Design Discussion Principles –
How to get your client to love your design

I’m going to share with you a few of my principles to get clients to approve a design. As many designers know, discussing design with clients can be one of the most challenging aspects of a client relationship. Every designer has experienced the frustration of watching helplessly as their design is deconstructed, only to have it re-emerge as a pale shadow of its former glory. This can and should be avoided. Let me tell you how.

Disclaimer: The following principles are not meant to manipulate or to serve as an excuse for bad designers to trick their clients. I assume you are a good designer who does good work but may have difficulty getting your points across. So please read the following with that in mind. This is NOT an excuse for being a bad designer.

What design is (to your client)

Don’t get me wrong. You already know about typography, proportions, color theory, grid systems, design styles, and the other myriad elements of design. And no doubt you have no difficulty discussing design with other designers.

But when it comes to discussing design with clients, none of those elements really matter. For a creative mind, this can be hard to accept. After all, you’ve spent years honing your skills to become the best you can be. It’s true though. Your clients don’t care.

If you want proof, ask yourself whether or not you care if the latest Coldplay track uses the mixolydian scale, or whether the guitar solo is played on a Gibson or a Valley Arts. Is that a real drummer on the drum track? In fact, many of you may not have a clue what I’m talking about, which is exactly my point. Rest assured though, it means a lot to musicians.

Clients are not designers. So, discussing the qualities of Interstate or the use of the golden proportions in your grid will leave them as clueless and confused as you probably were listening about Coldplay.

When unqualified to partake in this level of design discussion, the client will default to what they know best–to be a design critic. Not something to wish for.

But, you might ask, if we do not discuss the fundamental elements of design, how can we discuss design at all?

I’m glad you asked. That is what the following principles are all about.

Design Discussion Principle #1
“Always sell.”

The difference between a good designer and an excellent designer is not how good their design is but how well they sell it. Too many designers make the mistake of presenting  rather than selling. The difference is huge. When you present the design, you  assume your audience understands design in the same way as you do. When you sell the design, conversely, you create a story around the design, which is far more effective.

Design Discussion Principle #2
“Qualify all design decisions rationally.”

You will never be a great designer without artistic talent. But when discussing design with a client you don’t want the artist in you to take over the discussion. This will most likely take you to Subjectville, a horrible horrible place where the uninformed taste of the CEO’s wife holds as much significance as yours.

Instead of saying “I just think white space is better for the overall look and feel”. Turn it around and say “I used white space to make the call to actions stand out more”.

You haven’t changed a pixel but you have qualified your design decision in a way that the client can understand.

Design Discussion Principle #3
“You + me = we”

We is the Trojan horse of getting the client to listen to you. We is inclusive. We brings both parts into the discussion with equal stakes. By saying “Wouldn’t we run into the problem of X by doing Y” instead of using you, you have effectively shown you care about the success of this project as them. You are suddenly not just an external vendor but a team member and you will start to think like that.

Design Discussion Principle #4
“All design decisions have consequences”

If you have gotten into a disagreement about the color of a button, instead of saying “Blue buttons better support the image style than green buttons”. Make it clear to them that there are consequences to their preference of green.

You can say something like “If we use green it will make the page more fresh. But if we use blue it will be more consistent with the other pages”

Acknowledge that their choice has a positive consequence to the design but that it was purely aesthetic, whereas my preference for blue took the best interest of their brand into consideration. You have suddenly made them the defender of taste and you the defender of business. If they still want green they have also accepted aesthetic arguments which you can then use to your advantage later.

Design Discussion Principle #5
“Avoid political and strategic discussions”

Sometime you can’t get a client to decide. Sometimes this is because you are not good enough at principle#2 and #4. But other times, and more often than you might think, it’s because it’s not their decision to make. These decisions are political and strategic. It often require the client to go back to their organization figure out exactly where they stand.

If you are not careful you can end up wasting valuable time working on something that will then get overruled higher up in the organization. I don’t know about you but I personally hate wasting time like that.

Practice spotting those situations and when you do, simply tell them: “This is a political/strategic decision, not a design decision. I can’t help you make those. You should probably spend some time internally figuring out where you stand.”

You will be surprised how often the client will ask you for your advice. And you want them to do that. The more they trust you, the better the design process will become.

Design Discussion Principle #6
“Know thy client and you know the real project”

Unless you are dealing with DARPA projects most project definitions will sound something like the following examples.

“We need to make our sign-up process easier to understand”
“Our front page is a mess we need to clean up the design”
“We need a total redesign of our website”
“We will need an online presence”

These problems are what every designer is trained to solve. They should be of little challenge to you. But as always “the map is not the territory”. What you should be looking for is what type of client you are dealing with as this will inform you about how to sell your design to them.

There are four types of problematic clients: (if you know of more please let me know and I will add them)

1. The politician
The politician is almost by definition someone working in a large organization. He is normally not concerned with making the right decisions but rather with making as few as possible. He will judge everything you show him on whether it’s good for his career. He will never approve anything outside of the norm.

The politician will be the one most likely to want to do Focus Groups, Usability Tests and other “get out of jail” operations to make sure never he can’t be held personally responsible.

The best way to sell your design to this type of client is to reference either projects done within his organization or by showing how other companies successfully did what you have done.

2. The insider
The insider is someone who used to work in an agency and know how things work. They will normally be very opinionated and know what they want from you. Though they might be able to discuss the finer details of design they probably wont. Since they are often hired for their experience with agencies they are expected to have a lower risk of failing project. Their reputation is at stake. Unwillingly they will rather make a bad business decisions than make a bad looking design decision. They expect the best and will be unforgiven if you make them look bad by delivering mediocre design.

