The secrets to better client relationships

Pentagram partner Emily Oberman reveals how good chemistry with your clients leads to better design work at Design Indaba.

Last week's Design Indaba in Cape Town promised an explosion of creative energy and a shared passion to drive positive change across all design disciplines, and it didn't disappoint.

Our highlights included lessons in brand design from the former creative director of Nike, Lego and Starbucks; a look at how design can make a difference, courtesy of South African agency Joe Public; and four golden rules of branding from G-Star RAW's Shubhankar Ray.

Design meets advertising

But for graphic design afficionados, two back-to-back sessions on the final day stood out by a mile. First, Pentagram partner Emily Oberman considered 10 things that working on the titles for Saturday Night Live for the past 20+ years have taught her, in a talk laced with plenty of humour and creative energy.

Wieden+Kennedy founder Dan Wieden at Design Indaba 2015

Wieden+Kennedy founder Dan Wieden at Design Indaba 2015

Next was 69-year-old advertising legend Dan Wieden, who delivered a hugely inspiring talk touching on many of the core principles that has helped Wieden+Kennedy become the world's largest independent ad agency, clocking up iconic spots for Nike, Coca-Cola, Honda, Old Spice and more – including the need to embrace weirdness and chaos in equal measure.

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Watch this space for an in-depth video interview with Wieden, filmed at Design Indaba. We also caught up with Oberman after her talk to explore how sharing a wavelength and a sense of humour with her clients has helped improve her design work...

It's about chemistry and respect

It goes without saying that great design work will help keep a client happy, but Oberman a shared vision and some great personal chemistry goes even further.

“I feel like every project is a collaboration, not just between me and the team, but me and the client,” she insists. “We’re all in this together, and I love it when a client is an active part of what we’re doing, because it makes the work better.”

A client who genuinely cares about the branding process is worth its weight in gold, Oberman continues – and a client who treats the designer with respect is just as important. "It makes me bring it," she smiles. "It makes me and my whole team work harder when we know that we’re all in it together."

Sharing a sense of humour helps

“I think I’m funny. I’m probably wrong,” chuckles Oberman. “But I do think there’s a wit in what I do.” She’s a huge fan of her long-term collaborator Saturday Night Live, but part of the brief is for the each season's title sequence is to step back, keep it straight and let the show itself get the laughs.

When working on the SNL book, however, her obsession with the show that’s been on her client roster for more than two decades found its match in Taschen's Alison Castle.

Saturday Night Live book, by Pentagram for Taschen

Saturday Night Live book, by Pentagram for Taschen

“We both really enjoy that kind of humour. The two of us were like superfans working on the book. We were like, you know what image we need to illustrate that? This skit that happened in 1992 that was blah blah… and they were like, whoa."

Put your personality into your work

A recent branding project at Pentagram for Minneapolis-based social enterprise On Being gave Oberman the chance to introduce a little touch of wit into an otherwise conventional piece of branding: as a nod to its roots in faith, the 'O' of 'on' floats above the word 'being' like a halo.

Oberman's logo for On Being features a playful halo reference

Oberman's logo for On Being features a playful halo reference

Little 'winks' like this, according to Oberman, can be seen across the different Pentagram partners' work – but all of them bring their own distinct twist.

"They way Luke Hayman winks is different to the way I wink, and the way that Paula [Scher] winks is different than the way that Michael Gericke winks," she explains. "But it’s all there, and I think that’s why we all get along."

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Head over to the Design Indaba site to discover the 10 things that Emily Oberman learnt about design from working on Saturday Night Live for 20 years.


Nick Carson is editor of Computer Arts magazine.