No More: ‘Ta-dah’. More: ‘Is This Right, Is This Right?’

Take your client with you in the design process and open up

To the uninitiated and — heck! — the initiated, what does the design process look like? Without wanting to oversimplify it looks something like this.

Brief Design Feedback Design refinement Feedback/Sign off Production

That feedback, design refinement loop can go on (and everyone will start to lose the will to live), but each step has an interaction with the client and a ‘reveal’. But experience has changed my mind. Don’t wait for a ‘ta-dah’.

Let’s look a little closer.

A client or prospect has identified that they need your help with some ‘design’ as — darn it — they have a problem which needs solving and they can’t solve it. These problems can come in all shapes and sizes. From a buyer’s perspective, designers sell solutions — brands, identities, apps, websites, experiences etc… (The list can, and does, go on.)

From a designer’s perspective a client has a problem that needs solving.

The understanding of that problem is key to the direction of travel both parties will take together. Sometimes a client has had a go at solving that problem for you by writing a brief and laying out the solution for you in the guise of deliverables.

Sometimes they simply recognise a business opportunity, or want to grow, or stop stagnation and understand that design thinking and design output can help.

Note, these are the interesting problems and interesting people to work with because there is a mutual understanding of expertise and trust.

Also note that when a ten page brief turns up on your desk for a six page A5 brochure, don’t assume all the questions have been asked and all the answers have been given. Ask those questions like a brief hasn’t been written. (Yup, made that mistake!)

Somehow, either through your great marketing function, a referral or simple old fashioned pure luck, you will end up in front of a prospect. In ‘first contact’ meetings you will be ‘trying each other on for size’.

This is an important stage as you will be spending a lot of time together and you will need to ‘fit’, and the ‘fit’ needs to go both ways. You will have to be able to communicate well together, share an equal footing (no parent-child relationships here please!) and also be able to express a difference of opinion and challenge long held beliefs.

The mistake some design agencies make is to talk about themselves. “Here’s a website we did for X. Here’s some UX we did for Y. And here’s some positioning we did for Z. Aren’t we smart!?”

At no point did our mythical self-centred agency ask what the actual problem is. Let’s face it, the fact that you have been invited in means you have a certain level of competence and that isn’t really why you need to remind them.

Be bold. Meet the client and say, “I have come to listen”.

Sometimes, I have been cavalier enough to leave the presentation at the studio (or if I am brutally honest, I ran out of time and forgot). I am not advocating going along empty handed, but a presentation is there as a backup, not a deal clincher. This exchange is all about what you can do for the client, not what you did for others, and personal chemistry. No one likes the bore at the party who drones on about themselves. Neither does your prospect.

No, the deal clincher is your grasp of the problem and the fact that you actually paid attention and listened.

This is where you get to articulate the problem and reflect back what you have understood. How you go about creating a proposal is a whole new article, and frankly, there are better qualified people out there such as Blair Enns to help you navigate the path of the proposal, and consider the options.

Back to the proposal. If you haven’t understood the problem, you won’t win the job. Simple. This is why you ask the questions in the first place.

You won the job! Congratulations. You aced it. Now, let’s crack on.

Whoah there! Before you fire up the engines, ask yourself “do I have all the answers to my questions, have I met everyone who will be involved in the project and do I know exactly what to do next?” No? Get on the phone, or line up a meeting and find out more.

Phew! Just helped you navigate mistake number one.

Mistake number two is to go away and make preparations for a ‘ta-dah’ moment. (You were wondering when I was going to get to the point, weren’t you?)

Over the years I have found that the more you engage with a client and share ideas — and possibly even confusion — the less likely you are to go up a blind alley. More to the point, you have a greater chance of creating an effective outcome and arrive there a lot quicker with less negotiation. (Bare with me.)

Got some ideas for a theme that is emerging in your client’s communication? Get on the phone and say, “I’ve got this idea.”

Started working on a UX problem on paper? (I assume you still do use paper and pens.) Well, scan it in and send it to the client. Start the conversation now. Share those scribbles and thoughts before you open up Sketch and Marvelapp or (insert your favourite design and prototyping tool here).

What you have done here is validate an idea before you committed to anything concrete, or in a designer’s case, opened up a tool and started crafting a ‘solution’ that might have actually been wrong.

When it does come to that ‘ta-dah’ moment, when you have to share the work with a wider group, ‘buy in’ has already been achieved because the client joined you on the journey. They were involved in each micro-decision and, most importantly, this is what they expected. There were no surprises. If there are choices to be made, they knew they were coming. It wasn’t a ‘ta-dah’, it was a ‘yup, we made these decisions together — let’s discuss!’

This isn’t a call to arms to change the way you do things. This is just a gentle nudge to open up and expose the inner workings. Don’t wait for a ‘ta-dah’ moment, instead keep asking ‘is this right, is this right, is this right?’

Now, I was going to end this right here, in a nice full-circle kind of way, but something happened this week that reaffirmed this.

A client happened to share a re-brand journey with me. This was carried out by another agency — not us. It was journey that he found very frustrating.

Thankfully, the work is now solid and the solution is great, but how they got there seeded all kinds of doubt in the client’s mind. This was done by a highly reputable agency (read expensive) that did all those things a top flight agency should do— ask questions, research, share sketches, document progress, ask for specific feedback — but I think they omitted a very simple but important step.

This is where I think the subtle nuance comes in.

What they didn’t do was get on the phone, share thoughts in-between the ‘ta-dahs’ or even ask permission to explore new avenues. It’s small, but oh so big. With each new ‘ta-dah’ my client was asking himself “am I being listened to? This is not what I was expecting.”

So, once again, this mystical design process we shroud ourselves in boils down to being a human first, and a designer second.

So, try it out. Explore new ways of engaging with your client. Share ideas — even if they are just verbal. Say “I am confused.” Open up.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein

I think he was on to something there…

Design agency owner/founder, Taylor Thomas, based in London. I write about design, the design process, and becoming a better human being. A buzz word free zone.

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