The best way to deal with the insider is to let them shine in front of their colleagues. I.e. make sure your design pitch is tight and make references to inside knowledge about the “industry” that you know they will get but their colleagues wont. Do everything you can to keep them feel like they are still part of the agency industry and you will sail right through with your design.

3. The car dealer
To the car dealer, every pixel left untouched, is a pixel to much. They normally have horrible aesthetic sense and care nothing about good design. What they care about is selling. They will try to push as many sales arguments above the fold as possible. What makes them particularly difficult to work with is their preference for “cool stuff” they just saw and want you to implement into the design. They are loose cannons making all sorts of crazy suggestions that they think will increase their sales. They are the enemy of white space.

To defeat the car dealer you must become one. Up-sell and oversell your call to actions. You simply can’t spend too much time talking about how your design is custom made for conversion.

4. The entrepreneur
The entrepreneur is either the founder of a company or someone in a large organization eager to prove themselves. Treat this client with utmost care. Not because they are difficult to work with but because they have so much at stake. To them this project is the most important thing in the world and they expect you to feel the same. They are ready to accept mistakes and to make bold decisions. What they won’t accept is the lack of passion or progress. If you fail at this they will take control of all decision making.

The way to get your design approved by the entrepreneur is to resell them their vision. Show how your design underlines every strategic and tactical point they believe in. Show how it will make them as successful as they themselves believe they will be.

Once you have identified who you are dealing with, you will know how how to structure your story and how to discuss your design. Insist on being in the first client meetings. That will give you a good sense of what type of person you are dealing with. Ask them questions that will illuminate their personality and I assure you the rewards will be plentiful.

In conclusion

You will need your artistic abilities and creative mind to make great design for your clients, but always be ready to explain why you made a certain design decisions. You owe that both to yourself, the rest of the designers out there and not the least your clients. “It just looks better” isn’t an argument and never has been not even in design circles.

Happy selling.

What are your principles?


23 Comments on “Design Discussion Principles –
How to get your client to love your design”

  1. 1 Black&White™ — Design Discussion Principles – How to get your … | Apex Designs said at 5:05 pm on March 9th, 2010:

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  3. 3 Ahad Bokhari said at 5:02 pm on March 9th, 2010:

    Interesting article. Web design is simply an economic practice, a means to and end. Sure we all like building websites with cool new tools – but thinking about design “as a business” makes it all the more fruitful.

    Liked the examples of clients – as you grow into your niche you'll realize how important it is to work with the right people and understand their mindsets.

    For those who know their craft (even if they have to step out of their comfort zone and learn new stuff) i think effectively marketing yourself / company is key, even more than designing itself…

    Thanks for the thoughts..

  4. 4 Thomas Petersen said at 5:12 pm on March 9th, 2010:

    Wow you said what I spent 1800 words on in less then 200 :) That is exactly what I wanted people to get out of this. Thanks for your comments.

  5. 5 Onyx Group said at 6:03 pm on March 9th, 2010:

    Great Article, I am definitely going to implement some of these ideas with my clients.

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  7. 7 Subbu said at 8:04 am on March 10th, 2010:

    Brilliant post. There is a 5th kind of client – The Endangered Species. They are not afraid to have a PoV contrary to their organisation, not afraid to admit that they do not know and not afraid to back the agency. They are seeking to grow in their career by hard and meritorious work. They are the ones who are seeking true creative answers to their predicament. Agencies seldom know how to handle them and squander away a potential goldmine by either selling too hard of a wrong thing or trying to pass off a lousy thing or by not admitting that they don't know!

  8. 8 Thomas Petersen said at 12:51 pm on March 10th, 2010:

    Great, thnx I will add that

  9. 9 Langemark said at 7:01 pm on March 10th, 2010:

    Outstanding post. Very insightful and slightly maciahvellian / borderline manipulative. I learned lots!

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  14. 14 mrtruffle said at 12:59 pm on March 15th, 2010:

    Great read and an important one for all people selling design, ideas or anything in the marketing world.

  15. 15 Jan-Erik Revsbech said at 9:25 pm on March 20th, 2010:

    Good read. I think a lot of the principles are not specific to design, but can be used in general when selling and delivering web-projects (or any project in genereal).

  16. 16 Leif Lovgreen said at 1:31 pm on April 22nd, 2010:

    Fine post. The most powerful approach to selling design is the 3rd principle: you + me = we
    This way of including the client will always improve the process as well as the result. “No one wants to be left in the dark. specially not when there is money involved” as Hillman Curtis states it in a note about the web designer and client relations. An other essential note is that the great big idea often comes from the client as they know the core of their business, the challenge for the designer is to translate this big idea into a great design solution. The more you can credit the client for being part of the concept behind the solution the less likely it is that they will try to get their finger print in with the look of the design.

    Anyway nice blog, i am now subscribed.

  17. 17 Thomas Petersen said at 12:13 pm on April 23rd, 2010:

    Thanks for your kind words.

    I actually wanted call the post “We” as it is also to me one of the strongest and most honest approaches to clients.

  18. 18 Presenting Design: Don’t Drink from the Fire Hose | News & Views | David Jacob Jensen Information Architecture said at 10:32 pm on May 18th, 2010:

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    I think that sometimes we need to show the client that we are the best, no?

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  23. 23 Jasper said at 6:37 pm on February 20th, 2014:

    Call me arrogant, but in 10 years of being a webdesigner, I only have failed 3 times on a design where the client just did not approved the design. It’s all about listening, listening more, under-promise, over-deliver.