Your Client Knows More Than You

Apr 6 2011 by John Battista | 41 Comments

Your Client Knows More Than You

"The customer is always right." It’s an often disagreeable adage, but it exists for a reason. Those of us who have had any direct client experience understand that a happy customer makes for a happy business. Return customers account for the bulk of any good design business.

So, is the customer always right? Of course not. How many of us have had to change our carefully chosen modern color patterns to an uglier outdated version to please someone down the line? How many have had to increase a logo size two-fold so that people really know what company they’re looking at? Or take our finely tuned copy and add two more paragraphs to fully detail a service?

Image source: blog.kiwicreative.net

As wrong as a client may be at times, there’s always a reason behind their requests. More than any other field I’ve observed, designers have gotten to the point where we think we’re so much more educated and so much better at what we do that, to many, the customer’s opinion is nothing more than an annoyance.

What if your waitress told you that your steak can’t be cooked to well-done because the chef thinks this cut of beef tastes better with some red in it? What if your painter spent two days arguing against the color you want your living room to be because it doesn’t complement the rest of the house? What if your dermatologist refuses to prescribe you any medication because you’re beautiful the way you are? You get the idea.

Image source: on.ec.gc.ca

You may be thinking: "Well, design is different, our role is more specialized." I disagree. In the end, a business is a business, profit is the key to survival and principles that apply to any other professional field also apply to us. We are not higher up in the food chain.

This isn’t to say that we should throw our opinions out the window; we did go to school and/or went through years of experience for a reason. We should always guide a client — that’s what we’re paid for.

But the reason a lot of these oft-annoying revision requests take place is due to our lack of information-finding, initial explanation/project layout to the client, and inability to properly communicate the reasons behind our choices.

Before any of us even begin to think about how a project will look, we should know a business inside and out. How can we communicate to a bakery’s customer base if we don’t know why their customers go to them for their baked goods? If we had known that the bulk of Joe Schmoe’s carpet cleaning business consisted of senior citizens, we would have already been incorporating larger, easier-to-read copy. If we knew Sally Sue’s massage therapy used a revolutionary technique, then we could’ve had a unique selling point to use in our design.

It doesn’t matter how much training we go through, our customers are always more knowledgeable on what works for them than we will ever be. It’s our job to take that material and translate it into a visual medium.

Designers will always fall short if they try to change a company without intimately knowing that company first. Design is a language; it’s your job to communicate what others can’t.

Give your clients more credit; they hold their views for a reason. Figure out the "why" before fighting it.

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About the Author

John Battista is a young graphic designer and entrepreneur from Grand Rapids, MI who currently co-owns his own business. He specializes in corporate branding and minimalist design. His personal portfolio can be seen at designjohn.com. Connect with John on Twitter @john_scianna.

41 Comments

Oggy

April 6th, 2011

Love this. Such a refreshing article. There seems to have been a big lack in humility within the design community, or maybe the humble ones are the ones we don’t notice. I agree that you should share you opinion first as some advice, it may be something the client hasn’t considered and is willing to change their mind. If they don’t take your advice, then that’s fine, do what they tell you, they’re paying for it anyway. Loved your analogy of the painter and chef, it’s very true.

One thing I would suggest, if you have the time for it, is to occasionally drift off brief creatively. Try sending the client some different variations of mockups (one that sticks to the brief, one that’s more daring and creative). They might just decide to go for something they didn’t know they wanted until they saw it.

David

April 6th, 2011

Great article. I think every designer should study the business they are designing for. I spend a lot of time studying a business before I even attempt to design anything for them. I find one of the best ways to research the business is interview the owner and/or manager to get an idea of how they view their industry. I always tell clients that it’s their ideas that best sell their business and my job is make it look good and be effective online. I think you’ll find your projects run a little smoother if you look at it this way. Thanks for the article.

Austin Lord

April 6th, 2011

While I don’t entirely disagree with the article, I don’t think the painter analogy is very accurate. In this context, painting is a technical skill, not a creative one. If your only responsibility as a web designer (for example) is to mindlessly churn out html, then the analogy makes sense. However, I think that most designers are probably going beyond just the technical aspects of building a product.

I think the proper analogy is if an interior designer tried to voice their opinion on the color of paint on the walls – and of course I want them to. That’s why I hired them.

