1. Define the roles
Most designers have experienced at least one client who has tried to take over the design reigns. Unfortunately this undermines the integrity of the business relationship by dissolving trust. If a client tries to take creative control, a designer can communicate firmly but politely.
They can let the client know they are happy to look at their inspiration examples, but ultimately that the creative control needs to be in their hands for the relationship to maintain a healthy state – a state where both parties have trust in one and other.
2. Define the project scope
Designers know the amount of work that goes into any given component of a design job, whereas clients don’t. If the designer does not define the project scope, a client can easily pull the job outside its bounds and put stress on the designer. The first step in any communicative design relationship is setting a time length, payment terms, and the quantity of work to be produced.
If a client tries to bend the rules at any time, a designer can simply and politely reference the agreed upon outline. A nice way for a designer to phrase it is by telling a client that they are happy to talk about pricing and scheduling future work, but that the work at hand needs to be completed before any additional work is embarked upon.
3. Ask more questions
It seems as though designers are afraid to ask too many questions, as if it will make them look incompetent. In my experience, asking questions does the exact opposite. It makes a designer look thorough and attentive to detail. It also spares a designer from a potentially infinite amount of guess work.
Furthermore, asking questions is a heck of a lot faster than taking design shots in the dark. There’s no reason not to ask about dimensions, colors, styling, type styles – anything!
4. Use layman terms
In my previous article, “How to “sell” your designs to clients“, I mentioned the importance of using laymen’s terms – and the same advice applies to improving client communication. Avoid any terms that could be confusing for someone that’s not a designer.
Rather than using design-specific language, such as “kerning” or “bleed”, try to describe what you’re talking about so that the client can follow along easily. Well-written messages can say a lot more about a designer than using fancy words.
5. Always talk time
Time should be kept in mind every step of the way. It is the relational “backbone” that keeps a client and designer on the same page. If a client needs a revision a designer should give them an ETA. If a designer is having trouble meeting that ETA they should immediately communicate the reasons for the delay and define a new ETA.
This open and transparent communication feeds a healthy relationship and opens pathways for a client to communicate in the same way.
6. Don’t be afraid to call out a client
When a client fails to meet a response deadline or other agreement, the common designer response is to get frustrated, vent about it to friends, or curl up and die. Unfortunately these responses only further delay the project. The very first thing any designer should do in this scenario is politely but firmly call out the client’s shortcomings in regard to the business relationship.
Business is serious and emotions need to be put aside. It should be black and white and parties should objectively communicate. Holding clients responsible for their agreements is the healthiest thing a designer can do. If they can’t live up to expectations a designer can simply move on.
7. Be friendly
In theory, the client/designer relationship should be a business first relationship. Communication, however, is a vehicle of subtlety. Making communication flow takes a little more than logic – it takes the right attitude, as well.
By being friendly to clients, a designer can allow them to relax a little bit and break through the intimidating formalities. This friendliness can quickly transform into a supportive and creative intellectual work environment.
8. Talk on the phone
Messaging clients on the computer is comfortable. People like to hide behind their computer screens naturally. With that said, the hard and fast truth is that, in most cases, talking on the phone resolves matters more than twice as fast as message-based communication. It can be uncomfortable the first time, but it gets easier. Also the reward and advantage quickly follows any discomfort.
9. Stand by the work
The natural instinct of a designer is often to make excuses for design work they are not 100% confident in. Unfortunately, communicating that uncertainty weakens client/designer communication. It makes the client less faithful in the designer’s skills and can close their willingness to communicate openly.
For that reason, designers should stand by their work no matter what. It makes the client feel comfortable and (who knows!) maybe they will love something that you aren’t sure of.
10. Pass along the work if it’s not right
An efficient design community is one where each designer is fed work that matches their skill set. The faster a designer passes along work that isn’t compatible, the sooner they get to work that is.
Rather than perpetuate a tedious client/designer relationship full of missed targets and failed expectations, a designer can simply communicate the incompatibility to a client and perhaps even recommend a better suited designer for the job.