Starting out as a designer, I used to come to meetings with all the answers. I’d tell the client what they need to do, because I thought I understood what the client does and what they were trying to do.
Over years of experience in this career, I learned that was the wrong approach. While I might actually understand what a client does, the project itself could be completely different from what the client is trying to do. If you come in with the mindset that you already know it all, then the project is not going to work out very well.
I look at graphic design as a problem-solving opportunity. The problem is that the client has a really cool product or service, but they don’t know how to showcase it to the world. It’s about helping them take their product from their little bubble to the rest of the bubbles in the world.
You can easily take their product and showcase it, but it’s also important to make sure you take the client’s voice and their purpose behind the product as you start to disperse it.
Creatives often fall into the trap of getting wrapped up in their own expertise. I’m guilty of it too. But the thing is, if you allow yourself to get wrapped up, you will miss the client’s voice and the reason why they asked you into their bubble in the first place.
That’s why you have to be willing to come in and have a conversation with a client. You have to be willing to understand not only why you’re being asked to do something, but fully understand what they’re asking for.
If you come in with an open mind, then the conversation will be more in the client’s favor and you have an opportunity to learn from them.
So here are three tips to help creatives soak up the best information from their clients:
Tip #1: Listen, Listen, Listen
Too often in conversation we get into this habit of only talking about ourselves and thinking about what we’re going to say next. I consider that only “hearing” because you’re not fully focused on what’s being said.
But listening is an intentional act. When you’re listening, you’re focused on the individual and what they are saying to a point where you’re not trying to dominate the conversation but you’re trying to be a part of the conversation.
It is far too easy as a creative professional to come in and right away start projecting ideas onto a client. But if you do that, and you get carried away with your own thought process, your client isn’t really going to be excited with the end product. Because it’s your idea, not their idea.
So when I sit down with my clients, in the first 15 to 20 minutes I might ask a couple questions, but for the most part they are the ones who are talking while I take notes. Through this process, I can piece together what they want and they themselves can talk through what they want.
That’s the cool thing about letting a client talk it out. They get a better idea of what they want, and then you can start adding ideas to their ideas. You’re improving on their original ideas.
Then once you start to design, photograph or video, not only will they be super impressed with your skillset but they’ll fall in love with your work because, technically, it’s their idea.
You are the problem solver for the client’s situation. You let the client provide you their ideas, and you expand and improve upon them with your ideas.
So actively listen to your client. Let them talk about their ideas for the project, why the project exists, the purpose and goals for the project. During this time, take notes and watch their body language. This is crucial to understanding what the client is going for with the project.
By truly listening in this way, the client will literally continue to come back to you because they’ll feel like you get it and that you get them. That relationship is invaluable and it’s what will produce your best work.
So whatever you do, don’t be the know-it-all in the room. That will only lead to broken trust, unhappy clients, and a project you won’t be working on. You are there to serve the client and make them better. It’s not about you.
Tip #2: Have a Casual Conversation in Casual Setting
After your initial couple of meetings with a client, you want to take the conversation deeper. When I meet with my clients, I try to pick a neutral ground like a coffee shop or restaurant— somewhere more casual than an office.
Because an external environment allows the person to relax, and during that time of relaxation you can get to know that person through casual conversation. Ultimately, what you’re trying to do is build a relationship.
By building a relationship with a client, not only will you get more work from them in the future, but you will start to understand them even deeper. You’ll get to know their personality and understand their thought process. And once you understand their thought process, the design process gets much easier because you’re getting inside that person’s head.
Getting inside the mind of a client is pretty much game over for designers, because once you can start to think and process like them, you can turn around more and more work. You also gain the ability to anticipate what they want so you can surprise them with projects you’re working on. And that right there is an entirely new level of service.
While there is definitely a time and place for professional conversations, you need to have those casual conversations in order to build the relationship. The relationships will grow if it’s built on life, and not just on work. Having these conversations outside of the professional setting will allow the client to relax, not be so up-tight, and be much more themselves.
During these casual conversations, you want to set the tone of simple, easy, and comfortable rather than forceful, awkward or rushed. By having that relaxed atmosphere, the client will be more focused on the task at hand instead of any emotions that may be bothering them.
Make sure that during this part of the conversation you ask broad questions along with some personal, yet professional questions. For example, talk about the client’s weekend. This will open up the door to further ways you can connect with the client in the future, but also allows you a glimpse into the inner workings of your client’s thought process.
Another casual conversation topic could be talking about the client’s job, the company they work for, or what they may enjoy about their job. Remember, the purpose here is to help create a relationship. Once a relationship is established, the workflow will be a lot smoother.
Tip #3: Ask the Right Questions
So you’ve listened to the client in a casual setting, you let them speak for 20 to 30 minutes. Now you’re looking at your notes and you need to ask follow up questions.
There are the obvious questions to ask like:
- What’s the goal of this project?
- When is this project due?
- What kind of voice do you want?
- What kind of design styles do you want?
- How do you want to distribute this information?
That’s obvious information you need to get from your client. But then there are deeper and more specific questions you need to ask. Because although we all speak the same language, what a client might be asking for may not be the same thing they’re envisioning in their head.
For example, when I was designing an infographic for The Modern Marketer, Derek and Shauna both had a vision for a “simple, clean design.” But it turned out that Derek had a different definition of simple and clean than Shauna’s simple and clean.
So that’s when you have to get into the deeper questions. I had to ask both of them: what do you define as “simple”? What does “clean” mean in your language?
It’s our job as creatives to interpret what their answers mean. It may make your client uncomfortable, but it’s all so that you can fully understand the vision that they have. And in that process, they may realize that they don’t know exactly what they want. So you try to help them navigate the language to something specific.
When I was designing a logo for a husband and wife run business called Bright Side Youth Ranch, they told me they wanted “a modern, clean, Western feel” to their logo and brand. So I provided three options with mood boards where I showcased what “Western” could be. Western can be cowboys and Indians, it can be that rodeo feel, or it can be that newer more modern feel that’s more about decor.
Once I presented these mood boards, they realized that they each had different concepts of “Western.” The husband was thinking rodeo while the wife was thinking more of a modern style. By visually showcasing that, they can start to get a clearer picture of their vision.
Sometimes you have to do the mood board to help the client get a better picture. But by actually questioning the specifics of their language, you can get more specific angles. That way you don’t have to waste their money or your time.
So when you’re working with a client, you need to ask them specific questions that really make them think. You have to dive deeper to fully understand what they want, so that they themselves can fully understand what they want.
The process you already have as a designer could be great as is. My advice is just that— advice. You can take all of it, or none of it, or a little here and a little there. This is from my experience as a designer for 11 years. What I’ve learned over the years is that this work is all about relationships. I used to look at clients as just a paycheck, but now I look at them as friends. With that type of perspective, you’re more willing to serve clients in a better way.
If you’re like I used to be and you’re just looking at your clients as a paycheck, you’re really not going to care as much about the work you’re getting done for them.
When it comes to success in the creative industry, you need to be open to learning, listening, and going deeper with your clients. Once you genuinely understand the person you’re doing work for, once you’ve asked the right questions and valued their vision, you become an enormous creative asset.