Ronny Karam

April 6th, 2011

Hi John,
Excellent point of view. Yet, can’t completely agree.
A client well into his business communicates his vision of a website much easier. The collaboration between him and the designer becomes easy.
A designer on the other hand is a professional who also knows his business. If the client knows better, let him design the website himself.

There’s a lot to consider when you’re designing something and especially digital objects: the user experience, usability, integrating social networking, choice of colors suitable to a business, etc. etc.

A doctor who insists on having bloody red on his home page is ridiculous.
A constructor annoyed by a the menu cause he doesn’t think it should be on the website, is sick!

The conclusion. If you have an idea and you want to do it, communicate it to your designer. If not, don’t judge his work based on “what you think is right and more suitable for your business”.

365 Web Designs

April 6th, 2011

This is absolutely correct that client knowledge is much better then service provider about the business client handle, but don’t forget that professional service provider have techniques to make it more attractive then the client thought about its project.

The professional team implement a global strategy to make the business website more effective and 365WebDesigns is a leading name in Toronto Web Design for your business needs…

Blain Smith

April 6th, 2011

I agree to a point. Most clients are very personally opinionated and do not consider the effects their requests have on THEIR clients (visitors). Of course if a client made a request with supporting evidence then thats great. It shows they are invested and not changing colors just because it matches their first car.

Our role as designers is to see through those requests and challenge the client to make more educated decisions. We are not hired thugs who just do what we are told. At least that’s not what I do.

Ultimately, it matters how you and your client connect emotionally and have the same core values. By having this commonality the project will go smoothly and both designer and client will be fully engaged and inspired by one another to launch the best site possible. My advice would be to screen your clients before accepting work from them.

liz

April 6th, 2011

“It doesn’t matter how much training we go through, our customers are always more knowledgeable on what works for them than we will ever be.”

That is absolutely not true. I’m in complete agreement that you should know what sets you client’s business apart and who their target demographics are, if you’re not getting that information, you have no business in marketing. You’re not helping anyone, just stroking your own art ego. But to say that a client always knows what works for them is overstating quite a bit.

Clients generally have no understand of UI, SEO, color theory, contrast, balance or any other technique employed by the designer in the process of producing their materials. Clients know they don’t like blue, they want to be number one on google and the logo should ALWAYS be bigger (because they have egos too).

You made a good point about something that should be obvious (know who you’re working for) and one that should be better employed (listen) but by trying to be controversial you forgot one important thing: It’s a partnership. You place trust in each other. If the client cannot place trust in their designer or that designer is not worthy of trust, than either party should call it a wash and sever that relationship. Otherwise, no one ends up happy.

Kansas

April 6th, 2011

I’ve fought the urge to strangle people when they say “The customer is always right.” As a freelancer, I’ve learned to pick my battles. If I give the client a finished product, and they sign off on it only to discover that their way does not work, I’ll do revisions, but my time gets billed.

John Scianna

April 6th, 2011

@Oggy Thanks! Yes, lately I’ve been involving the client in the design process more heavily, actually letting them keep the client brief too – not just explain what I plan to do.

@Austin Lord Yeah, the analogies were tough to come up with, I did my best! Interior designer may have been a better choice, but I think the same concept applies – I want a home designed for me not for the interior designer.

@Ronny That’s not the point I was trying to make. The client knows more about THEIR business than we do.

Joey

April 6th, 2011

If the client is qualified to make design decisions then they don’t need to hire a designer. If you want someone to mindlessly crank out your horribly executed “design” (most likely done in Powerpoint) then you need a developer or production artist, not a designer.

If the client effectively communicates the problems they face and the goals of their project then a competent designer should be able to translate that to a visual solution. I don’t need you telling me that the logo isn’t big enough.

Also, most high end steak houses will not prepare well-done steaks. And no nice restaurants have salt and pepper shakers on the table. Why do you think that is? Because the chef knows what he is doing and the customer has a shitty palette. Let the chef cook and let the designer design.

Dennis Kardys

April 6th, 2011

I think one thing to consider when making analogies to hiring a painter or selecting from a menu is that in those situations the person is making decisions that effect only themself. It’s a matter of personal preference, and nobody else is affected by the color of the living room or the cut of the steak. In web design we are hired to design things that a client’s audience will be using. If we are to design responsibly, we need to make sure we are careful about which client requests we indulge. Otherwise the potential exists to end up with something ugly, unusable, and inaccessible.

