There often comes a time in any type of project relationship that you decide, sometimes sub-consciously, what your role will be. Are you the leader, or the expert? Or are you the taskmaster, or even the worker bee? Sometimes there’s even a combination of roles.
Accepting your role is often difficult to grasp once it’s been established, especially if it’s not the role you wanted or started out with. You may be wondering, “How did I get here, and why did I let this happen?”
It really depends on how you set the tone from the start, and it’s no different with a client/designer relationship either.
A few years ago, when I was just starting my design studio, I had taken on a rather promising client in the gourmet food category. In a traditional agency, their business would have been rather small, but for me it was a good chunk of income and a great opportunity.
How I got the business was a lesson in itself.
I had attained the connection from a client I had worked with in my former agency job. She had left her marketing VP position to go out on her own and eventually joined up with this new venture to help as marketing director and get it off the ground. When we had worked together in the past, I had no idea we would ever work side-by-side in this capacity, or even become friends.
So, going to meet with the former client, now marketing director and her partner, the new company owner for the first time, I was a bit intimidated. Part of me was wondering if I was up to the task of such a client. They had a very high taste level and the gourmet food category was something that I had very little experience. And part of me was anxious to get the business, especially since this income would set me off in a good direction.
In essence, my bit of self-doubt and anxiety couldn’t help but spill over into the now blossoming client relationship. Did they notice that, or did I manage to shield them from my nervous thoughts? They were impressed enough to hire me, though. It was up to me to take it from there.
Now, you have to wonder what their expectations and work-style are like. Not everyone shows their colors in a couple of meetings. Do they expect to drive the creative work and have you making changes at their every whim? Or are they wanting some guidance through the project and need a creative partner to help them through the process?
Do they want a decorator or a designer? Make that decision for them.
My defining moment working with them came when we were in the process completing their corporate identity and selecting colors for the first 9 label designs to appear on their line of sauces. Color, I am told, is one of my biggest strengths as a graphic designer. But, after 12 rounds (yes, 12 rounds – you do the math) of color comps, I was starting to wonder if I knew what I was doing.
They were wallpapering their office with page after page of technicolor uncertainty and all the while tinkering and suggesting, desperately trying to make a decision on the perfect hues.
Then, they asked, “What do you think? Can we try another round with these adjustments?”
I couldn’t take it anymore. In the back of my mind, I thought if I didn’t say something now I would just be their decorator. Pushing pixels whenever the wind shifted. Completely drifting into a design black hole and hating the work.
It was here that I went from decorator to designer.
So, before I realized what I was saying, I said it, “We’re going off a cliff here”.
Uh oh, I thought, it’s out now.
“I’ve run out of bullets. Spent. I frankly don’t know where to take this now,” I said.
Wow. From there I decided to go with it. Business be damned. If they wanted my honest opinion, I was going to say it.[quote]
I think there is a perfectly good solution in the work shown here. We just need to agree which group it is. We’re not going to find it in another round.[/quote]
Somehow, I was relieved and now glad I said my piece.
Well, fortunately this made an impact and they decided to take a break on the call and get back with me later in the day. At this point, I didn’t know what they would do, but for some reason I had a feeling that this wasn’t a deal breaker for the business.
Sure enough, they called back with a decision. They went with the work from the second round of color. It was good, because I was exhausted.
Sheepishly, they apologized for all the additional work and agreed that they were over-analyzing and needed to have a little more trust in my recommendations.
To sum up, my relationship with that client completely changed after that day – for the better. I was much more open to making my recommendations with purpose and there was an improved respect level that carried on with several projects beyond our original.
The marketing director has since moved on from that company and still works with me to this day, ten years later. And we’re great friends.
Sometimes it pays to speak up and swim upstream a little. You never know what may be out there.[break_page]
What are your thoughts? Do you have a defining moment in your client relationships you’d like to share?