What makes a good designer-client relationship?

This is a short guide for both designers and clients, enabling them to create a positive work relationship and environment to make the best creative outcomes from the process.

That’s right – it’s not often talked about, but there is often the question of – how does the designer-client relationship actually work? How do we start? Is it down to the client – or the designer? What’s normal and what’s expected or needed of everyone involved?

Now no working relationship is going to run the same as another. People are different and they work differently – but that’s the beauty of working with freelance designers, because they know how to guide you through their design process.

Why do I need to know this?

Embarking upon a new business relationship, particularly in an area like design, (which can be quite a personal process as we all have different preferences) can be difficult and time consuming. It’s normal to have concerns over who you’re working with and how it’s all going to work, so spending a little time getting the project going with your designer can be key to the whole process staying on plan.

First and foremost, the designer-client relationship is not always an easy one. The majority of business owners say it’s all about finding the right balance – so, if that’s the case (which I completely agree with), what ideals and values does everyone need to bring to the table to make it work?

7 Key themes

I’ve established 7 key themes that are important for the client and designer to be aware of and keep in mind before, during and after the project:

  • Clarity
  • Trust
  • Communication
  • Understanding and flexibility
  • Following the process
  • Responsibility and feedback
  • Keeping an open mind

There are many ways to get great work from a designer, and mostly, they’ll give you great work regardless, because that’s what they’re good at. Sometimes though, it’s also great to know how you can be a better asset towards the creative process. After all, it’s your brief, your project and I’m pretty sure, you want it looking perfect too!

Katie Birks Branding & Design

Clarity

There’s two questions:

    • What are you looking for?
    • Why have you decided to outsource a graphic designer?

There can be lots of reasons to work with designers – and the first port of call is to clarify your goals, expectations and needs. Most designers will work with you to make sure they are the right designer for what you’re looking for – that they can provide you with everything you need and that your project and their design skills fit. It’s handy if you know what you want, but either way come into the project with an open mind.

So, what are your goals and are they being accomplished? It’s okay to change what you want a little mid-project as long as you’re open with the designer about your needs or potential difficulties. Then you and the designer can lead an open discussion throughout the project, rather than either one of you feeling left behind.

Keeping this open dialogue with your designer will help you both work together and get you to the finish line, even if you change your mind or need to re-establish your goals to get there. A designer can only offer a creative solution when the client is able to say yes or no, and the client can only help the project develop if the designer has feedback!

Trust

Achieving (and keeping) trust is invaluable for a strong working relationship, whatever industry you work in. You are trusting the designer to see your vision, develop your thought-process and create something that hits the nail on the head.

If you don’t trust them, don’t work with them – and it works both ways. Being clear and up front about likes, dislikes and your expectations will give everyone a great starting point. Although there’s no problem with not being sure about what you want, you can bet your designer will have a hard time figuring out whether you like something or not if you don’t tell them.

Being clear from the start avoids any unexpected surprises and is imperative for the designer to provide tailored advice and guidance based on knowing your needs and what their skillset offers.

Communication

Communication: that’s talking and listening to each other…(!) We often forget how important the listening part is, but without that we’re getting nowhere.

Two-way communication and feedback between both parties is vital – an open circulation of ideas, values and goals can then be shared and discussed, so that we can get to the same goal with the same vision in mind.

So when you’re not sure about something, just ask! That’s something designers should be doing too, too much assumption can get a project very lost… because the funny thing with design is, is that the design purpose and our personal opinions can become blurred. So talking the work through (whether that’s with each other, a colleague, a focus group or someone outside the process) can be a perfect way to keep on track and meet the project goals.

Understanding and flexibility

Some people work weekends, some work evenings, and some don’t work traditional working hours at all! With the ever-changing work-life balance and non-traditional working hours becoming more common, it’s becoming very helpful to highlight when we do or don’t work and when we will or won’t be available. If possible, at least avoid assuming someone works exactly the same way and times you do!

We’re real people, with real work, real families and plenty of life commitments to balance in our schedule. A lot of designers are freelance or self employed, speaking largely from experience, a number of design clients are either also self-employed or in complete control of how they divide their working hours. If you know you work outside the standard 9-5 or you can be inaccessible for large periods of time, it’s probably best to start the project with this information upfront. It’s easy to plan, when you know when for!

For me, the design process is really a collaboration as well as a process. I’ve found that being flexible with each other can help to put project deadlines in the right place straight away. If you’re on the same page, it’s easier to work at the same pace – no-one likes to miss a deadline or run behind with a project because basic information wasn’t made clear.

Following the process

So this leads me straight into the importance of following the process – the project schedule and process exist for a reason. And like I said above I feel the true design process is always (or very often) a collaborative one.

Involving the client with all stages of the process has invaluable benefits. Not only does everyone know where they stand, and where they’re going but it supports maintaining a healthier, easier and well-managed project. Who doesn’t want that?

The process is really important and can vary for the different type of design work being done. When I work with a client, I’m always happy to give an insight into my planning and how it all fits together, to make for a more seamless project beginning to end.

As with anything, management is key – for the client, this is something you don’t have to worry about as much, particularly with short or 1-1 projects. However, as the designer or project manager (such as for large team-focused projects), being organised can really change how successful and enjoyable a project is. Without realising it, an unmanaged or abandoned project can become a small nightmare. A project needs direction to move forward or eventually any creativity and development will just stop – leaving everyone somewhat sitting around at red lights like they’re in rush hour traffic: plenty of good intentions, but none of the movement!

However!

This is why many designers use project management systems and software to iron out communication problems and focus on keeping everyone on point throughout the whole process. When I’m working with large groups of people, on a more complex and longer project – in fact even if it’s just me it’s so much easier to have a project schedule in place – and so I use Asana to handle the workflow for all my projects.

Responsibility and feedback

Everyone is responsible for their own actions! You can’t make someone do what you want, but you can inform them of all the options, your thoughts and your recommendations. Feedback is so important, and without it, can also stop the project flow: in a nutshell the feedback cycles should look a bit like this…

Client: Discuss concept, create clear, bite-sized chunks of feedback, feedback information to designer (and repeat)

Designer: Listen to the client, concepts and design, listen for feedback (and repeat)

… or something similar.

One great part of working with a freelancer is their flexible schedule. Naturally, they balance a few projects and manage communication with more than one client at a time – making them perfect at managing your project too – it means you know you’re in good hands.

The most important part to keeping this balance is actually down to receiving feedback on-time from the client. Good planning and timely feedback for each revision enables a project to progress seamlessly… no-one wants a project bumping to a halt every few days, so it’s ideal to remember that timeliness, management and organisation from both sides makes the project run at its best.

Feeling more prepared?… Not sure?

Here are the key points to remember:

  • Gaining clarity will give you a strong, clear focus
  • If you don’t trust them – don’t work with them
  • Communication works both ways, talking and listening
  • Allow flexibility within the project to get on the same page and gain a mutual understanding
  • Have a little faith, and just follow the process
  • Both the client and designer have a responsibility to give the other well-structured, timely feedback.

If you have any more questions about working with a designer – or anything else design – feel free to drop me a message or say hello at: enquiries[@]katiebirks.co.uk, on my contact form or of course, on FacebookTwitter or LinkedIn. I’m always happy to chat!

Plus, you can sign up to my *quarterly-ish* newsletter here.

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