Very nice article though, I love the message of doing more to understand the client’s business and their motives.

Jason VanLue

April 6th, 2011

It comes down to what the client is hiring you for. If they are hiring you as a consultant, then they are looking to you as the designer to offer best practices, suggestions, expertise, etc…

If they are hiring you as a glorified blue collar worker (like the painter in your analogy), then their opinion is the driving force.

This is why it’s essential to set expectations and guidelines from the very beginning of the project.

Matthew Adams

April 6th, 2011

The balance between client requests and maintaining the integrity of a design is always a tough one.

I think the article is right, at the end of the day you have to accept the client knows best, or they know what they want best so essentially for them to be happy you have to accept what the client wants is correct.

The equation and balance does change somewhat from company to company. Is the client coming to you with a brief or a problem. If they come with a problem them you should press your views – it’s what they are paying for.

ddeja

April 6th, 2011

Cool article. Although I have some questions:

1. How do you measure your time spent to learn clients business? How do you monetize it? I understand that this part of job is not free of charge?
2. Where do you draw the line for clients suggestions?
3. What if you are familiar with the business (you worked with it before)? What is the clients role than?

The knowledge of the clients business is very important but transforming it into internet business well that’s the part that your client does know very little about.

4. So once again what kind of suggestions should you take from your client?

Cheers.

Tom

April 6th, 2011

I agree. There needs to be a balance between letting professionals do their thing , and what clients want.

John Scianna

April 6th, 2011

@liz I’m not trying to say that a client knows more about what works for them within design, but rather within their business – which is what we need to translate to a visual medium. You’re right, it should be obvious (to know who you’re working for), but the point in the article is that I think a large portion of the design community is losing sight of that or simply never realizing it as the field becomes more and more streamlined via the internet.

@Joey Again, I’m not trying to say that a client knows how to make design decisions – apparently I didn’t make my point clear enough. Also, what’s the percentage of those super high end restaurants to an upscale steakhouse? It’s the same story with the design community. There are way more mid-level freelancers than Paul Rands out there.

@Dennis You’re right, the analogy isn’t as good as it should be, but it’s more of a message on the relationship between professional and client.

Thanks for the kind words and feedback everyone!

James

April 6th, 2011

The steak analogy is excellent and makes an ideal comparison to the situation many designers find themselves in.

I wrote a similar post a while back on this topic – “actually, the client is always right – http://t.co/HZRZG8c and also one wondering if web design is a customer service job – http://t.co/lLXfBaV

Be interested in readers thoughts, particularly on the second one.

James.

Nickolia

April 6th, 2011

When I go to a restaurant I don’t get up and try and cook the food myself either. If I were to do that I’d get kicked out of the place. Taking advice from the client asking you to improve something is different then having your designs taken and reworked in MS Paint and told “more like that”.

Taylor

April 6th, 2011

I’m sorry, but this is not a well thought out article. The examples you give about how waiters, painters and dermatologists don’t argue with you does not relate well to the topic. Each of those situations affect only 1 person, the “client” themselves. Design affects an innumerable amount of people. What the client wants is very important, but a good designer needs to instill their own creativity and talent into the work to help create the product.

As one of the other commentors suggested, it’s a partnership.

ArleyM

April 6th, 2011

Hear hear.

Too often as designers we get a weird chip on our shoulders. It’s true we’re more net savvy and may see things different. Sometimes it’s our place to offer advice, but sometimes it’s our job to just do as they ask.

And SOMETIMES the client just has it comin’ to them: http://clientsfromhell.net (I am happy to say all my clients have been awesome.)

John Scianna

April 6th, 2011

@Taylor -if your beef is with the analogies, I admit they’re not completely sound, but the point was to take a drastically different field to hopefully get the idea across. I would argue that those fields still have the same things to worry about, their work will be discussed elsewhere and be seen by several others. Sure, it’s a bit of a stretch, but many of the same principals still apply and sometimes it helps to get out of our bubble/see things in a different light to get that chip off of our shoulders, as ArleyM mentioned. Perhaps I should have had left the analogies out as some seem to be honing in on that, but the overall message was more about putting our egos aside.

John Scianna

April 6th, 2011

@ddeja I’m speaking to design on a broader spectrum than solely internet-based, but again – the point of the post wasn’t to say that the client knows more about design than us, it’s more of a statement on designer egos. To answer your question, I think if the discovery process is executed properly and you work with the client in research and planning, then there won’t be a lot of suggestions you have to mull over from the client, they’ll trust your judgement because you’ve shown them that you understand and care about their business. Of course there will be situations where the money simply isn’t there, which is where we usually end up scaling back the discovery process.

