Technique 3 minutes, 36 second read Greg Jolley, Executive Client Director, STB Graphic Designers
Collaboration is key to any successful design project. To keep things on course when things get choppy, you need a strong agency-client relationship that’s built on mutual trust, and respect for each other’s expertise.
Savvy clients partner with experienced agencies because they can use their years of experience to solve a brief in a commercially effective way. In short, it pays to hire someone who knows what they’re doing. Yet far too often personal opinions get in the way and can negatively impact the project and its progress.
That's not to say that great ideas can't come from the client side. In fact, they often do: that’s what collaboration is all about. Design-savvy clients see the process as a partnership that draws on individual strengths, and designers should welcome their informed opinions with open arms. But it’s the uninformed opinions that can create problems.
Some clients lean towards a particular colour choice purely because they like it, rather than understanding how a brand palette must be carefully crafted to suit the needs of their business, and the tastes of their customers.
Some clients request a last-minute change to the typeface on a whim because they spotted a font they liked on a menu, blind to all the factors that they've already considered – like legibility, brand personality, and whether it's actually fit for purpose across print, digital and any other intended use.
And some clients, rather than providing the top-level input needed to progress and refine a design concept, roll up their sleeves and get stuck into the little details – make the logo a fraction bigger, shift that line a pixel to the right, and so on.
So how do you maintain a healthy, productive, collaborative relationship that draws on the expertise of both parties, without sacrificing anyone’s sanity? Here are some pointers…
1. Never work blind.
Make sure everyone knows what to expect from the outset: ideally you need a clear written brief in place, although for smaller projects a verbal brief that is then written back to the client along with your quote can work well too.
2. Don’t second-guess the solution.
The best briefs set out the client’s problem, rather than specifiying how the agency should solve it. ‘We want to explain our complicated products more effectively to customers’ is better than ‘We need a sales brochure’. Even if a brochure is the final outcome, don’t discount other approaches at the first hurdle.
3. Confirm the budget.
Clients may be reluctant to include it, but the budget can be one of the most important parts of a brief. How much a client wants to, or is able to, spend puts a value on the solution. Are we looking at a quick fix, or a long-term solution that could transform their business?
4. Cut out the middle man.
At STB, we think designers make the best account managers – so that’s how we work. They understand the process, ask the right questions, and don’t just present the brief – they’re part of the team that solves it.
5. Manage expectations.
For a successful collaboration, efficient project management is just as important as the quality of the work. Be clear, respond promptly, and most importantly be realistic – saying ‘yes’ to everything is not the way to a long-lasting working relationship.
6. Draw on diverse expertise.
The complementary skills of a multidisciplinary team can take a collaboration to the next level. As well as brilliant designers and creative thinkers, we regularly consult specialists in supporting disciplines like illustration and copywriting.
7. Discuss ideas at an early stage.
At STB, we often share our initial hand-drawn visuals and notes to avoid getting bogged down in details. That way, we can focus on the overall idea and whether it will answer the brief, rather than if the client likes a particular shade of blue.
8. Present with confidence.
Showing three finished routes and asking the client to choose isn’t collaboration. It’s a cop-out. You, the design expert, are handing over the design decision to the client – and throwing two-thirds of the budget in the bin. Use your expertise to hone a solution that works: there’s still a place for presenting alternatives, but be prepared to explain what each option delivers.