Communicating with Clients — A Sense of Humor is Required

If you’ve ever worked in a job field providing a service to other people, chances are you’ve encountered those customers.  You know the ones.  They come in two distinct flavors — the I’m Open to Anythings or the Control Freaks.  There is no in-between.  They’re the reason why I have a board on my Pinterest site titled {GD} Graphic Design Humour.  Having worked in printing and being tasked with every graphic design job that came through our shop, I’ve had plenty encounters with both.

lies

The Open to Anythings typically preface their first meeting with you with that exact phrase: “I’m open to anything,” or “You’re the professional, do whatever you think.”  Most of the time, I’ve found these types really do have a design or theme in mind, they just have trouble articulating it.  If you’re lucky, the client will have a logo from which you can pull inspiration; however, lot of times, they only will have a name for their business.  Figuring out color preferences could be a huge step in going from having nothing to work with to having a better idea of your client and the message they want their business to project.  Being in printing, I typically worked with a lot of architects, engineers, and restaurant owners.  Getting to know those types of businesses and what each came to “expect” was key.  For example, architects were more likely to go for a hand-drawn look, something that looked custom but clean with typically muted colors.  Engineers generally preferred a more stark design — sans-serif fonts and “power” colors like black, white, red, navy blue, or grey.  For the restaurant owners, I took a slightly different approach and would find out what type of food they served — was it an all-American burger joint, an Italian cafe, someplace that served breakfast all day, etc.

Having worked with clients in similar professions fortunately gave me a design database to draw from, but I occasionally would have a client whose business was totally alien to me.  One of my favorite customers was an ex-Navy officer who was starting up his own personal consulting firm.  I had absolutely no idea what a personal consultant did, and as he was explaining it to me, I was envisioning a sleek and modern design.  But the more he talked, the more I noticed a disconnect — he kept bringing up Old World philosophers and the ideals of the Renaissance.  There was something about it that I just wasn’t getting, and it was clear he had an idea in mind for a design and how it related to his business, but he just didn’t know how to tie the two together.  I asked him what his company’s name was.  He told me the name: Abbe Faria.  And I said: “Oh!  Like from The Count of Monte Cristo?”  His jaw dropped in surprise that I had read the book, let alone remembered the name of the priest who mentored the main character while they were imprisoned.  He explained he chose the name because Abbe Faria was his favorite character from the book and he admired the way the priest mentored Dantes and he was striving to emulate that through his company.  Suddenly, everything he had said before made sense and I finally understood what type of feel he wanted for his firm.

Communication is crucial for bringing clients out of their I’m Open to Anything shell.  Though there are those that will not reciprocate.  They simply shrug their shoulders and instruct you to “just do whatever.”  My advice, if you ever encounter these clients, is to just take a stab at it.  Do what you think they will like and present it to them.  If they sign off on it, high fives all around — but if they make you revise it, make sure you keep track of every communication and every revision they request.  Oftentimes, these Open to Anythings become their flipside: The Control Freaks.

Control Freaks can be a blessing — they know exactly what they want and tell you how to do it (which can be great, especially if you’ve had to deal with a lot of I’m Open to Anythings and are experiencing some major design burnout), or a curse — they know exactly what they want and tell you how to do it.

clean design

Control Freaks often want a carbon copy of something they already have, so emulating it is pretty easy.  These types are the easiest to design for, it almost makes you feel like a hack.  However, there are some that seem unsatisfied no matter what.  Often I think this dissatisfaction comes from a lack of technical understanding.

elephant

I cannot count how many times I had to explain why I was going to have to re-draw their logo in a vector format, and that yes, it would cost extra because all they had was a low-resolution JPEG, or the difference in 72dpi versus 300dpi, that if you take a low-resolution photo and try to enlarge it 300%, it just will not look good, no matter what I do.  Photoshop (and Illustrator) are tools, not magic wands.

Keeping a record of communication between yourself and the client is one of the best things you can do, especially if faced with either of the examples I detailed above.  Another good idea is creating a proof sheet that has a sample of your design either on it or attached to it, and the client physically signs off on it, thereby proving what you delivered was what was agreed to.  And ultimately the best tool to have in your defense is a good sense of humor in dealing with it all.

 

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