John Scianna

April 6th, 2011

@Nickolia As I said in a previous comment, if we take the proper steps before beginning our designs, I truly don’t think we’d have to deal with things like that nearly as often. We’ll always have clients that are just impossible to please because like with a meal, it comes down to personal preference that not every chef can deliver. It’s building trust, showing that we care, understand, and communicating the reason behind our decsisions the right way that’ll eliminate a lot of our hardships. It has for me, at least.

Matt Walker

April 6th, 2011

I do believe that the client-designer relationship should be more of a partnership, but your fourth paragraph is completely wrong-headed because, fundamentally, the work we do is almost always public.

I am very reluctant to execute a client’s poor design decisions because I don’t want them running around town telling everyone I did the work.

The waitress in the restaurant doesn’t care how you order your steak, because you’re not going to cut it into tiny pieces and serve it to everyone on the sidewalk. The painter doesn’t care because people hire him because of his technical skill. The dermatologist doesn’t care how you look because he’s a doctor and is treating your medical condition.

Design is different NOT because it’s “more specialized;” it’s different because our work is a complete visual representative of who we are and what we do, and more notably, it is subject to public consumption without context.

John Scianna

April 6th, 2011

@Matt Walker I disagree – the chef, if it’s a good one, should care about pleasing you because although you won’t go around feeding everyone else your steak, you will tell your friends if it was a good experience (or bad). I disagree on the other two accounts as well; doctors, painters, they do care if their customers/patients like them because word-of-mouth matters. Reviews matter. And you’re right, a doctor doesn’t care what you look like, that was the point – he does his or her job because you asked for it and hopefully because he understands why you asked.

I’ve said this multiple times so from hereon forth I’ll just refer to my previous comments, but at no point was I suggesting that a client knows more about design than us. Perhaps the title is misleading.

John Scianna

April 6th, 2011

@Matt Walker To further that, graphic design shouldn’t be a visual representation of us and what we do, it should communicate a message and solve a problem, in my opinion. I would call what you’re describing as fine art. Change dermatologist to plastic surgeon if that helps get the point across better – either way I don’t think the client is given enough credit or respect in our field.

ngassmann

April 6th, 2011

We’d all like to think that we are hired to be designers, but unless your client feels the same way, you may be the only one who thinks that. Unless you sell yourself as a professional designer, they may see you as a web developer, computer fix-it guy, or even the dreaded “webmaster” of their site.

You have to make sure they clearly understand what you do and why they want to hire you before you go around telling them that their logo shouldn’t be that big.

Adam

April 6th, 2011

I prefer to use the analogy the other way round.

I go to a mechanic and he says I need a new oil filter, I turn around and tell him because I drive my car everyday I have a better understanding of how it works so leave the oil filter as is and instead put in a new radiator.

It sounds ridiculous, and wouldn’t happen – if you didn’t believe the mechanic you would go to another mechanic and get a second opinion.

Yet when it comes to website design/development there is a misunderstanding that it’s about taste, and everyone has their own. Ever heard the ‘I don’t need a degree to know what I think looks good’.

The issue is in our industry there isn’t a default understanding by the wider population that what we do goes far beyond basic aesthetics. The mechanic’s advice is not overuled by the client because they accept they don’t have the expertise, whereas in web design the client often hires a designer because they don’t have the technical expertise with design software, not because they need someone to design their site for them.

I always try to educate my clients on what goes into a successful design during the initial discussions, prior to being engaged by them. That way I can give them a better understanding of what they need, and why that is ultimately what they would want – regardless of the dictates of their personal taste.

Barry

April 6th, 2011

Excellent article. Thank you for putting it in real life terms what we do.

Eric Hyland

April 6th, 2011

A web designer isn’t actually designing for the client, but for the client’s audience. Conflict arises when a client’s personal preference takes precedence over their own business requirements. However this goes back to the main point of your article. Communication!

Ann

April 6th, 2011

I agree, John. As designers, we evaluate our work by how cutting edge and fashionable it is, and by whether other designers like it (Dribbble).

But the huge majority of my clients don’t care about those things at all. And I appreciate that. In the long run, it works best for me to listen to my clients.

