills and the client seemed to be pretty easy going, so I figured this would be a piece of cake.

Well...I was wrong. I ended up making tons of revisions. The client disliked almost everything I did and we actually ended up parting ways because it seemed we had passed the point of no return.

I had failed. Does this sound familiar?

What I know now

I was too eager. I was too impatient and I was too caught up in how I wanted the site to look. It was all about me, what I wanted and what I saw. I didn't think about functionality nor did I think about the purpose of this site. I wasn't concerned about the brand and I was barely concerned about the client. I just wanted to make something pretty. Period.

Today, I realize where I went wrong and I try to make up for it with every one of my projects. All my ideals had to shift. And once they did, designing came much easier for me and clients became a lot more satisfied with my work. My referrals increased and in turn my prices increased. Why? Because there were at least 5 questions I asked before starting a project or even accepting a client.

Here are those 5 questions:

1. What are your goals?

This is probably the most important question when discussing projects with clients. It's not about the design or the color scheme and such, it's about getting to know the company. You want to understand why they went into business and even how they went in business. A deeper connection with your client and with the company make it so much easier to understand what they like and what will fit for them.

At one point, I had a client that was a social media agency — they enjoyed developing strategies for social media campaigns and ways to get social in general. In getting to know them better, I came to understand things, such as, they were interested in doing business with creative businesses rather than corporate ones. I also found out their goals were to create organic connections between businesses and their customers rather than high tech digital ones. I also found out they had a personal affinity for circles, so this became a motif in the creative work. This allowed me to create pieces for them that reflected these goals and likes.

Understanding your client is essential. You do this by listening. Don't tell your client about what you want to do and what they need to do, but let your client tell you what they have a desire to do. This is often the difference between work that creates conversions and work that just takes up space. You firstly want to make sure the goals of your client are consistent with the goals of the design.

2. How do you want to be perceived?

Along the same lines of knowing the purposes and goals, you want to know and understand how a client wants to be perceived. This is easily and obviously the second most important thing to discuss with a client. Simply find out what your client wants their customers to think about them. This is how we begin to go deeper.

What do you think about when you ponder your favorite businesses and companies? I guarantee you that whatever pops up in your mind is not there by accident. You feel that way about them because someone took the time out to design projects and messages that helped reflect that idea.

Here is where it's especially important to listen to your client because our own common perceptions may not be what the client wants. To use my previous social media agency example, it's easy to immediately perceive them as a high tech, digital agency, but actually they wanted to be perceived as creative. A client such a frozen yogurt shop may not want to be seen as a family fun spot, but as a premium yogurt cafe with flavor palettes for adults. Wouldn't you design the two differently?

The idea is to approach your client as if you've never heard of their business or what they do before. You want to be a blank canvas with a picture painted by them and only them.

3. Who's your ideal customer?

I've always been the type of person who likes things explained to me as simply as possible. I believe in simplicity in all aspects of life, including in design and in business. Because of that, I believe in niches and simplifying my customer. I'll often ask my clients to do this by creating one person and telling me how and why that one person is an ideal customer.

This is typically different for many clients because they're so used to thinking about large groups of people and how to attract them. However, when we focus on one person, we begin to really breakdown how this person thinks, where this person goes and it becomes easier to figure out how to influence this person.

Telling me your target market is men, aged 18 to 35 who like fashion and music is totally different than saying your ideal customer is a guy that hangs out at open mics and museums, is a college graduate and/or young professional who values his health. We became a ton more specific and are immediately aware of some motifs, jargon and other brands that may influence him. And the more specific, the better!

Nailing this part down makes the next part so much easier. This is the first step in figuring out how to create influential connections.

4. How do you want to emotionally connect to your customers?

This question should take all your previous answers and turn them into something wonderful. This is essentially why you've asked all the questions. You need to understand how your client wants to connect emotionally with their customer. It should be consistent with the goals, the ideal customer and the desired perception of the company and product. How do you now design to connect?

My social media agency, isn't going to want design work that appeals to a stuffy, rigid business because they value creative businesses. They aren't going to want to use hardcore persuasive techniques in their design, because they value organic connections and relationships. All these things have to be evident in your design work. You certainly can't just pick one thing to design and not the rest.

We all know that good design helps create emotion. This is how you get to that point; by combining everything you've heard up to this point and putting it all together. Of course you want to make something beautiful, but remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And the beholder is going to be your client's customer...so what's beautiful to them?

5. How do you want the design to influence your customers?

This is really just a qualifying question that you can phrase any way you want, and put wherever you want in this sequence of questions. The ideal answer is that your client says something about good design creating value and connections and things of that nature. The ultimate idea is to make sure the client understands the value of design beyond making something look pretty.

You don't want to ask these questions and create something effective and meaningful that your client can't necessarily comprehend. You don't want to waste your time.

I typically treat this question as a meeting of the minds as well. If we're on the same page, then great! Let's commence with the designing. But if not, I have to determine whether or not I want to educate my client and hope they see the light, or I have to see if we should just part ways. Either is fine, but again, the purpose is to make sure this project is worthwhile for both parties.


We touched on it earlier, but asking these questions is really a chance for you to listen. As a designer, you'll have plenty of time to talk and influence your client as a project is being completed. You need to be able to connect the dots between a client, their offering and their customer. Consistency and simplicity is key in this task and listening is imperative.

These questions also help build a line of communication between yourself and the client. This is also important to a well developed and thought out project because after all, teamwork makes the dream work. Keep an open mind and ear and watch your designs come out amazing and effective.

What questions do you ask at the start of a project? What's the strangest answer you've received? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, raised hands image via Tim Young.

Kendra Gaines

Kendra Gaines is a freelance designer from Virginia, USA. Connect with her.

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