The pointless fight against clients


A quick search on the web for “graphic design clients” unfolds a plethora of discussions, tutorials, puns, images, videos, blog posts where the dualism is so strong most of them are simply named “graphic designer vs client”. The origin of this juxtaposition is quite natural as the sense of tribes is still very strong in our brains: “us”, the impeccable designers, against “them”, those who allegedly don’t have any kind of taste in visual communication.

Unfortunately, just like any other oversimplification of reality this dualism contains a big flaw –a missing element in the equation– because the actual definition of “client” is blurry enough to be open to lots of different interpretations. Both Oxford’s Dictionary of English and Devoto Oli’s Dictionary of Italian Language define it as “a person or organization who habitually makes use of the services of a professional person or company”.

Here we'd like to propose a fundamental shift in this paradigm: what’s usually referred to as “client” is simply not the one who makes direct use of our services (or at least, not in majority of cases). The true clients of our projects are the users, the public — the ones who make the most out of our services.

Let us consider a perhaps more familiar scenario: we might be the architects contacted by a land developer to design a house block. In this instance our job should never be interpreting the opinions of the owner of the property, but creating homes that are a great place to live for the future occupants, not for the tenant, otherwise people simply won’t be happy to live there and this would result in a big financial waste for the developer.

The same principle applies to people shopping — customers, also called clients since the two definitions overlap — they are usually the primary users of what they’ve bought, but different rules apply if they’re buying something for someone else. As the major source of income for any freelancer, studio or agency, the “buyer” has after all the right to decide what he wants to purchase, but he’s not the one who will experience and use it.

The more we keep considering us and the clients as two opposite poles the more we’re adding fuel to the fire, giving too much strength to the opinions of each other. Both parts must be perfectly aware of their role.

It’s beyond this editorial to explore all the different relationships between clients and designers. On one end, we have anecdotes of clients not understanding the fundamentals of the designer-client relationship that date far back and don't spare large organizations either. In the 1960s, for instance, bus charters and tours company Trailways refused Unimark International's identity proposal because one of the managers’ wife didn’t like the daisy used as logo. 1

On the other hand, giving a set of options to choose from or asking “what do you prefer?”, means assuming the needs of the public are represented by that client's subjective ideas and generally does not help creating a product that will work. The actual needs of the final customers are not a matter of preferences and must be approached as objectively as humanly possible before even starting to define the look of a project.

We are first and foremost problem solvers — our fundamental role is to help people. Part of the success of this job is sometimes the burden of getting clients on the same page, and this requires more intelligence than entrenching in pointless fights against them.

  1. 1

    Conradi, Jan. Unimark International. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2010. (p. 195)