How Great Clients Can Help You Become a Better Designer

by Matt Ward

on February 28, 2011

in design Resources

I’m not entirely sure why it is that, when we talk about clients, so often it seems to be with a certain negative connotation. Clients from Hell is, of course, probably the single greatest example of this particular trend, collecting hundreds of anonymously submitted stories about the things that a wide variety of different types of clients have done or said over the years. It’s an insanely popular site, and I’ll bet that a good number of readers have visited the site or are subscribed. Some of you might have even been out there today.

While I personally still take the time to read most of what gets posted on the site, there has been some discussion as to why it may not exactly be the most healthy of places for us to frequent. One video I watched even suggested that in some cases it might actually be the company or freelancer who is the problem, and not the client! These are interesting and important lines of thought. I do believe that too much of Clients from Hell, or other related negativity, can certainly be a bad thing.

So, in an effort to shine some positivity onto the general perception of the designer-client relationship, in this article, I would like to talk about how awesome clients can help you grow as a designer, and actually become better at your craft!

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really awesome clients. The projects I’ve been involved with are stellar and have been of great benefit to me, and I would like to use two separate instances to illustrate how the client relationship can actually be hugely beneficial to you as a designer.

Free Range

At the outset of one website project that I have taken on recently, I was talking to the client and basically just asking what they were looking for. Instead of giving me a straight answer, or even a slightly confused or indirect answer, the reply I got was simply: “I want to see what you come up with”. For some designers, this is the sort of statement that can throw up all kinds of red flags about a project, because working without at least some level of direction can take you down the wrong path, and lead to a design that is completely divergent from what the client wanted—even if they weren’t aware of their own desires or intentions.

In this case, however, I had known the client for a long time, and we had been discussing the possibility of working on the website for a number of months. There was a certain level of trust there, on both sides, I felt that I knew the client well enough that I wouldn’t just be shooting in the dark, and the client knew my work well enough to believe that they would like whatever I came up with.

Admittedly, that’s probably a pretty rare kind of situation, and one that I don’t expect to find myself in all that often.

That being said, the level of trust displayed here was incredibly liberating in a couple of different ways. First, and most obviously, I was given pretty much total freedom over the look, structure and functionality of the website. The only real limitations that I had were that I had a certain set of stock photos—specifically related to the client’s industry—to work with, and of course the company logo. Other than that, I was pretty much free to do what I wanted.

Of course, this is not to say that I could just design the site as though I were creating it for myself. I still spent a great deal of time thinking about and working out the dynamic of the site, the colour palette that, the overall feel of the design and so forth. It had to match with the client’s own identity, and so I took some cues from their logo (such as my typographical choices), others from the photos that I was provided with, and even some from the client’s facility, which I had visited a number of times.

As an exercise in design, this kind of thing can actually be more valuable than being given a series of guidelines and being told to follow them, or worse being shown a site and instructed to “just do something like that”. I had to really consider the broader picture and develop a viable solution based on what I was able to infer from a collection of information.

That really helped stretch the old grey matter.

The other thing that this level of trust offered was the opportunity to push myself technically, and start delving into some new concepts or ideas that I had been looking for a chance to break out. For instance, this will be the first client site that I have developed entirely in HTML5. More importantly, however, it also provided me with the perfect platform for trying my hand at the concept of responsive design (or adaptive design, if you prefer) and media queries, primarily through the excellent Less Framework.

Because I was given the latitude to play and experiment with the design, I was able to take the time to try things that I otherwise might have shied away from on a project for a client with whom I had a lesser degree of trust—even though I might feel that those things might have been largely beneficial to the project. In this case, I was able to develop a series of comps for different screen resolutions, rather than just working within the structure of the safer, but much more rigid familiarity of the 960 grid, which is what I had typically used previously.

There were certainly some bumps in the road and some learning to think of one design with multiple dimensional manifestations was certainly something new for me, but I’ve learned a lot through the experience. I firmly believe that I am a better designer (and developer) because of it, and I have the trust of that awesome client to thank for it.

The Voice of Experience

The other project that I want to talk about centres around a logo design that I have been working on recently. I was hired to develop a new logo for a fairly large church. This particular congregation actually had a number of members who had the skills to have taken on designing the logo themselves, but rather than having to chose one member over another, or to follow a design-by-committee approach, it was decided that the job would go to an outside source, which just happened to be me.

That being said, however, the aforementioned members of the congregation were not cut out of the process entirely, but rather gathered together to form an advisory group that would provide feedback and insight on the concepts that I submitted to my key contact. Given that some of these individuals had more schooling and experience in the industry than I do, I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous going into this particular project.

And perhaps with good reason, at least to some degree. This identity project has proven to be one of the most extensive of my career, with more concepts and revisions than I ever remember doing on any logo that I’ve designed.

It’s been a great experience.

The advisory group has been excellent in providing relevant and meaningful comments and suggestions, comments which have actually helped me re-evaluate some of the things that I was doing in my original concepts and revise accordingly. We’ve moved forward with once concept, stepped back and looked at another, and started working in two parallel and interesting directions at the same time. Some of the suggestions have also led to refinements and improvements in the typographical treatments within the concepts themselves, and even to some highly customized type!

Now, looking at the most recent submissions (the project is still in progress), I can confidently say that it is some of the best work that I have ever done when it comes to logo design. The project has helped me become a better designer, and again, I have the awesomeness of the client (and the advisory committee) to thank for this growth.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I really believe that any project that you work on—even the ones you wish you’d never even seen—should lead to some level of personal and professional growth. After all, we should always be pushing and challenging ourselves.

However, while it may be true that most clients won’t actually be “from Hell”, I think it’s probably also true that not all clients will be of the level of awesomeness as those I’ve had the privilege of working with lately. You’re not always going to have the level of mutual trust to allow you to comfortably work with virtually no direction. Nor are most of us likely to frequently find ourselves in situations where the client’s advisory committee has a higher level of collective experience than us, and is still willing to provide meaningful and feedback in a positive and constructive way.

So, when these kinds of clients of rare awesomeness do come along, don’t just sit back and enjoy the ride. Make the most of it! Take hold of the situation and seize the opportunity to learn and become an even better designer!

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About Matt Ward