News and Insights

The Client/Designer Relationship

Doing good design is relatively easy. But doing great design requires a great client. When Pope Julius II asked when the Sistine Chapel ceiling would be completed, Michelangelo replied, “It will be finished when I shall have satisfied myself in the matter of Art.” “But it is our pleasure,” retorted the Pope, “that you should satisfy us in our desire to have it done quickly.” And it was not until he was threatened with being thrown from the scaffolding that Michelangelo agreed to be more expeditious. On the whole however, the relationship between Michelangelo and the Pope was one of mutual respect, supported with the means of mediation.

As in the case of Pope Julius II and Michelangelo, the relation- ship between designer and client share some similarities. What has always kept the designer and client at odds is the same thing that has kept them together. For the former, design is a means of invention and experiment; for the latter, design is a means of achieving economic, political or social ends. But not all clients are aware of that. Design is a powerful strategic tool that clients can use to gain a sustainable competitive advantage, yet most clients fail to realize is that design can enhance products, environments, communications, and brands resulting in significant financial gains.

The relationship between designer and client is sharply divided. On one end, the designer is fiercely independent; on the other he or she is dependent on management for support against bureaucracy and the whims of the marketplace. I believe that design quality is proportionally related to the distance that exists between the designer and the management at the top. The closer this relationship, the more likely chances are for a meaningful design.

The best designers understand how to bridge business and art. They have the ability to think from both sides of their brain. They know that while the client is not always right, designers do not exist without clients. Therefore, the best designers are able to work collaboratively with non-designers to realize successful outcomes. The problems that a designer is likely to face in business relations depend a great deal on how well informed, genuinely interested and experienced the client is. Business managers responsible for design are usually chosen not for their eye, nor for their impeccable taste, but for their administrative skills. Few understand the intricacies of design or even the role beyond the obvious that design and designers play. Often, the designer is seen as a production artist, not as a strategic part of a business. Marketing directors focus on purchasing or advertising, and incidentally or accidentally are they design connoisseurs. It is their uninformed preferences and prejudices, their likes or dislikes that too often determine the design of things. Yet, they may not even be discriminating enough to distinguish between good and bad design, between trendy and original work, nor can they always recognize talent or expertise. Even when a designer comes up with the perfect solution on the first day, they will need to spend the next two months proving that it is the perfect solution.

To fill the gap of design expertise, corporate managers often form committees, where corporate rank and the strongest opinions not necessarily the best informed ones, prevail when making decisions about design direction. Quality design is typically undervalued by business clients who are prone to make decisions based on market surveys, committee consensus, and short-term profit. If quality, for example, is the subject for discussion, it is dealt with only as an abstraction with committee members assuming the others understand what is being discussed, when, in fact, no one can be sure. Since perception is so intimately a part of taste and design, the experienced designer can point the way to meaningful, high-quality solutions, that fulfill the manager’s needs.

Car designer, Alec Issigonis famously said “A camel is a horse designed by committee”. Design is a personal activity and springs from the creative impulse of an individual. Group design or design by committee, although occasionally useful, deprives the designer of the distinct pleasure of personal accomplishment and self-realization. It may even hinder his or her thought process because ideas and design details have not been allowed the time to be developed and perfected.

A horse designed by committee.

Previous Post
Ed Sutkowski Interview with Kerry Grady
Next Post
The Value of Expertise