since creative freedom through setting boundaries

Creative Freedom Through Setting Boundaries

Working with clients can be likened to a downhill race: The designer moves along in her process and picks up momentum as she heads toward the finish line, and all of a sudden stumbles over new input from the client. The process is halted and designer is down until she can readjust and continue. When this occurs frequently, frustration sets in and it will be awhile until the project reaches the finish line. When it happens late in the design development stage, it can mean starting all over  with new concepts.

Designing for clients includes concept reviews, changes, tweaks, content changes and other back-and-forth interactions. There will always be new ideas and schedule changes. But too much variable input by the client creates moguls in the design process that pull it off course or delay it. This is especially true when a designer works with a client committee, such as a board of directors. Arriving at a design solution is complex enough when working with one person, but when a group is involved the designer is pushed in different directions by all sorts of well-intentioned and often contradictory suggestions and recommendations.

What’s a designer to do?

Set some boundaries!


Boundaries are good for business

Boundaries keep us going in the right direction as we work from initial concept through implementation. Boundaries provide greater freedom than having none. They show us where the course is, make us aware of where we’re off track, 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.


Essential boundaries for successful design and business

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.


Boundaries…show us where the road is, make us aware of
where we’re off track, and us lead directly to the finish line.


Take the lead. 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.  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.

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 or her. This  client-side navigator is tasked with compiling group feedback into simple summary statements that the designer can run with. He is the decision-maker who has the ultimate authority for the project from the client side. 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.

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. Changing information, change of venue, budget cuts, schedule changes, personnel changes, industry changes, new technologies, etc., are all ways in which scope is affected. 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 flexibility and margin into your production schedules.


A wise designer will expect to be making changes and
will therefore be able to take things in stride


Redirect. Although the designer is there to serve the client’s needs, some client requests are far fetched. Firm but gentle push back 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. While you hold the line, be sure to 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 seriously consider what they’re asking for, and how it will impact the design solution. This is not defiance or stubbornness on your part. It’s an effective tactic for maintaining the correct course, which is to create and implement just what the client needs.

Use change orders. When the client requests a change, it will affect the budget, and it will affect the schedule. Stop and communicate. I use change orders that acknowledge the request and its 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.

Be flexible. There are times when the client doesn’t have everything you need from them and you have to wait for it. Or there’s a necessary scheduling change on their end. Or they’re relying on someone in their company to provide them the information they need to pass on to you. Make allowances for ebbs and flows in communication streams. Especially if your client is a larger company or organization, there’ll be a number of people responsible for providing content to your navigator who’ll then pass it on to you.


Setting boundaries requires communication

Setting boundaries can cause the client to perceive you as inflexible and hard to work with. Mitigate this perception through open and frank communication. Explain to the client the need to keep pressing toward the goal. Just as the client would not appreciate a designer who’s all over the place with his ideas, so designers don’t appreciate clients who do the same.

It’s hoped that every designer-client relationship is smooth and productive. Many do not work out that way simply due to lack of focus and constraint on the part of one or the other. 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.


Your Turn: Identify some boundaries you should set with clients. Add them to your business policies. Share your feedback and questions in the comments below.