I’m noticing a trend in design blogs and communities — it’s miserly, in a crotchety old man sort of way. It increasingly seems like designers want to pit clients as the enemy, or at least point and laugh (and complain). There is a “most ridicule-worthy phrase a client can say” contest constantly swirling about in designers’ heads (and around various blogs/forums/proverbial and actual water coolers). “10/20/1000 worst things clients say to designers” (or some derivation) is an all-too common topic you’ll find littered throughout the designosphere (patent pending). “Make it pop” is on all of them.
To be fair, a lot of things clients sometimes say are really, really silly — a simple Google search for that phrase will lead you to them. This set of posters by Sharp Suits recently gained viral popularity, shared on buzzfeed and the like — and they’re mostly hilarious and worthy of ridicule. I’ve written about similar things before myself.
But I think it’s bad practice to think of clients as antagonists; they’re people I’m working in tandem with to achieve a common goal. They want good design (whether they seem to or not, and admittedly some can make the process taxing on the soul). I want to make good design. So while it’s true that clients sometimes (often, in some cases) say things that warrant ire, doesn’t it seem more constructive to figure out what they’re really trying to get at?
Here’s the rub: clients use certain phrases because they want to express something to you and don’t know design jargon.
They didn’t go to design school. They don’t hang out on /r/Design or Behance or Dribbble or RedTube. They don’t doodle logos all day and think about beautiful fi ligatures. They don’t fawn over the latest Olly Moss movie posters. They don’t get mad about Comic Sans or Papyrus or drop shadows or bevels. They don’t know what skeuomorphism or flat design means.
This is precisely why they’ve hired a designer. They may not realize it’s for those reasons, but they probably know “I don’t know how to design things, I should hire someone.” And that is exactly the attitude a designer can take into the process. The designer is the expert. You’re there to make good work and to explain why it’s good work. Yes, some clients make it nearly impossible to get good work past them; but I suspect they are much lower in number than those design communities might have you believe. And a little hand-holding and explanation of work would likely dwindle their numbers yet still.
They might sometimes respond with things that sound strange to your “I read clients from hell and am constantly on the lookout for weird phrases” ears, but often they probably don’t mean harm. Here are a few of these phrases, why they’re not so bad, and what you can do about them.
“Make it Pop!”
“Make it pop” has long been champion of that contest I mentioned. There are other contenders, sure, but none that can quite match the medley of cringe, ire, and fury a designer will feel when it enters their brain.
It’s not hard to understand what a client might be trying to say with the phrase. “Use more vibrant colors”, “make this graphic stand out more”, “highlight this phrase”, etc. But designers have a tendency to hate the phrase because it’s common, it’s (in and of itself) a bit vague, and they’ve been told to by the designosphere echo-chamber.
Maybe those things are mistakes for their brand. Or maybe they don’t matter as much as you might think. If they’re heavy mistakes, to the point that it really would be a detriment to the brand, explain why. But also consider whether they really do matter. Don’t plant your flag and be ready to die on every hill.
It’s fair to want clients to be specific, i.e. actually tell you exactly what they want to stand out. It’s also fair to point out that there are some clients who seem to have a shield that protects them from any reasonable discourse — that is to say, with whom asking questions will get you nowhere. But it seems wrongheaded for the phrase that has become the face of “reasons designers are nonplussed toward clients” to be one that actually does have simple recourse — asking follow up questions and communicating with the client.
Ask the client if there something in particular they’d like to see highlighted. Ask if they have other design examples that display the thing they’re trying to get at. Have a conversation about the overall style/tone they want to achieve.
“I trust you. Feel free to just be creative.”
Again, the point here isn’t that the phrase itself isn’t annoying; it’s just not worth the amount of headache it seems to create. It has the same caveat of being understandable why designers hate the phrase (and I certainly don’t like it myself, though more because it’s meaningless than any other reason) but, as with any of these other phrases, it has an obvious translation and an obvious solution.
Bear in mind: it’s use actually probably comes from a good place: a client who says this likely thinks they’re doing something good for you by giving you creative freedom. “Designers will love me! I’ll just let them do what they want!”
It seems they don’t understand that the design process is not magic and that a designer requires direction that can only come from them. They’re also probably not considering the fact that if you do attempt to make something with no direction, they’re likely to reject it and be confused as to how you could have thought the thing you made was anything like what they wanted. They don’t realize they actually do have constraints/preferences/direction, but just have trouble conceptualizing those things without first seeing something to give them an idea of what they (don’t) want.
Sometimes it might help to actually do a bit of work just to gauge their response. Remember physics: static friction > kinetic friction. It’s easier to move forward on something once it’s already moving. You can often pull the direction out of a client by testing for what they (don’t) like.
Again: this is something that can literally be solved with a simple conversation.
Ask for some direction. Have a conversation about what the client is trying to achieve. Make it clear that being completely open ended isn’t conducive to good work.
“I like this thing. Copy it.”
It should go without saying why you shouldn’t literally copy someone else’s work directly. There’s the obvious copyright/trademark issues (and a side of legal ramifications to boot), but really it’s a point of ethics. No designer should copy another’s work, and a client shouldn’t expect that.
But I’ve found the real reason a client is saying something like this is because they know they like something they’ve seen and are wary about “risking” any changes. They’re sure they like it, why modify? It’s not that they’re adamantly married to the thing they’ve seen because they’re 100% sure it’s perfect for them, it’s just simpler to go with what you know you already like.
Look at the bright side: the client is giving you essentially as clear direction as possible.
Have the client explain specifically what they like about the design, and work within the framework they create; use your own style, but be inspired by that work. Maybe point out the legal/ethical thing if they seem adamant.
“Our Audience is Everyone.”
Part of making good design is knowing who you’re designing for. This is one of those things that can separate “people who make pretty things” from “people who do actual good work”. Being able to narrow to a smaller set than “every human on earth” is definitely helpful; it’s one piece of many that can inform the style and tone you aim for.
The point here is that clients generally don’t mean this literally. They mean something like “Our potential clientele is very wide ranging.” Or, they really haven’t considered the ways their audience might be limited. It’s a matter of really considering who a client is vying for and understanding that “target audience” doesn’t mean “only this group”, it means “mostly this group”. It’s about building a general picture of what a likely client is like.
Ask about some categorical ways you might narrow an audience: gender, economic class, age range, etc. Make it clear that having a target audience doesn’t mean ignoring those who don’t fit under that umbrella; it’s just about playing to strengths. Very few businesses would be helped by marketing toward babies. That’s a place to start, at least.
The constant should be painfully obvious at this point: a lot of things clients say that seem annoying, are actually things they’re saying because they don’t know exactly how to say the thing they want to say. Have a conversation. Ask relevant questions. Stop making fun of your clients and start talking to them.
A lot of this requires you to have/develop skills that you may not have ever thought you needed. You’d need to be able to remain clear-headed in the face of (sometimes silly and/or cringe-worthy) criticism; you’d need to be confident and strongly-opinionated without being prickly. Essentially, you need to seem like someone who knows what they’re talking about, in addition to actually knowing. And you also need to be willing to lose certain jobs, on the rare occasions that a client just really, really wants that lens flare.
And a final caveat: I know some clients are genuinely annoying. To hell with them.