In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

George Orwell

1. Write a creative brief

This is the most significant contribution a client can make yet a large proportion of small business owners sidestep doing it. To make matters worse designers often don’t insist on getting a brief, instead resorting to inquiries during the meeting. Among the on-the-fly responses about objectives, target audience, etc., something is bound to be half-baked. The client, feeling little ownership of what was said, may refine their thinking mid-project, pulling creative efforts thus far out of synch with the business side.

Skipping seemingly bureaucratic paperwork is an alluring idea to both hands-on entrepreneurs and creative types. The issue is there is no official criterion to measure if the design is on target. This makes it tempting for the client to judge the work according to his or her own preferences, when it’s the target market’s tastes that matter.

2. Ensure a good team is assembled

Whether you’re doing print or interactive work, there are three prongs at the end of the plug: design, copy and illustration/photography. Remove or shorten one prong and you’ll be lucky to establish a connection with your audience.

The best designer in world can’t make an eye-appealing layout with lousy photography. Additionally, work with top-notch design and stunning photography doesn’t quite sing when the writing is dull.

Creative must fire on all cylinders. A designer can only bring his or her A-game when weak assets and client side dabblers are removed from the mix. Excellence and mediocrity are both contagious. Choose the right one.

3. Know thy role

Creative work is fun, exhilarating, and seems so effortless when you see the final solution. It’s no wonder many clients feel the urge to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the process.

Expertise aside, clients are too close to it to play the role of Creative Director. Freelancers or outside firms see the product or service with fresh eyes, not unlike the consumer does. This makes it easier for them to relate to the target audience’s frame of mind.

Clients with concrete ideas set themselves up for disappointment due to unrealistic expectations. Sometimes it’s as if they have this nebulous, idealized execution floating around in their head nobody else has access to. Nothing will quite match their vision; therefore no creative execution will be quite right.

The idea and execution are often inseparable. When clients attempt to delegate the bits that require technical mastery, everybody involved takes the hard road. Frustration is felt on both sides and the results can be disastrous.

The best approach for clients to take is to expect the unexpected from the creative team. Clients should share their ideas, but not dictate them. That way if an idea doesn’t work the team won’t be at a dead end, attempting to straiten the leaning tower of Pisa. They’ll have the autonomy to go in an entirely different direction if necessary and latch onto something they’re passionate about.

Rather than getting caught up in specifics, clients that focus on inspiring and educating creatives about their business as rule get the best work. It takes an ability to let go, superior leadership skills, and modesty pull it off.

4. Make informed changes

I have learned that any fool can write a bad ad, but that it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one.

Leo Burnett

Here’s a familiar story. The client calls after proofs have been sent.

“Everybody loves the design! We merely need to make some minor changes and we can wrap this up.”

What follows is a ridiculously elaborate laundry list of edits. It’s almost as if everyone involved on the client side just had to toss in a suggestion to show they’re earning their salary. This phenomenon is a product of human nature (desire to voice an option plus make a mark), as well as company politics. However, it usually does little to improve the creative. More often it slowly transforms it into a Frankenstein-like monstrosity, obfuscating the original intent.

Smart clients need to find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to changes. In the world of design one seemingly minuscule change can affect the entire piece dramatically, resulting in unsightly repercussions the designer might not be able to iron out. Once you’ve given in to the hive mind you’ve opened the door of chaos.

Limit analysis to whether the overall design meets the objectives outlined in the brief. Let the designer work out the specifics of implementation.

5. Don’t try to transform an apple into an orange

In a world full of limitless choices it’s sometimes hard for clients to wrap their head around the fact that a designer will likely produce one or two strong solutions for any given project. Variations might create the illusion of choice, but ultimately the designer will champion a certain approach.

Commissioned work isn’t prevalent in our society. People are used to picking out merchandise according to their exact preferences before making an investment.

Whatever the reason, clients will sometimes try to transform even superb designs into something else simply because the execution is not what they originally had in mind. If changes are made piecemeal and the transformation is gradual enough, the designer may not realize it would be better to scrap it and rebuild until it’s too late. Then again at this point he or she probably just wants the project finished and out the door.

In the end meddling like this wears down the designer and produces work a notch below the original if you’re lucky. The ghost of the apple is still apparent; orange-like qualities are thrown on top, but ultimately it is neither apple nor orange.

6. Stay positive if it takes a few attempts to nail it

As a culture we see the glorious results of creative endeavours but rarely get a glimpse of the outtakes, struggles and triumphs along the way.

Creating great design is a cakewalk compared to producing design the client believes in.

Designers are part detectives because they must gather information about the client’s tastes, biases, quirks then attempt to put it all into account when coming up with an execution. Varying degrees of self-expression come into the mix as well, as if by osmosis.

The result of the alchemic process doesn’t always gel with the client, even when it’s well constructed objectively. A failed first attempt is so common (esp. with brand identity, package design), it can be seen as a part of the creative process. Perhaps the designer hatched the idea too soon, resulting in an underdeveloped execution. Perhaps the subjective preferences of the client aren’t lining up with those of the designer. Maybe it’s merely sloppy work.

As disappointed as the client may be the key is to stay positive. One should never make the designer feel defeated, as loss in enthusiasm for the project is the kiss of death for good creative. Like coaches, clients need to be unfazed by setbacks and eager to provide information that will lead to better results.

–Photo: Piccadilly Pink/Flickr