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Ten Tips for Producing Effective Design—and Minimizing Client Struggles

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Eric Karjaluoto, author of The Design Method: A Philosophy and Process for Functional Visual Communication, offers ten tips that can make your job as a designer more rewarding and less stressful.
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The job of a designer isn’t an easy one. You must assess unfamiliar situations, achieve insight, and use what you’ve learned to synthesize design solutions. Additionally, you must lead clients through a process that might seem foreign to them. This confluence of requirements stymies many designers, who find the challenges all too much. They eventually “go limp,” and simply do whatever their clients tell them to.

But simply doing as you’re told is a disservice to both you and your clients. It’s up to you to guide them through a sensible, practical, and illuminating process that should allow them to better interact with their audiences. In my new book, The Design Method, I talk in depth about all of these considerations. Following are ten takeaways you can put into practice right now.

1. Embrace the Role

Design is a victim of many misunderstandings. The greatest of these might be in the requirements of the role. Many call themselves designers but actually behave like artists. They feel as though it’s their right to be temperamental. They think that writing design plans is a job meant for others. Worse than all of this, they want to make “creative” work that represents their personal esthetic preferences.

However, designers aren’t supposed to be the star of the show. They are backstage workers whose presence should go unknown in the work they produce. Your politics, voice, and creative tendencies all have to take a backseat to your client’s needs. I often say that if I’ve done my job well, the audience will never even realize that I’ve been there; they’ll just think the design I’ve helped produce looks and sounds exactly as it should. 

2. Understand Your Client

Some think that design starts with a sketch; I’d vehemently argue against this belief. Long before you can start to build, you need to understand who you are working for, what challenges they face, how they are different, and how they need you to help. You won’t arrive at this knowledge through doodles; you’ll do so by asking your client questions and listening carefully to what they say (and sometimes even what they fail to say).

Start every new client engagement by indoctrinating yourself in their world. Browse their website and get to know their story; collect all of their brochures and see how they present themselves; survey their mission statement, strategic documents, and past marketing plans to find out what worked and what hasn’t. Talk to people throughout the organization and get a first hand account for what makes this group tick. A designer is a little like a ghost writer who helps tell someone else’s story. You can’t do that if you don’t understand your client inside and out. 

3. Know the User

The design you produce isn’t really for your client; instead, you are making design that needs to impact your client’s audience. And until you appreciate what their audience needs, wants, and dreams about, the odds of facilitating a connection with this group is negligible. So, ask your client questions about the people they work with, but don’t stop there. Meet the people they interact with and get to know them. Observe their behaviors and find out what they love, hate, and are indifferent toward.

More than this, you need to experience the same things your audience does. Here is an analogy, if you’ll allow me this indulgence: You can tell a virgin all about sex, but he won’t understand what you’re talking about until he’s experienced it for himself. In order to create great design, you need to experience what your audience does first hand. Doing so will not only ground you in this design assignment, but also help you uncover insights that even your client might have missed out on. 

4. Think in Systems

While many think the design process only involves the pursuit of novel, clever, and divergent approaches, design actually has much more to do with establishing systems. In a website, these systems will involve common workflows, actions, states, navigation behaviors, and visual cues. For a brand, systems might be comprised of consistent elements, spacing, balance, treatments, language, color selections, typographic styles, and so on.

Good design is overwhelmingly linked with order: Clear taxonomy in the organization of content; consistent voice across a multitude of media and materials; intuitive and easily intelligible markers that users understand without needing to think about for even a moment. As a designer, your job is to identify, establish, and institute these sorts of systems in the work you produce; doing so will make your work stronger, and result in guide rails that help your clients successfully implement the design you produce. 

5. Always Develop a Plan

The belief that design is an explorative process is somewhat misconstrued. Yes, design involves a great deal of research, abductive reasoning, visual investigation, and eventually the synthesis of concepts and treatments. However, design is rarely ever a directionless free-for-all. Any designer who thinks design to be this free wheeling should reconsider their career choice and contemplate becoming an artist instead.

Design is a plan as much as anything else. Devising a workable plan involves a great deal of lucid thinking, collaboration, refinement, and documentation. In asking certain key questions, you increase the likelihood of producing work that does what your client needs. For example, you must define what your client expects to achieve. This involves establishing goals and objectives, deciding a course of action, and measuring the result to determine whether the design solution is successful. Such tasks might sound overwhelming, but they’re really just practical questions that lend you strength just by asking.

