Design Discussion Principles — How To Get Your Client To Love Your Design.

Disclaimer: These slightly Machiavellian principles are not meant to manipulate or to serve as an excuse for bad designers to trick their clients. I assume you are a good designer, who does good work, but may have difficulty getting your points across. So please read it with that in mind.

Thomas Petersen
Sep 1, 2015 · 8 min read
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What design is (to your client)

Don’t get me wrong. You already know about typography, proportions, color theory, grid systems, design styles and the other myriad of elements which constitutes the field of design. There is also no doubt, that you have no difficulty discussing design with other designers.

But when it comes to discussing design with clients, none of those skills really matter and for a creative mind, this can be hard to accept. After all, you’ve spent years honing your skills to become the best you can be.

It’s true though. Your clients don’t care.

If you want proof, ask yourself whether or not you care, if the latest Coldplay track uses the Mixolydian scale, or whether the guitar solo is played on a Gibson or Valley Arts. Is that a real drummer on the drum track? In fact, many of you may not have a clue what I’m talking about, which is exactly my point. Rest assured though, it means a lot to musicians.

Clients are not designers. So — discussing the qualities of Interstate or the use of the golden proportions in your grid will leave them as clueless and confused as you probably were listening to my rant about Coldplay.

When unqualified to partake at this level of design theory, the client will default to what they know best, which is to be a design critic. Not something to wish for.

You might ask; if we do not discuss the fundamental elements of design, how can we discuss design at all?

I’m glad you asked. That is what the following principles are all about.

“Always sell.”

The difference between a good designer and an excellent designer is not how good their design is, but how well they sell it. Too many designers, make the mistake of presenting rather than selling. The difference is huge.

When you present the design, you assume your audience understands design in the same way as you do. When you sell the design, conversely, you make it your responsibility to explain what you want them to understand.

“Qualify all design decisions rationally.”

You will never be a great designer without some artistic talent. But when discussing design with a client, you don’t want the artist in you to take over the discussion. This will most likely take you to Subjectville, a horrible horrible place where the uninformed taste of the CEO’s wife, holds as much significance as yours.

Instead of saying “I just think white space is better for the overall look and feel”. Turn it around and say “I used white space to make the call to actions stand out more”.

You haven’t changed a pixel but you have qualified your design decision in a way that the client can understand.

“You + me = we”

We is the Trojan horse of getting the client to listen to you.
We is inclusive.
We brings both parts into the discussion with equal stakes.

By saying “Wouldn’t we run into the problem of X by doing Y” instead of using you, you have effectively shown, that you care as much about the success of the project as your client. You are suddenly not just an external vendor but a team member and you will start to think like that.

“All design decisions have consequences”

If you have gotten into a disagreement about the color of a button; instead of just claiming: “Blue buttons better support the image style, than green buttons” — make it clear to them that there are consequences to their preference of green.

You can say something like “If we use green it will make the page more fresh. But if we use blue it will be more consistent with the other pages”

Acknowledge that their choice has a positive consequence to the design but that it was purely aesthetic, whereas my preference for blue took the best interest of their brand into consideration.

You have suddenly made them the defender of taste and you the defender of business. If they still want green they have also accepted aesthetic arguments which you can then use to your advantage later.

“Avoid political and strategic discussions”

Sometime you can’t get a client to decide and sometimes that is because you are not good enough at principle#2 and #4. Other times though — and more often than you might think, it’s because it’s not their decision to make. These decisions are political and strategic. It often require the client to go back to their organization and figure out exactly where they stand.

If you are not careful, you can end up wasting valuable time working on something, which will then get overruled higher up in the organization. I don’t know about you, but I personally hate wasting mytime like that.

Practice spotting those situations and when you do, simply tell them: “This is a political/strategic decision, not a design decision. I can’t help you make those. You should probably spend some time internally figuring out where you stand.”

You will be surprised how often the client will ask you for your advice. And you want them to do that. The more they trust you, the easier the design process will become.

“Know the client and you know the real project”

Unless you are dealing with DARPA, most project definitions will sound something like the following:

“We need to make our sign-up process easier to understand”
“Our front page is a mess we need to clean up the design”
“We need a total redesign of our website”
“We will need an online presence”

These problems are what every designer is trained to solve. They should be of little challenge to you. But as always “the map is not the territory”. What you should be looking for is what type of client you are dealing with, as this will inform you about how to sell your design to them.

There are four types of problematic clients: (if you know of more please let me know and I will add them)

The politician

The politician is almost by definition someone working in a large organization. He is normally not concerned with making the right decisions, but instead with making as few as possible. He will judge everything you show him on whether it’s good for his career. He will never approve anything outside of the norm.

The politician will be the one most likely to want to do focus groups, usability tests and other “get out of jail” operations to make sure he never can be held personally responsible.

The best way to sell your design to this type of client is to reference either projects done within his organization or by showing how other companies successfully did what you have done.

The insider

The insider is someone who used to work in an agency and know how things work. They will normally be very opinionated and know what they want from you.

Though they might be able to discuss the finer details of design they probably wont. Since they are often hired for their experience with agencies, they are expected to have a lower risk of failing project. Their reputation is at stake. Unwillingly they will rather make a bad business decisions than make a bad looking design decision. They expect the best and will be unforgiven if you make them look bad by delivering mediocre design.

The best way to deal with the insider is to let them shine in front of their colleagues. I.e. make sure your design pitch is tight and make references to inside knowledge about the “industry”, that you know the insider will get, but their colleagues wont. Do everything you can to keep them feel like they are still part of the agency industry and you will sail right through with your design.

The car dealer

To the car dealer, every pixel left untouched, is a pixel to much. They normally have a horrible aesthetic sense and care nothing about good design. What they care about is selling. They will try to push as many sales arguments above the fold as possible. What makes them particularly difficult to work with, is their preference for “cool stuff” they just saw and want you to implement into the design. They are loose cannons making all sorts of crazy suggestions that they think will increase their sales. They are the enemy of white space.

To defeat the car dealer you must become one. Up-sell and oversell your call to actions. You simply can’t spend too much time talking about how your design is custom made for conversion.

The entrepreneur

The entrepreneur is either the founder of a company or someone in a large organization, eager to prove themselves. Treat this client with utmost care. Not because they are difficult to work with, but because they have so much at stake. To them this project is the most important thing in the world and they expect you to feel the same. They are ready to accept mistakes and to make bold decisions. What they won’t accept is the lack of passion or progress. If you fail at this they will take control of all decision making.

The way to get your design approved by the entrepreneur is to resell them their vision. Show how your design underlines every strategic and tactical point they believe in. Show how it will make them as successful as they themselves believe they will be.

Once you have identified who you are dealing with, you will know how how to structure your story and how to discuss your design. Insist on being in the first client meetings. That will give you a good sense of what type of person you are dealing with. Ask them questions that will illuminate their personality and I assure you the rewards will be plentiful.

A final word…

You will need your artistic abilities and creative mind to make great design for your clients, but always be ready to explain why you decided what you did. You owe that both to yourself, the rest of the designers out there and not the least your clients. “It just looks better” isn’t an argument and never has been not even in design circles.

Happy selling.

What are your principles?

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Published in Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking

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