understand them. If they feel you ‘get
them,’ that’s huge.” And the client’s
appreciation, carefully fed over the
length of an individual project, will
ensure a solid source for future work.
And End in
Designers, like all professionals,
love trading war stories about their
most difficult, impossibly demanding
clients. But clients who are too easy,
too smooth, too congenial, with lots
of “Great idea! We’re ready to go!” can
be far worse.
So says Diana Mahoney, who
writes frequently on design subjects.
All happy talk and no disagreements
often mean clients are biding their
time to weigh in on the project when
it’s already significantly underway.
“They’re not giving you an accurate
portrayal of what’s to come,” she adds.
An absence of serious, detailed,
back-and-forth discussion about
ideas and methods at the beginning
is a glaring clue that the designer is
sure to be left with cost overruns and
expanded schedules, Mahoney says.
Debra Lehman-Smith, ASID, a
founding partner of Washington’s
LSM, echoes that prediction, cautioning that any designer entering
a relationship without a formal and
intense visioning process among all
parties is in for major trouble.
And Lots of
There are few things worse in a busi-
ness relationship than one party
being in the dark about who on the
other side is pulling the trigger on
decisions. A client-designer rela-
tionship can be torpedoed when it
begins with one person or a small
group and then either you or the cli-
ent has to face new people coming in
at later stages. Shinick says, “Get it
right upfront, in writing if you can,
on who you’re dealing with and who
you’re answerable to.”
Remember, a camel is a horse
designed by a committee; be vigilant
about keeping your decision-making
team small, and insist your counter-
parts do the same.
Once you have those small, consistent teams on both sides of the
equation (yours and your client’s),
don’t just ask for feedback, make it a
requirement. At every stage of the project, there must be an honest meeting of
minds. For every customer who complains about services, many more may
remain silent but are still dissatisfied
with the services they’ve received. If
you don’t ask, the client might tell you
— and your prospective clients — after
it’s too late to do anything about it.
Various people we talked with pointed
out some of the many issues that
arise around money. Here are three
bits of advice.
1. Don’t wait to negotiate. “You
have to develop street smarts when
it comes to money,” Shinick says.
“Those who don’t get burned.” One of
those smarts, he adds, is that money
must be discussed as soon as possible.
Nobel agrees. “Tell a client you can’t
quote a total budget at the beginning,”
he says, but do offer some figures. “If
they pass out or hang up, at least you
haven’t wasted any more time.”
2. Tailor the arrangement to the
client. Fees and expenses have to be
clearly included in standard contracts,
but with reliable clients, exceptions
may be made. Lehman-Smith says
it’s a mistake to try and tailor every
client’s obligations into a one-size-fits-all suit. “Remember that it’s a
partnership,” she says. Stuart Levine,
author and chairman and CEO of
Stuart Levine & Associates, an international management consultancy,
agrees. “You make a business decision,” Levine says. “You realize that
once in a while businesses go on the
skids. And often you’ll decide to stay
with them, understanding there’s a
3. Good cop, bad cop. If a client
is in arrears for payment, the first
step is to take personal responsibil-
ity, Levine says. “You shouldn’t have
allowed it to get out of hand,” he adds,
and you must learn from your mis-
take. But after telling the client “that
you’ve grown accustomed to eat-
ing regularly,” the consultant adds,
and there’s still no response, or more
excuses, other methods must kick in.
A designer should, if possible, have
an administrative arm within the
company, even if it’s only one person,
who can come down harder than you,
as a professional, want to or should.
Using the surrogate, you’ll get paid,
plus you’ll avoid being part of the
sometimes nasty process that has to
be undertaken to get the check in the
door and cleared.
Finally, any design pro who feels at
sea in the deep waters of legalese, the
fog of accounting formulae, or who
is struggling to separate marketing
mumbo jumbo from true information,
must work on getting smarter about
these things. Take advantage of
business courses wherever available,
says Nobel. You can start by going to
the ASID website and clicking on the
“Knowledge Center” tab, which takes
you to an easy to navigate, curated
collection of resources designed to help
you improve your business skills.
Ambrose Clancy is the editor of the
Shelter Island Reporter and the author of
Blind Pilot, a novel, and The Night line, a
work of nonfiction. He has written for the
Washington Post, the los angeles Times,
GQ, and other major publications.