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Better Business Skills Will Earn You Creative Freedom

Collin Strachan
Jun 24, 2018 · 7 min read

I struggled for years to get creative freedom in my design projects. Now, clients almost never ask for design changes.

One fundamental change to the way I communicate with non-designers completely transformed my career.

In the business world, almost no one wants to put thought into design.

Throughout my career, every single one of my clients has been focused on the potential results of a design project. In retail, the golden-egg result is increased conversions. In services, increased credibility. In medicine, perceived quality of care.

I’ve only ever been hired by a designer to do design work one time. We collaborated and created this beautiful pamphlet that we both loved. After submitting it to the director who commissioned the project, it got scrapped. The initial draft was design-focused, instead of being results-oriented.

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By Aleks Dorohovich on Unsplash

“I found that if I earn my clients’ trust before I begin my work, they almost never ask for design changes.”

About nine months ago, I began to experiment with a shift in the way I communicate with clients before beginning work on a project. I found that if I earn my clients’ trust before I begin my work, they rarely ask for design changes. I have no doubt that my regular clients and past employers trusted me throughout the last several years, but the relationships were missing a key ingredient. I was focused on the design. Not the results.

During my time as a designer at a marketing firm near Dallas, Texas, I worked almost exclusively with non-designers. One particular project, a social media post for a children’s painting class, caused me more headache than any other piece I’ve ever worked on.

Mistake 1: My boss posted a simple task on Trello; put together a quick design for a social media post and an e-blast advertising a children’s painting class. Our client was bringing in a well-known local artist for a family activity during which children would paint a “hand turkey” for their moms on Thanksgiving. It couldn’t have been simpler. Design a fun, fall-themed post that catches the eye and conveys the message. I jumped on it, made the design, and had the account manager schedule the post and e-blast. Not a worry in the world.

Mistake 2: …Not a worry in the world. Until that evening, when my boss was reviewing completed work and signing off on scheduled sends. He called me to chat about the design and to get my thoughts about the direction I had taken. I was frustrated because he called during personal time, but I stopped, gave him my pitch, and told him why it would work. I knew him and the client well, so I didn’t stop to ask what they expected from our upcoming mini-campaign.

My boss heard me out, then pitched an idea from another perspective and asked my opinion. He and the client wanted to post an example of the painting that the children would make along with the artist’s logo. I suggested that another turkey during Thanksgiving in a Facebook timeline full of turkeys might draw no attention whatsoever.

Finally, after half an hour of giving my “brilliant” advice, I stopped blabbing for long enough for my boss to tell me that the artist’s logo was very well recognized among the target demographic and that the artist herself had an engaged audience to whom she’d be re-posting. Further, he and the client knew exactly how they wanted the ad to look, as they’d succeeded with a similar campaign that I hadn’t been a part of in the past.

Ok… But I’m still right, right? Wrong.

Mistake 3: If I remember correctly, I respectfully said I’d re-design the posts and have them ready for their scheduled sends. I hope I said that because I was FURIOUS.

How could my boss assign a project to me with no supporting details when the brand recognition and target demographic were not the usual for this client? How could he let me waste my time in the office creating a new design when they already had a successful template? Why was he now wasting my time in the evening when I’d rather be enjoying dinner with my phone off?

Yes, I must seek justice for myself. This is an outrage! How dare they choose to put a turkey on their Facebook during Thanksgiving week?

(Aside: If you’re the boss in question and you’re reading this, hang on for like one more paragraph. I’m about to give you all the cred.)

So, what actually happened? My boss tossed this project up on Trello right after a phone-call with the client. I was wrapping up a big project that day, and we were scheduled to follow up the next morning and review tasks. He planned to add supporting details later that day and to have me start the project on the following day.

Right… This is embarrassing.

Ok, so that one is totallyon me. Let’s recap my mistakes:

1) I started work on a campaign without checking with ANYONE what the expected results/direction for the campaign are.

2) I talked about all my brilliant ideas and why they’re better than someone else’s.

3) I chose to be the victim when my assumptions fell apart.

Had I simply said “Hey boss. I just wrapped this project up, and I want to jump on this event promo you just posted. Got any pointers/input for the campaign?” I would have saved myself hours of frustration.

Editor’s note: I spent 20 minutes looking for a stock photo of a turkey hand painting. No luck…

Our little turkey debacle may have taught me the single most important lesson of my career to date.

If I don’t make an effort to understand my client, to hear their goals, and to communicate their goals back to them,I’m in for revisions ’til the cows come home.

Since then, I’ve made one fundamental change that produced results that I could never have imagined. Every time I begin a project, even with my regular clients, I have a conversation during which I ask for their perspective. I want to learn what their goals are, what will move their business forward, and how they’d like the project to turn out. Then, I throw in the secret sauce.

Fasten your seatbelts…

I repeat back exactly what my client told me.

Fanfare. Blinding Lights.Thunderous Applause.

Ok, so maybe that seems simple. But here’s why it works. And why I almost never have to make significant revisions to my drafts.

“I hear you, what you’re saying is important to me, and I’m focused on your goals.”

When I show to my clients that I understand exactly what they’re saying, that I know where they want to go and can relate with what they feel, I earn their trust. Even if I work with them every week, I’m taking a moment to say “I hear you, what you’re saying is important to me, and I’m focused on your goals.”

Once we’re on the same page, it’s no longer master and slave. The executives that I work for have NO desire to discuss the intricacies of design and the technicalities of my craft. Successful managers, leader, and directors are visionaries — guardians of their organizations’ end goals. As a designer, the most important thing you can do is show that you’re aligned with their goals.

Before you start your next project, sit down with your boss, client, creative director, account manager, whoever it is that knows where you’re headed and calls the shots. Explain to them that you’d like to accomplish your project as efficiently as possible for the sake of the organization and that the most valuable piece of information you need is their goals; something like this:

“Hey, could we chat for a second about this project before I get started? I’d love to hear your goals and to understand the results we’re hoping for if this campaign goes well.”

Take notes with a pen (or pencil… I like pencil) and paper. Just trust me on this one. Get yourself a spiral notebook just for these kinds of meetings.

Let them talk, then read back to them exactly what they said:

“Thanks for so much detail! So the client is hosting local artist, ArtistName, and wants to advertise a family event where children under 6 years old will learn to draw a hand turkey as a gift for their moms. ArtistName has an engaged following, so we’re going to leverage her brand and share this as a collaboration between our client and the artist. There’s a template from last year in the client’s special events folder on Dropbox, so I’ll check that out and make sure my design aligns with that direction.”

In the case of the turkey, there wasn’t a lot of creative freedom for me. They wanted the turkey and the logo, so that’s what I did. But in almost every project since, that one exercise has earned me tremendous trust and creative freedom.

As designers, we are a means to an end. Yes, our years of training gives us insight into considerations that non-designers don’t grasp, but it’s all for nothing if we don’t start with clear communication.

Build trust at the beginning of every project you start. After you try it a couple times, come back and let us know how it went.

Check out our unique online course. Design Your Career is the only online course created to help designers get the professional skills they need to land their dream job. Through 20 video modules, you’ll learn about design in corporate environments, market research, job application strategies and more.

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Career Advice for Designers and the only online course…

Collin Strachan

Written by

Designer. Camera Guy. Business Owner. Writing to make life a little bit better for creatives.

Designed Academy

Career Advice for Designers and the only online course created to help designers get a full-time job.

Collin Strachan

Written by

Designer. Camera Guy. Business Owner. Writing to make life a little bit better for creatives.

Designed Academy

Career Advice for Designers and the only online course created to help designers get a full-time job.

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