Freedom Through Boundaries

During a downhill event at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a contestant wiped out against the fence because she lost her footing on a turn. After lying in the snow for a bit to catch her breath, she untangled her skis, stood up, and glided off the course uninjured. Who knows what caused her to lose her balance. Did she hit a mogul? Was she off course? Did she fail to adjust her position to fit the curve of the course and her speed?

Working with clients can be like a downhill race. The designer is moving along in the process, picking up momentum, and all of a sudden is sideswiped by new input from the client an unable to continue toward the finish line. If this occurs frequently, frustration sets in.

Designing for clients includes concept reviews, changes, tweaks, content changes and other back-and-forth interactions. Too much variation from the client can create “moguls” in the design process that pull the design off course. This is especially true when a designer works with a client “committee”, such as a board of directors. It’s complex enough when working with one person, but get an entire group involved and focus can be lost. Everyone on the committee has an opinion, and they’re seldom in full agreement among themselves. So the designer is pushed in different directions by all sorts of suggestions and recommendations, much of them contradictory.

What’s a designer to do? Set some boundaries.

Boundaries keep us going in the right direction as we work from initial concept through to delivery. Boundaries allow greater freedom than having none, because we need to move toward something in order to accomplish it. They show us where the course is and lead directly to the finish line. By establishing a path of travel and how we’re going to travel, we’ll get safely and quickly to our intended destination.

Take the lead. First of all, since the designer is doing the designing, he or she is in charge of the process. It’s the designer, not the client, who knows what is necessary to achieve a successful solution for the client. Consider this analogy, if one partner in a dance is doing a two-step and the other is getting his hip hop moves on, chaos ensues, and the dance become ridiculous. In any partnership, someone has to take the lead. In the design process, that person is the designer. I look at it this way: As the designer, I lead in terms of process and result, but I let the client lead in terms of content creation.

Begin with a design brief. From the start, the designer outlines the project deliverables and initial expectations in a design brief, which becomes the road map for the design process. By setting these expectations at the front end of a project, extraneous back and forth can be eliminated. I usually contract for 2 reviews and final design, but, depending upon the project and deliverables, it may be 3 or 4 reviews. If more reviews are required, that’s an additional step in the process with an extra charge.

Appoint a navigator. Don’t attempt to work with an entire committee. Specify one person who has the authority to sign off on the project and work with him. This is the navigator who compiles all the feedback into simple summary statements that the designer can run with. Depending on the size of the client’s business, this person might be the owner, president or manager. In the case of an organization, this is very likely to be the executive director, but it could be the president, vice president or a chairperson. This designee is the decision-maker—the ultimate authority for the project from the client side.

Anticipate. Expect scope changes to happen. It’s unusual when they don’t. If design is a process for the designer, it’s also a process for the client. They’re impacted by changing information, change of venue, budget cuts, personnel changes, industry changes, new technologies, etc. A wise designer will expect to be making changes and will therefore be able to take things in stride. A proverb states, “The prudent man sees trouble coming and prepares for it. The fool is surprised by it.”  Build in flexibility and margin to your production schedules.

Redirect. Although the designer is there to serve the client’s needs, some requests are far fetched. Firm but gentle push back is will keep things from getting out of hand. It’s up to the designer to hold the line and not allow boundary markers to be moved or overthrown. But respect what the client is intending. Point out how the request will affect things. Asking why the request is being made is helpful in getting the client to really consider what they’re asking and how it will impact the design solution. This is not defiance or stubbornness. It’s an effective tactic for maintaining the correct course.

Use change orders. When the client requests another change, it will affect the budget. Stop and communicate. I use change orders that describe acknowledge the request and the impact on the budget in terms of schedule, creative fees and expenses. Some designers don’t want to take the time to do paperwork like this, but this is my business, and getting everything agreed to in writing is a good business practice.

It’s hoped that every designer-client relationship is smooth and productive. Some do not work out that way simply due to lack of foresight, focus and constraint. Take the time necessary to draw the map before you set out on the journey, and when there are roadblocks, speed bumps or detours, stop and get your bearings before continuing. Setting boundaries gives you the authority to enforce them, which makes for a successful design solution. But more importantly, it fosters a good working relationship with your client.