While chatting to our regular columnist Dean Johnson in a coffee break at this month's Global Design Forum, following thought-provoking sessions exploring world-changing ideas and the future of innovation, the inevitable question arose: "So, how are you finding it?" We both agreed that while the content and topics covered were fascinating, there was one key thing missing: a firm grounding in commercial context.
Innovation, experimentation and open-ended thinking have their place when it comes to making progress. But it's an unavoidable fact of running a design business today that hot topics like sustainable design and social responsibility must be constantly tempered by financial and practical realities.
It also means that close collaboration with your clients is increasingly essential to ensure that a project delivers what it should for the budget available, with the above concerns wound up in the overall package rather than all-consuming agendas in their own right. It goes without saying that having a client that can help, rather than hinder, the progress and development of a design project is invaluable.
Of course, this type of fruitful collaboration is made a lot easier when you're working with a client who genuinely understands the design process. Whether that's a practising designer who has 'switched sides' - a perfect example being James Somerville, co-founder of Attik, who's now client-side at Coca-Cola - or a particularly empathetic, well-informed commissioner, this depth of insight and understanding makes all the difference. It means you're working towards a common goal, not bashing heads together or tearing at each other's throats.
Returning to the Global Design Forum for a moment, it's interesting that the speaker who got the biggest peal of applause during the day wasn't an iconic designer (although Peter Saville naturally gave him a run for his money the previous evening). It was Alexei Orlov, chief marketing officer for Volkswagen Group China - speaking straight after our coffee break, I should add, as if deliberately to prove Dean and me wrong.
Orlov isn't a regular of the global design conference circuit, but his engaging insights into the relationship between designer and client, with universal truths grounded in considerable personal experience, were quite possibly the highlight of the day.
Which brings me back to my point. This month, Computer Arts announced its first-ever design conference and industry awards scheme: the Impact Conference and Brand Impact Awards, both of which are dedicated to branding. So what motivated us to launch them, what makes them different and why have I spent the last 400-odd words bleating on about client relationships?
Well, one of the key things that makes Impact different is the involvement of client-side commissioners throughout both the conference and the awards. They're speaking, they're judging, they're providing the kind of invaluable insights from the other side of the table that you rarely get from other events. And those hot topics of creative collaboration and the social impact of design will be weaved throughout - there are even special awards to recognise both - without ever losing sight of that all-important commercial context I touched on earlier.
Alongside representatives from world-class agencies like Wolff Olins, johnson banks, AKQA and Mother, are the people who commission creative for Coca-Cola (that's right, James from earlier), Tesco, Carlsberg, Crabtree & Evelyn and more. In other words, the people who provide work for studios around the world - a mixture of trained graphic designers, former studio heads and bona fide experts in brand development.
Sure, we all know that some clients can be a nightmare. Most designers I've met are fans of the Clients From Hell blog, and with good reason: it digs into those painful day-to-day truths that designers face with just the right mixture of humour and cringeworthy accuracy. But maybe it's time we flipped the commissioning table round for a fresh perspective. The results could surprise you.
Words: Nick Carson
This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 220.
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How do you deal with clients? Have your say in the comments!