Client Communication and Creative Control

Jennie Reedy By Jennie Reedy  |  Jul. 27, 2022

If you’ve worked directly with a client, then on more than one occasion, they’ve probably come to you and said something like, “I know exactly the design I want, and here’s how I want you to do it…”

This might seem great at first because you feel like you have a clear vision of what the client wants, and you could probably create something that meets their needs quickly and efficiently. You feel like you could almost go straight to designing or developing the site without having to create comps or even meet in person to discuss them.

Don’t let yourself fall victim to this line of thinking, at least not without first considering your options.

If you do say yes to this proposition, you will likely go down one of two roads.

Scenario one: it ends up not being easier. It’s very cumbersome, and you don’t enjoy the process or the final product because you have not become invested in it.

Scenario two: you design and construct the site just how your client wants it, and you hit the mark. You make it unique. The client is happy. You aren’t particularly excited about the design, but you can live with it. Everything seems great. A week later, your client comes to you and says, “I’d like to include some ads and some animated photos of my car on the home page.” You know this will be design suicide for the site, but it’s difficult to say no at this point because up until now, you’ve done precisely what the client has asked. So, you begrudgingly add the content as requested. Two weeks later, the client discovers the site doesn’t achieve the desired results and that inevitably reflects on you, the designer, whether the design flaws are your fault or not.

These are just two of many potential scenarios, but they’re surprisingly common.

It’s worth taking the time to communicate more up-front with clients, even if you have disagreements on design. You may think to yourself, “I’ll just do this one site this way. I’ll be able to get more creative on other projects”. The problem with this is that when things get busy and we’re pressed for time, we default to the easy way of doing things. We stick to the paths and habits we’ve created for ourselves, whether good or bad.

I used to think that good communication was an auxiliary mechanism and not crucial to the process. It was difficult for me to see a real and quantifiable purpose to it. I also happened to enjoy the design process a lot more. Design was something that you could see immediate results with.

I now believe that communication skills are precious. The benefits of clear communication with your client will more often than not outweigh the positives of turning a project around quickly.

A client’s knowledge and insight about a project are too valuable to miss out on. Just as you are an expert in your field, they are an expert in theirs, so the content they share with you is likely backed by years of experience in that subject. If you choose not to take advantage of that resource and get all your research from the web, you will miss out. It would be like an actor studying for a role as a doctor but never actually studying a medical professional. The best way to understand the pressures doctors face is to speak to someone who has experienced them. These intangibles — the feelings, experiences, and raw emotions — are what can really spark great concepts or directly feed a design. Your client’s emotions about their company are often the same emotions they want others to feel when visiting their site. If you can pick up on this, it can go a long way towards guiding the process.

With poor communication, you could end up with a design that looks great, but that doesn’t accomplish the client’s goals.

It’s possible that you truly do know exactly what the client wants, and that’s great, but a strengthened rapport, trust, and respect are just a few of the returns you’ll get from meeting face to face. Communicating clearly and methodically up front will reduce conflict and help the client understand why retaining creative control is important to you, the designer. Moreover, you will usually help them get excited about the process and make them feel they have buy-in. Clients who feel this way are much more likely to be repeat customers and to recommend your work to others.

As a creative, your job is to find alternative solutions to your client’s root problem. Perhaps they’re asking for a brightly colored ad to be front and center on the page. What you should hear them say is, “I need a prominent ad that stands out in some way.” Being able to identify the client’s interests accurately is essential.

You may think the client doesn’t want to lead the creative process because they are reserved and offer little feedback when in reality, they have a lot of opinions about what they want — they need a little practice in expressing them. Your job is to discover this and figure out where they’re at. Don’t assume they don’t have opinions because they aren’t quick to express them. You risk steamrolling a soft-spoken client, and they will not feel like they are being heard. On the other hand, an outspoken client might process their thoughts as they say them, so don’t be too harsh if they share negative views. They might still be deciding how they feel and might need time to think about it. If you err on the side of over-communicating, it will leave less room for both sides to make false assumptions about any given aspect.

One thing that took me a while to understand was that when I neglected communication, I was saying more than I realized. For example, when a client asks how you feel about making a site mobile-first, and you say, “Sure.” You might be sending the message that a mobile-first site isn’t a priority for you when what you meant was, “Sure, I always make my sites mobile-first; I think that’s a good call!”

Sometimes we pass over details. That is normal from time to time. You are human, after all. What’s important is to try to maintain a level of interest that will convey care and professionalism in the given area. If you show that you are invested in what the client cares about, the client will feel invested in you. 

As a web designer, I tend to be a bit introverted, and I’ll often want to dive right into working on a project rather than meet with the client in person and begin research. I try to fight this inclination as much as possible. What often happens is that the vision I have for a project changes completely after meeting with the client. That’s a good thing. You want your client’s influence, opinions, and feedback as much as possible. It is their project as much as yours, if not more so. So, the more they feel included in the process, the better. This does not mean, however, that you have to sacrifice the final say in creative decisions.

If you have conflicts about design with your client and don’t want to lose the client but also don’t want to lose control, remember to major in the major issues and minor in the minor issues. Be willing to give in a little on the more minor issues and maybe not so much on the more significant issues. Never be quick to say no to a request. If your instinct to a request is to respond, “Hell, no,” slow down your thought process and say something along the lines of “Let me explore that,” or “I have some other ideas on what we could do here.”

Generally, the more you guide the client through the creative process, and the better you communicate, the more likely they will respect what you do and why you do it.

 

Featured image via Unsplash.