Dear Client: How to work with creatives

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Dear Client: How to work with creatives

Every graphic design project throws up a unique set of challenges. But when it comes to working with clients, many designers experience the same frustrations. Endless rounds of feedback, too many people involved in meetings or a change of heart at the last minute can throw projects off course and put relationships under strain.
Bonnie Siegler’s book Dear Client aims to tackle some of these issues and offers some wise advice for brands and individuals working with creative teams. Based on Siegler’s experience of working with clients across entertainment, publishing, finance and the arts, the book provides a list of dos and don’ts and explains why certain ways of working or communicating can be detrimental to the success of a project.
We caught up with Siegler at creative conference Adobe MAX, where she shared some tips from the book, to hear her thoughts on the key to a successful collaboration.
Creative Review: What prompted you to write Dear Client?
Bonnie Siegler: I’ve run my company for 25 years [Siegler founded Number Seventeen in 1993, before setting up multi-disciplinary studio Eight and a Half] and after about 18 or 19 years, I started to realise a lot of the same things [were] happening over and over. I also realised that I mostly love my clients, but there were people who I started out liking and then through the process, I wouldn’t like them any more. That seemed unfortunate because the client relationship is so crucial to the success of the project, so I started thinking, ‘maybe they just have no idea how we think, how we respond to things, what we need to do great work for them’, because they clearly don’t want to jeopardise the process, they’re not assholes – so what was it? I decided to write this to sort of teach them from our perspective, which will benefit them, because the better the job goes, the better the work is.
I had the idea and knew it was good, but I was too insecure to write it, so I procrastinated for about three years and then I decided I had to do it or someone else was going to – and I would be really pissed [if they did].
The client relationship is so crucial to the success of the project, so I started thinking, ‘maybe they just have no idea how we think, how we respond to things, what we need to do great work for them’
CR: Why did you end up disliking some of your clients?
BS: There were a lot of different things – I itemise them in the book – but it was always [a case of] them not quite understanding how we work. Like ‘We don’t care what your spouse thinks’ for example, that chapter – just the idea that someone would just show someone something on their iPhone at dinner and then come back to us and say, ‘my wife thinks this’ even though their wife or husband maybe didn’t know what the brief was or hadn’t seen any of the other presentations … it was just an uninformed opinion. I say in the book, if you agree with your spouse based on everything you know, just say, ‘I think this’ – and that changes the whole thing. But if I’m forced to respond to your worst case scenario your 12-year-old daughter who knows more about visual things than you do, that just puts me in a really weird position of having an argument with them. It’s really difficult to respond to comments like that.
Constant emails with changes [is another thing] – so we would be moving forward [on a project] and then back and then forward and then back and the client isn’t understanding their responsibility, which is to really think about their responses because there could be seven people working to advance their first comment and then the second and third comment can contradict the first…. Most everything is about respect – just respecting each other’s processes.
I think creativity is emotional, and most people are uncomfortable with emotions at work
CR: Why do you think you were seeing the same issues time and time again?
BS: I think creativity is emotional, and most people are uncomfortable with emotions at work, even though of course there’s emotions at work – we’re just people. So people try to tone that [emotion] down. When you don’t admit [as a client], for example, just not understanding how something works – so instead of saying, ‘I really don’t get it, can you talk to me about how it works?’ you say, ‘I don’t like it, I need you to start over’ – there’s a big gap between those two expressions that can mostly be solved through conversation, but it doesn’t happen because insecurity breeds anger and frustration rather than a desire for understanding.
CR: Is listening an issue, would you say? So clients not listening to designers? Or vice versa?
BS: Yes but I also think it’s also that clients aren’t taught [how to work with designers] and designers aren’t ever taught to work with clients – they learn how to design things – so both of us are kind of going into it blind, with one side saying ‘we want to do what we want to do!’ and [the other side saying], ‘we need what we need’, and it’s natural that there would be confusion and problems and confrontation, which is all anathema to the creative process.
CR: Do you think these issues are more acute in the creative industries because people put so much of themselves into their work? For example, designers might take criticism personally, and clients might not be aware of how much people have invested in a project?