6. Choose One Target

Most clients want variety. In fact, they’ve been trained to expect a smorgasbord as a result of the common “three options” approach that many designers practice. This outdated and ineffective habit gets in the way of many designers, and it’s even worse for their clients. When you put three options in front of your client, you force them to make judgments they’ve never been trained to make. As a result, most will just pick random elements from each option and try to mix and match them. (This is called Frankensteining, and rarely ever results in any good.)

You are the designer, and part what your client pays you for is editing. So, produce as many variations as you need in the studio, and then evaluate the options you’ve generated. Pick the strongest one—and only this one—and ask your client to concentrate solely on this. Ask them for frank and descriptive feedback. Then go back to your studio and address these (highly focused) concerns. This approach will limit the number of choices your client has to make and move all involved parties forward in one clear direction.

7. Find Common Ground

When you and I say “simple” we’re using the same adjective, but likely with very different associations in mind. The same is the case when you produce design for clients. In the abstract, both you and your client agree on an approach, but once you actually produce some mock-ups they may be baffled by the result. This sort of misunderstanding happens due to the huge gulf between verbal and visual language.

There are ways to avoid such substantial—and often frustrating—obstacles. One of the easiest ways to reconcile the associations you and your client hold with certain notions is to produce moodboards and styleboards. With moodboards, you find images that help illustrate the conceptual characteristics of the brand or product you’re bringing form to. Styleboards add fidelity to your concept, as these help visualize potential treatments that might be employed. Moodboards and styleboards can be assembled quickly, and doing so will help ensure that the work you eventually produce will resonate with your client. 

8. Don’t Bank on Home Runs

Part of what messes up so many design projects is that designers suffer from sensitive egos: many think that they should be able to “get it right” on the very first try. In actuality, no one is that good. For the most part, the work designers produce just won’t work perfectly at the outset. So, accept that this is just part of the design process, and employ an approach that allows you to learn from each attempt and subsequently correct course as you proceed.

This practice is often referred to as iterative design. To work in this way, you use all that you’ve learned about an assignment to create a prototype. Then you test this early version, and analyze how your approach performs. As a result of this observation, you can then refine your prototype and produce subsequent iterations. Then repeat this process as necessary until you produce a viable model. This process never needs to end. You can continue to monitor users and actions and then use the collected data to inform ongoing improvements. 

9. Present Early; Present Often

The client/designer relationship can be precarious. Few clients commission design so regularly that they fully understand what to expect from the design process. Similarly, many designers work so hard to produce good work that they fail to ask how the client feels about the process underway. Therefore, your job as a designer is not only to create effective solutions, but also to ensure your client remains confident in the path ahead.

One of the easiest ways to ensure a positive customer experience for your client is to communicate regularly. By this I mean that you should call and email often and update your client on activities underway. Similarly, don’t fall into the trap of over-working a design without getting client input. Meet regularly with your client to show the work in progress and gather feedback. Explain that what you’re showing them is still incomplete, but that you want to ensure you’re headed in the right direction. They’ll appreciate being included and kept abreast of progress.

10. Behave in an Orderly Fashion

The hallmark of a professional is in sweating details and ensuring loose ends are addressed. You might not appreciate this notion, but such a response makes my argument no less true. The moment you let your guard down on the small points, you run the risk of shaking your client’s confidence in your capabilities. Meanwhile, even the smallest slips can cost you dearly. (One typo in a printed item might cost thousands of dollars to correct and reprint.)

Detail-oriented behavior doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but certain habits can help you be more orderly. Define how you’re going to consistently name files, organize jobs, and store correspondence. Build templates that you can apply from one project to the next, and continually improve. Establish common steps between projects, and run software that helps you document tasks that need to be performed. Through your efforts, you bring order to your clients; there’s no reason for you to not do the same in your own work.

Want More Ideas on How to Produce Better Design?

While the above points won’t eradicate all the struggles you face as a designer, they can help substantially minimize the obstacles you face. The first step is to acknowledge what part you play in the process; the rest is all about employing sensible and replicable approaches and habits. 

I expound upon the above ten points—and many others—in my new book The Design Method. If you’re a designer who works with clients, I encourage you to pick up a copy. Read this book and you’ll gain new tools and techniques to produce suitable design, successfully unveil creative work, and achieve order and efficiency in your studio’s operations.

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