Diplomacy in design

What happens when sparks fly? Do you fight for creative control, do what you're told, or call in a negotiator? Darren Smith reveals how to tackle your most dangerous clients.

Clients. Indecisive, irrational, quick to quibble over the tiniest detail - they're a difficult bunch to please. Whether it's dealing with personality clashes or sheer obstinacy, troublesome clients can manage to ruin a project and sap the last of your energy reserves.

For the most part, clients want the same things as you: an attractive design to best showcase their product or message. But when things turn ugly, getting back on track can prove tricky. If you're struggling to communicate with your paymasters, then it's time to assess your options.

Raise the white flag
Handing all the creative responsibility to the client is an attractive and common proposition. After all, isn't the customer always right? By yielding to your client's demands, the stress of finding a solution is lifted. Deadlines are easier to hit, and the client gets what they want.

Clive Hilton, director of Hilton Creative Ltd, appreciates useful input from the client. "Generally speaking, client-suggested design modifications are welcomed," he says. "More often than not they're implemented if we don't have fundamental reasons not to, which helps the client feel a direct sense of involvement and project ownership."

But if emotions are running high, dumping decision-making duties on the client is a bad idea. Clients may resent the burden of making decisions they feel you were hired to make.

Also, by relinquishing control, designers don't feel emotionally attached to the work they produce, and the end results can be bland and lifeless. "Ultimately, the last word does rest with the client," says Hilton. "But it has happened to us (mercifully rarely) that bullish client demands end up delivering projects that we've later disowned."

This submissive approach rarely works for indecisive clients - putting the onus on clients that utter "I'll know it when I see it" is tantamount to admitting that you don't know how to solve the client's problem. Dodging responsibility can stall the project indefinitely while you wait for the client to make up their mind. If your client won't make the decisions, it's time to be more assertive.

Take control
Clients have one aim: to sell products. While they've researched the market (to make sure there's a demand for those products), they often have little clue about how to approach the public or how to show products in their best light.

Some clients prefer to completely hand the responsibility over to you, which, as the designer, has obvious benefits. Full creative control over a project (and its budget) gives you the opportunity to try those cracking ideas you've been percolating.

"We have a strong relationship with Darley Flying Start, a thoroughbred horse racing and breeding programme run by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, Ruler of Dubai," says Hilton. "We were invited to create a web presence for the project and our involvement has continued ever since.

"As our relationship has matured so has their trust in us to deliver the goods. All work we do for them now is based on informal discussion - we're given free rein to use our initiative. It's much more liberating."

To succeed in taking control of a project without damaging your relationship you must know your stuff. The client may question why cross-browser compatibility is such a serious issue or how printing on FSC-certified paper can boost its eco-credibility.

David Cousens, a freelance illustrator, agrees that you have to be careful. "I've never had to force a client to accept a certain style," he says. "But I have argued the case for a certain design from time to time. Some clients can be quite receptive and grateful for the input, while others have proved somewhat single-minded."

If you fiercely believe a certain style of illustration or a Flash site is absolutely right for the brief, then justifying your choice should remove any protests. Make sure that you don't lose sight of the brief, however. Nobody knows a product better than its creator, and the product knowledge a client brings to the brief is vital to creating a good design.

"Always listen to what a client is asking of you," says Cousens. "A client that gives you free rein is great, but if they don't know what they want it can be horrendous. They'll end up changing the brief so many times that the work becomes a chore."

Forge an alliance
Most client problems stem from poor communication. If you work to a brief without knowing the product, or fail to account for the client's personal tastes and demands, you'll soon be in trouble.

A flexible approach that includes input from the client from the beginning, coupled with a clear definition of who does what and when fosters the best designer-client partnership.

Laura Jordan Bambach, head of art at London agency Glue, believes this is an intrinsic part of answering a brief. "The more dialogue we have with a client up front, the better the end product," she says. "It's useful to help us work out what makes them tick. Design decisions are made through discussion, guidance and suggestions from both parties."

Clive Hilton agrees: "The key is in the pre-brief discussions. It's an opportunity to probe and ask questions, but most of all, to listen to what the client has to say. If we've got this part right then it's reflected in all stages, from the initial design proposal to the finished work."

When a client disagrees with your design choices, a strong relationship gives you a platform to argue your case or suggest alternatives. It helps to explain to the client at every step, because this demonstrates your experience and leaves the door open for the client to make amends without offending.

Encouraging participation in the process keeps the project on-track - and an open dialogue usually leads to constructive criticism and debate, rather than a Mexican standoff. "There will always be compromises," says Bambach, "but they should come from mutual understanding of the issues. Be passionate always, unapproachable never."

Some client relationships, however, are beyond rescue. When clients demand that everything you've produced is redone until the budget (and your patience) is bled dry. Or when they become verbally abusive or withhold payment without reason, take a deep breath. It may be time to fire your client.

A freelance designer who wishes to remain anonymous recalls such a situation. "I launched a new website for a big marketing company," he says. "Everything was fine to begin with, but things went downhill when my boss expected me to redesign the entire site for free. When I refused, he started shouting and swearing at me, kicking over furniture, the works. I was shocked; I didn't know what to do next."

If you need to sack a client, ensure you have your contract, a record of your finished work and all correspondence - especially the nasty bits. Terminating a contract is an unalterable step, so make sure you've tried everything you can think of to solve the problem first.

When approaching your client, be polite. Explain what the problem is, that you wish to terminate your employment and detail how much they owe you for work to date.

Firing anyone is unpleasant. Remain professional, listen to advice from friends and don't take any form of abuse to heart. Once free, you can start to build a rapport with other, more valuable clients.


DESIGNER TO DESIGNER
Top tips on how to manage relationships with your colleagues

If you think clients are the bane of your existence, try dealing with other designers. Collaborating with another designer brings a host of benefits - you can learn new techniques, see first-hand a new approach to solving design problems, and the final results can be spectacular.

But designers tend to be highly strung, and clashes with your colleagues can be just as debilitating as falling out with a top client. Unless you tread carefully, fierce rivalries may crash and burn the project before you've even started.

It helps to treat other designers and colleagues as clients. Each has a set of problems that need to be solved. Following these simple points should make the process as painless as possible:

  • Make a plan. Before you start, arrange between you who will tackle each part of the project. Compare work schedules - it's futile giving the brunt of the work to the busiest designer.
  • Be honest. If you're not too hot on a particular skill, say so. Don't volunteer for the difficult bits if you're going to hold the rest of the team up.
  • No hogging. Make sure that you don't snaffle all the cushy jobs either. Your colleagues might resent this. You need to compromise, and try to share out the workload as evenly as possible.
  • Be inclusive. If someone does throw a hissy fit, be professional. Solve the problem as quickly as you can, and if necessary have a quick one-on-one to calm things down.
  • End on a high note. When the work is finally complete, make sure you give each team member the credit they deserve. Nobody enjoys feeling unappreciated.