BS: Absolutely. But you know, design is a commercial art. We’re not fine artists. My husband is a fine artist and it’s totally different: he does whatever he wants and he’s done when he wants to be done. [Graphic design] is very different: we need clients to do what we do and we can’t do it without them. We need them and they need us and that should make for a good relationship, but it often doesn’t.
CR: The book is inspired by your experiences with clients. Can you tell us about one of the best experiences you’ve had? What made it so positive?
BS: Oprah Winfrey was an amazing client. We did a book for her – there was a movie called Beloved that she was the star of and she kept a diary, so they gave us her diary and a stack of photos and we made a book, or the first pass of the book, and we sent it to her not knowing what would come back.
With someone like her, it could be an assistant calling or someone saying, ‘here are her [changes]. Do them’. But Oprah called us herself … and she asked questions about the design. Everything she had questions about, she just asked, and I would give her an answer and sometimes she would say, ‘OK, I understand now’ and that was good, and sometimes she would say, ‘I still don’t like it’, and that was good too, because at least we had a chance to explain it and we got to know which bits she didn’t understand, which helped inform our decisions going forward.
CR: And the worst?
We worked with someone, a writer, for about a year, and when [her book] was launched, she decided to tell the New York Times that she had designed it herself even though she wasn’t a designer. It just put a bad taste on the whole experience – and why? Obviously people worked on it – there were people who worked hard and did that part that she didn’t do – so it was a terrible way to end a successful collaboration. It took away the collaboration part.
I’ve had work where I’ve never met the client from start to finish, which is terrible.
CR: How has the way you work with clients changed since you started out?
BS: Unfortunately because of email, there are fewer in-person meetings, which I think are absolutely crucial. I’ve had work where I’ve never met the client from start to finish, which is terrible.
One of the things I [recommend] in the book is no matter what, have the first meeting in person. Even if people have to fly places, just one meeting in person will change everything that happens after. Skype doesn’t work in the same way as just meeting someone – walking into a room, standing side by side, being able to experience how they are, who they are and getting to know them better. Obviously email makes things a lot easier, but people expect constant back and forth then which I also think is detrimental to the process, so let the designers get to a point where they feel comfortable sending stuff instead of the ease of sending it getting in the way of the process.
CR: Are there any methods you’ve introduced at your studio to make the process of working with clients smoother?
BS: I know people who do questionnaires and things like that [to get to know clients better before working with them], but it’s really hard because in the heat of the moment, design studios want the job and want to agree with what the client is looking for … it’s all very emotional and it’s very hard to stop and make some rules.
Nobody wants to have that discussion in the heat of that moment … but that’s another thing I thought would be helpful about the book. It puts all that information in one place.
CR: Is the book aimed at just clients or are you also hoping creatives will read it? What do you hope people will get out of it?
BS: This was an ongoing discussion with my publisher. I had a PR person and they would set up presentations with designers and I would say, ‘no it’s not for designers’, but designers really responded to the book because all in one place was everything they were feeling and experiencing.
When you have a small studio, you’re not talking about all the problems and insecurities you have with everyone you know, so there it was in black-and-white: it was saying, ‘this is not right and when it happens, don’t accept it. When it does happen, you can push back and say ‘actually why don’t we do it this way instead?’’ I think it was confirmation for designers and made them feel better about their frustrations.
CR: What’s the response been like from clients since you launched the book?
BS: I don’t get to send it to clients where we had a bad relationship anonymously unfortunately! But every client who I’m friends with is afraid to read it, because they’re worried they’ll be in there as a bad example. I don’t use names for anything bad – only good names go in. Some people might recognise themselves but those are people I wouldn’t want to work with again!
The client is insecure too, it’s not just us … and if you go in knowing that, it helps a little bit
CR: What advice do you give your time if they’re experiencing issues with a client or the relationship is not going well?
