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The Top Dos And Don’ts Of Working With Creative People

Or, how not to be an asshole client.

The Top Dos And Don’ts Of Working With Creative People
[Photo: Nik MacMillan/Unsplash]

[Image: courtesy the author]
Whenever designers get together, we complain about difficult clients. At the same time, we love our clients. And, of course, we need our clients. Any collaboration is only as good as the relationships, which take work. I realized long ago that my difficult clients weren’t assholes or jerks or stupid. They simply didn’t know how to work with creative people, and that disconnect consistently leads to frustrations. So I decided to write a book, Dear Client, to help clients better work with creative people. Here are my top three tips:

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Tell Me The Problem, Not The Solution

What a design brief should not do is suggest solutions. That’s our job. This is important to remember, because a proposed direction or solution from a client is often difficult to forget and may serve to limit a creative team’s thinking. You don’t want anyone saying, “Oh, they want that kind of solution.” The other danger is that we’ll judge our ideas against your suggestion and self-edit, which, again, is self-defeating. Your job is simply to communicate your official collection of hopes and dreams.

Don’t Say This, Say That

Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it that derails a collaboration. Bluntness, specificity, vagueness—all of it can get in the way. So . . .

Don’t Say: Make it red.
Do Say: I wish it were bolder and stronger.

Don’t Say: Make it bigger.
Do Say: I wonder what this image would look like if it were more prominent.

Don’t Say: Use a handwriting font.
Do Say: I like the feeling of handwriting.*

Don’t Say: I hate it.
Do Say: Can you explain this to me?

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Don’t Say: What I’m looking at makes no sense.
Do Say: Can you explain why you decided on this direction?

Don’t Say: Can you try again and make it different?
Do Say: I wish it were . . . [whatever you wish was different].

Don’t Say: I love it [if you don’t actually love it].
Do Say: I think I really like it, but I need some time to gather my thoughts.

Don’t Say: Here are the changes we want you to make.
Do Say: Great effort, but there are some concerns we’d like addressed.

Don’t Say: We need you to do it like this.
Do Say: We are hiring you to do what you do, so please tell us how you’d like this to work.

Don’t Say: What do you charge for a logo?
Do Say: Here is what we are looking for and here’s our ideal timeline. Please come back to us with a proposal.

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Don’t Say: It’s a little job; there’s no need for a contract.
Do Say: Would you like us to supply the contract or would you like to?

Don’t Say: We want it to look like this.
Do Say: Here are a few examples of work we like and think is relevant.

Don’t Say: I’m not a fan of this typeface.
Do Say: Can you show us some different type treatments?

Don’t Say: We can’t pay you much, but we’ll get you great exposure.
Do Say: This is how much we can pay. We hope that works for you.

Don’t Say: This isn’t what I pictured, so I don’t think it works.
Do Say: Let me live with this for a day or two.

Don’t Say: I showed your work to my friends last night at dinner, and they didn’t like it.
Do Say: I was talking to some colleagues and they brought up some issues I’d like to discuss with you.

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Don’t Say: We need this project to accomplish these eight goals.
Do Say: This is our most important goal, but there are secondary goals we’d love to achieve as well.

Don’t Say: Can you combine this version with that version?
Do Say: This is what I like about this version and this is what I like about that one. What can you do with that information?

Don’t Say: Have you designed aseptic baby food packaging before?
Do Say: Can you share other jobs you’ve had that are relevant to this project?

Don’t Say: We like both of these ideas, so we’ll do an A/B test with them.
Do Say: I like both of these ideas, but let’s go with this one.

*Real handwriting is amazing and beautiful and can communicate sincerity and (sometimes) urgency. Handwriting fonts tend to do the opposite. They are clearly, ironically pretending to be something “real.” There are a few good handwriting fonts, but the tell is when each letter is exactly the same every time. That is never the case with real handwriting.

We Don’t Care What Your Spouse Thinks

The call from the client typically goes something like this: “I showed my husband/wife/partner/son/daughter/second cousin what you did—they know much more about this stuff than I do—and he/she/they thought we should go in another direction.”

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While we are sure that your life partner and/or progeny are wonderful people with excellent taste—and maybe even do know “more about this stuff” than you do—what you show them is likely their first interaction with the project. They haven’t read the creative brief, heard you discuss the project with us or your colleagues, had any conversations with us, or attended the meeting at which we explained our thinking. So hearing from them is more than a little frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong. Their opinion is valid because it’s their opinion. Everyone has new thoughts and perspectives that come at random, even inconvenient times. (Sometimes I wake up with different solutions to projects long complete. This is not a discouragement of new ideas or directions or thoughts.) Moreover, the opinions of those close to you are even more relevant if you, the client, truly believe they have brought up interesting points. So once you discuss your loved one’s thinking with your colleagues and any other relevant stakeholders, you are welcome—even encouraged—to raise any points that survive that gauntlet with your creative professional.

We ask only one thing: Don’t tell us it came from your spouse!

Own it. Don’t bring up the mister or missus. Instead, explain it to us in light of the original brief and all the conversations we’ve had. Because few things are more frustrating to a creative (or anyone, I would imagine) than the idea that all our hard work—not to mention our collaboration with you, dear client—can be undone by dinner table or pillow talk. It’s maddening, and it can quickly undo the trust we’ve built together.

Oh, one other thing: If you tell us that your spouse had a new idea, suggesting that we now follow this new direction, well, we now have a new de facto client. So it’s only fair that we meet with said spouse, and that he or she attend meetings going forward.

Won’t that be fun for everyone?

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This article was adapted with permission from Dear Client (Artisan, 2018). 

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