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Rules of the Design Road

October 19, 2010

Or, Client Hand-Holding to Get the Best Results!

“It can’t be stressed enough that in order to produce great graphics, you have to have a good product and a good client capable of making decisions.”

~  Primo Angeli

There is an art and science to guiding the client through the design process. Experienced clients, whether or not you’ve worked with them before, have a confidence about their decisions. They’ll immediately give you a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ or even a ‘I like where you’re going with it’ when reviewing your design drafts.

Key to a project’s success is gauging the client’s expectations, experience and ability to evaluate what you present. Neophyte clients can behave like deer in headlights, thoroughly uncertain about whether or not you’re headed down the right path. Under these circumstances it’s essential to guide them through each step in the process so that they become confident in the work you present.

Let’s start at the beginning of the design process but well after consultations and discussions with the client have begun. Confidence is not instilled by beginning with a half-baked idea for a display ad:

Okay, so that’s a newspaper story headline, but my point is the same (and I liked the graphic). It doesn’t exactly make the best impression on a new (or existing) client to show them a concept half-baked. There are exceptions, but I’ll get to that. Let’s say Jane Newbie Client has never before worked on a marketing campaign for her resort property. She’s selling tropical vacations and sends you this picture from the beach of her resort:

Wonderful! So inviting. The provided visual gets you 95% there. So how do you sell it to her?

Oh, no! You didn’t actually show this to your new client, did you? Well, here is one of the first rules of the design road: Do NOT show the client placeholders if at ALL possible. It’s amateur hour. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Sometimes you need to prove right out the gate that a client’s ten-word headline they love is much, much too long for the space. Sometimes the client prefers to see drafts step by itty-bitty step at a time. This would be the extra-controlling, highly irritating client. (Fortunately, it is extremely rare one of these lands in front of me.)

What truly amazes me is the number of clients who tell me that a previous designer they worked with did this on a regular basis. They would say, “I thought you’d want to stick something in here to say.” And the client’s inner monologue is going, “Damn straight, I would! That’s what I’m paying you for, dammit! You write in something appropriate.”

Here’s where my personal background is often vastly different from other designers: I always do all the design work AND the writing. Most designers are waiting for the copywriter (who’s working on someone else’s campaign at the moment) or the business owner to provide the key information in the copy. My point of view is that I can’t possibly determine whether or not an ad’s visuals, headlines or whatnot are going to do the job of making the sales (or the phone ring) unless I’m thoroughly entrenched in the client’s business. I need to know everything about their USP, products and services, and so on before I lay out a single ad. In fact, many a time the ad’s headline and story come to me first and then I must find or create the illustration or photo(s) to accompany it.

So, if Rule #1 is DON’T show the client half-baked ideas, Rule #2 is show them the entire sales pitch up front – even if you feel an element is missing or the real closer isn’t quite there, be sure you show them the best of your concepts up front:

This is where I’ll have a lot of clients say, “That’s great. I love it! I know that’ll draw folks in.” Now that I’ve got them on the hook, this is where I use my wild card. This is where it’s essential to go for shock and awe when they’re already thinking highly of your skills.

Rule #3 along the Design Road is go for the RBI. (Yes, it’s baseball season. Although a home run is great, going for two or three runs batted in is the ‘shock and awe’ factor.) Rule #3 is where you take this beautiful cake out to show the patron…and then you light the frosting on fire. It’s so over-the-top they can’t help but be impressed and want it even more.

Now before I do the drumroll, let’s look at another client scenario – another type of client who requires steering down a different road. In our example (a totally fake one I just whipped together in 15 minutes for this post), let’s pretend during the client interview that I asked for additional photos. None were available or none were better. How about beach images with patrons frolicking? Perhaps the client says, “We didn’t have the money for that” or “I’m showing off my view, not my guests. I want them paying attention to my product.” For whatever reason, this client doesn’t know what you know, the design and marketing expert.

You know that the client isn’t selling the sand. You know what the client is selling is how that sand makes the guests feel! The client is mistaken in what the benefit is. The client only remembers that she paid the photographer a fortune to camp out on that beach for two weeks while it unexpectedly rained all day for 9 of 10 days to get the perfect shot and blew the budget. She’s certain she’s selling the view because she was so angry at how much the photographer charged for the one shot he could get that’s usable. Now you’ve got to turn around her thinking.

This is where your Rule #3 is pulling a rabbit out of a hat. What your client doesn’t know is that miracles are possible through the wonder of Photoshop.

Now which ad are you going to stop to look over? The one above, or #2 without the girl? (Nevermind the phone number and website aren’t in #2. I’m assuming you would fix that.) So you offer the client both options. Remember, a picture IS worth a thousand words. It makes the pitch for you.

Your client may, or may not, tell you, “I still can’t afford to buy this photo to put in the ad.” And you can reply, “Can you afford not to?” (Now, don’t get cheeky! Help them make the right decision!) If they’re still sitting on the fence, ask them what the potential difference in revenue might be – or do the math yourself if the raw data is available. You should know as a professional designer that ads with models – or figures in motion – have a much stronger rate of review and action than those of static images. If they’re still on the fence, ask them to informally survey their staff or friends and family. Which ad do they think will be more successful? This can always be a bit of a gamble, but if your design is truly compelling, the correct decision should be obvious.

While the rules of the design road are meant to be broken, if you know how and when to apply them (or break them), you’ll be a far better designer and of far greater service to your clients.

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