BS: Have a drink with them. [The problem] is not going to go away – it will only get worse – so you have to stop everything, sit down with them and say, ‘I think we need to talk about this process’. Those are difficult things – your income relies on that relationship and there is perhaps a fear of alienating the client more than they clearly already are … but everybody is insecure. That’s something I always tell my designers: the client is insecure too, it’s not just us … and if you go in knowing that, it helps a little bit. The client might be worried about how they look, how they appear to us … so its important to get on the same level. Have a drink or a coffee and defences will go down a little bit and you can talk about what’s going on and why. It does usually get better after that, but it’s a hard step to take because it means acknowledging theres a problem, which of course nobody likes to do.
CR:Face-to-face communication seems like a really core part of a good relationship for you. I suppose it can be difficult to judge someone’s tone or what they mean over email and digital communication?
BS: Exactly. I used to have my assistant read any difficult emails I wrote, because when I read it, it had my inflections and when she read it it was different, so she would tell me where it sounded a little angry or off. You can’t do it yourself, because you’re the only one who knows exactly what you’re thinking and no-one else in the world does.
Email is awful! Things that you can explain in one minute in a phone call can take literally ten emails. It’s absurd. If you can’t meet in person, phone is better than email and Skype is good but it’s still not the same as meeting. The worst is conference calls with eight people on them. It’s the worst way to do any kind of work. First of all, a lot of voices sound similar so you can’t always tell people apart, you cant tell who’s paying attention and who’s on their phone so you don’t know if they’re really involved or not. I hate them. I also hate Slack and all that stuff where people are constantly commenting and the person who’s doing the work is being inundated with constant comments. For me, nothing replaces being in person.
Conference calls with eight people on them. It’s the worst way to do any kind of work…Nothing replaces [meeting] in person
CR: You mentioned large conference calls being a bug bear – do you think it’s important, in the early stages at least, to keep meetings small?
BS: Vision is not a group activity – that’s not to say everyone on the client side can’t get together amongst themselves and talk it out, but for us to deal with more than two people and be taking comments from say, 20 people is just really difficult, and nothing good gets done. So having ideally one or two people who are in charge and in on everything makes the whole thing better. Really, one creative is all you need to have a good idea and then a team to make it happen, so it’s really between the client and the creative director.
CR: What advice would you give for clients who are taking on a new client?
BS: Before hiring, I think they should meet in person with the potential candidates. A website does not replace meeting in person with the creative director. The account director can be there, but the creative director or whoever is actually going to be doing the creative thinking – I hate job titles – has to be there as well to hear things directly from the client. Something else might strike you [as the creative director] that wouldn’t necessarily strike the account director – an adjective for example. The account director is [needed] to note the business side of things and to organise the whole project, but to leave the creatives out of that initial process is a huge mistake. It sounds like common sense, but it happens often.
I don’t care where the idea comes from … if a client has a great idea, they love it and we love it so we’ve all won.
CR: How much collaboration should there be between client and studio? How closely do you think they should be involved in the process? Or do you think its more about having a clear brief and being left alone to be able to create that?
BS: It’s collaborative no matter what, whether the client is involved along the way or when you present, because their feedback is the collaboration. You can’t be against it. But [the level of collaboration] I think really depends on who the client is. We have one client who is incredibly creative and he always makes it better – he has this unique perspective on his company and what its goals are, and he knows the product better than I do, so I’m excited to share stuff with him because all I want is for it to be better. I don’t care where the idea comes from … if a client has a great idea, they love it and we love it so we’ve all won.
CR: Is the book is exclusively for clients working with creative teams?
BS: There are some things that are specific to art and creativity, but I think the book could apply to anyone. Something like how a boss responds to someone – seeing something they’ve done, whether its a report or a spreadsheet, the way you respond to that person affects them emotionally and professionally at the same time, so just being aware of your interactions wither people when they’ve poured their heart and soul into something makes a huge difference in their job performance. So much of the book is about respect and kindness, and that can apply to anyone.
Dear Client is published by Artisan Books and costs £12.99. You can order copies here. Designers can also send the book to clients anonymously – along with a note from Bonnie that reads ‘You are wonderful to work with, but a colleague thought you might like this anyway’, from See more of Eight and a Half’s work at 8point5.comThe post Dear Client: How to work with creatives appeared first on Creative Review.

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