That kind of listening takes time, because lots of clients don’t have much experience in expressing themselves about visual things. So the problem I end up with is, how do I monetize all the time I spend helping them tell me what they want?

Michael Tuck

April 6th, 2011

I would have liked the article to have more meat on its bones, so to speak, but it’s a nice antidote for the seemingly endless gush of “We’re web designers, we know best, just shut up and take what you’re given” articles and blog posts.

While we’ve all had clients who want us to do something intensely stupid (I had one who told me that his wife wanted me to include lots of animated graphics of cute puppies whose expression invited users to “come and see us”, a request I talked them out of), instead of clambering onto our high horse and telling them “no way, Jose, I won’t design something so butt-ugly for you or anyone, my design is better and let me bore you stiff by telling you why,” you need to find out what’s behind the client’s request. In the case above, the client wanted a more inviting design that helped impel users to get more involved. My original design was a bit cool and standoffish. Once I realized what was behind the request for cute puppies, I gave the client a warmer, friendlier design that gave him a modicum of what he wanted without having to put little animated Bowsers all over the design. His solution was unacceptable, but his need was real. It took some time and thought to realize what he needed and to come up with a solution that addressed the need without Bowserizing the design. Looking at it in that light, both the client and his wife knew more than I did.

RustyH

April 7th, 2011

Your waitress SHOULD inform you that a well done steak is very dry. As a restaurant owner, I know for fact that customers are rarely right, and think they are always right. I feel as a business owner it is my duty to inform said customers so they can find happiness with new knowledge.

I do agree it is every businesses job to understand what the client truly wants.

sanji

April 7th, 2011

I already ask this question to myself many time, if the clients want this and that it’s because they know what they look for. They are the one who owns the business, you’re just helping them. Just follow and guide them, it’ll bring you good business in the end.

Irina Shishkina

April 7th, 2011

There are no bad customers, but there are bad designers who cannot communicate and explain their ideas to their customers.
The client may have achieved something in business; however, it does not make him a brilliant designer at all. There are plenty of very average dentists, doctors, teachers and, of course, designers.
If there were no bad and lazy designers, there wouldn’t be so many bad designs released in multiple copies. If a customer had no opportunity to implement his/her not-thought-out idea, the world would not have to look at another bad design.
The conclusion. Don’t be lazy and study your customer’s business. If you’ve got a good idea – explain it to the customer.

@jclaussftw

April 7th, 2011

I agree with this for the most part, however if a designer was hoping to use a piece for their portfolio, the poor decisions of a foolish client could cost them that. A designer needs to learn the fine line between a reasonable disagreement and a client, the likes of which the Oatmeal described in this cartoon: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell

Francis

April 7th, 2011

What a great post! From the design point of view, a customer who is a novice in the field and wants a design the way he feels would suit him. You as a designer will have to advice the customer on the basic things to do or how best to come up with a good design.

A customer in the field of design would like you to elicit the requirements first from him before proceeding with the design.

Customers are not always right in my opinion.

Tri Nguyen

April 11th, 2011

I think this article has some valid point on some topics. Designers should listen to their clients and bring a point to bring great customer service, but I do not think the analogies used and that the customer is entirely right. We are getting into more complex situations where usability and user experience are more of a concern than the client. I think the goal is to bring understanding to us as designers and clients and to work together to bring great designs with user testing and analysis.

Chris Cox

May 1st, 2011

I started writing a comment but it got too long, so here’s a whole post in rebuttal instead: http://www.renaissance-design.net/design/your-client-does-not-know-best/

Edmond

May 2nd, 2011

Any designer who has worked in an agency knows more about marketing than a lot of young entrepreneurs do. The assertion that a designer knows more than the client might be well-founded if they’ve spent years listening to CEOs and Presidents of ad agencies tell them what’s right and what’s wrong.

There isn’t a professional graphic designer (I know of) who doesn’t want to spend time doing ethnographic research before digging into a project. Most clients don’t believe the designer should be paid for such work, unfortunately.

John Scianna

May 8th, 2011

@Edmond It’s geared at younger designers, who I spend a lot of time around. Unfortunately as graphic design becomes more mass produced with the way the internet is going, I think it’s becoming more loss than you think.

@Chris Like I commented on your blog, thanks for the comments – but I think you missed the point. If you read through my previous comments I addressed what you brought up.

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