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Is the (Design) Customer Always Right?

August 16, 2010

Are they?

When you’ve created the work they hired you to do, is it a success?

If the client is happy with the outcome, is it always right? Best?

Some designers, whether their products are fashion, furniture, jewelry or kitchen a ppliance, may be perfectly satisfied with the results if their clients are pleased with the product. I’d have to admit that, in the past, I would tell myself I’d done my best. And perhaps it was true…at that very moment.

Recently I’d have to say resoundingly, no. What the customer thinks s/he wants or needs – or is ultimately happy with – is not always right or best. Think about it: If they could design it better themselves, they would. They hire you to get something better than what they could create themselves. (Hopefully it’s a whole lot better!)

How do I know that the customer is sometimes wrong? First, there’s the classic Choose One of Three. You give them three options; they choose the “wrong” one as their favorite. I’ve learned never to give three options that aren’t all the best. They’re just different. Under these circumstances, the customer cannot be wrong. Second, and the clear path down the ‘not-necessarily-always-right’ road is when I’m working along Compromise Alley.

Where lies this frustrating and ill-marked thoroughfare? It can generally be found at a fork in the road. The client is certain the ‘right’ way goes one way while I’m certain the ‘right’ way is along the other road. This usually translates in me trudging between the roads, forging a path where none existed before. It requires more effort. It does not necessarily lead to the Emerald City because there are no road signs along the way to help guide us.

Metaphors aside, compromises begin when the client is adamant about what s/he wants (and I know s/he is wrong)! On the other hand, some clients are so vague and uncertain about what they want that a clear focus of the design project can’t be established. I’m hunting and pecking for a visual that says, Aha! to no avail. Either way I can feel in my gut that the result is a compromise. And that is likely to translate into a design that isn’t nearly as impactful.

What’s wrong if the customer’s completely satisfied and I’m not? Sometimes absolutely nothing! Some would say I’m too much of a perfectionist. I take a certain amount of satisfaction from knowing that Stephen Sondheim has been known to continue to work on his shows…after they’ve closed on Broadway. I may not be in  his league, but I’d like to think my standards are.

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