The Dilemma

So, how do you cut multiple attempts at guessing what’s on the clients tiny, little mind and push the project forward, ultimately satisfying the client? Pack your crystal ball or tin foil hat and join us as we delve into another mind-bending Design Dilemma, helping to answer your questions, queries and concerns about the murky world of design.

“Philip” writes:

Dear Speider:

AAAAAAH! Please help me figure out this really bad dilemma. I have a new client who wants a website designed for his business, but every sketch I do, he turns down. When I ask what it is he’s looking for, he says, “I’ll know what I like when I see it!”

I’ve now presented about two dozen sketches and, aside from the time it takes me to do the sketches, the client only wants to meet face-to-face and the meeting time, gas to travel to his office, which is about 20 miles away from me, and the rush it puts on other work I have to do while I waste my time with this guy is killing me.

What do you suggest I do? Should I just fire the client (like in one of your other dilemma columns?).

You Are Not Alone

As I said at this article opening, every freelancer has heard this, and I’m no exception. “Philip” didn’t know this,so I replied with a short, but to-the-point answer:

Hi, “Philip”!

“With any client, it’s important to find out what they want their website to do, who he/she wants to attract and service, and it’s always a good idea to ask what other websites he/she admires and if he/she’d like the site to have the same “feel” as another website. This doesn’t mean you’ll copy another site, as the feel of your design isn’t necessarily a copy of elements.”

You are not alone. Most, if not all freelancers have had this problem. There are several reasons this happens:

  1. The client has something in his/her mind but doesn’t know how to communicate it to the designer… and he/she’s a jerk!
  2. The client likes to torture his/her employees and, as a freelancer, he/she is going to make you work for your money by putting you through hell… and he/she’s a jerk!
  3. He/she’s a jerk!
  4. You’re not asking the right questions when first meeting the client to find out what he/she needs. So… you’re the jerk!

Sorry! I was kidding, but not really. With any client, it’s important to find out what he/she wants the website to do, who he/she wants to attract and service, and it’s always a good idea to ask what other websites he/she admires and if they’d like the site to have the same “feel” as another website. This doesn’t mean you’ll copy another site, as the feel of your design isn’t necessarily a copy of elements.

The “feel” is color palettes, light or heavy elements, fonts (san serif, serif, playful, serious, etc.), and the use of images.

Getting All The Information

The important thing is to pull the information… all the information you can from the client so there’s no question about what they want. A personal example was a boss who kept saying she wanted something “sophisticated.” After 11 tries, and her growing very angry I wasn’t getting it, I asked if she had an example she could show me of what inspired her desire for something “sophisticated.” She showed me an example and all I could say, after the palm-to-forehead slap was, “oh, you want something whimsical!” See what I mean about getting the client to show you what they are thinking?

The best way to write up a creative brief to ascertain what’s going on in the mind of the client, so there’s no guessing game, is to follow these simple rules:

  1. Ask what the client likes and to give you examples. Look up the websites and dissect them to see what he/she likes about the site.
  2. Dig to find what he/she means by “sophisticated,” “WOW! factor,” and “mxyzptlk.” Often clients try to communicate using what he/she thinks are “design terms.” More often, designers use terms clients don’t understand, like “wireframe,” “png vs. jpeg,” and “payment upon delivery.” Use clear, simple language and always ask exactly what a client means when he/she uses terms for what he/she wants to see in the design direction.
  3. Once your creative brief is written, ask the client to look it over, ask any questions, and you need to ask as many questions as possible without boring or angering the client.
“If the client wants you to continue doing sketches, you need to decide what the number of sketches will be before you walk away. Usually you can tell if the client is either playing a game or really doesn’t know what he/she wants. Only you can decide how much you will take and when you’ve had enough.”

When sketches are presented, if the client turns them down, you need to ask why. Get to the bottom of why you’re not getting what he/she envisions. It’s your job, as the designer, to provide a solution that the client loves. If you do that, you will gain a regular client who will spread your services by word of mouth. If you don’t, then he/she will spread their disappointment by word of mouth.

If the client can only verbalize, “I’ll know what I like when I see it,” calmly use one of these responses:

  1. “I’m afraid I can’t keep guessing at what will meet with your approval. If you have a picture in your mind, we need to bring it out so I can work with that. If you are just waiting for something to “WOW!” you, then you have to understand that I’ll need to design sketches on an hourly basis until something is chosen as I can’t read your mind and know what you’ll find to your liking.”
  2. “As a professional, I know what will work with your demographics. This direction may not be what you want, but it is what you need!”
  3. “Is that what your wife says in bed?”

If the client wants you to continue doing sketches, you need to decide what the number of sketches will be before you walk away. Usually you can tell if the client is either playing a game or really doesn’t know what he/she wants. Only you can decide how much you will take and when you’ve had enough.

That was all I could tell “Philip.” When dealing with pulling an idea out of a client’s head, you can usually be sure it’s hiding where the brain is supposed to be.

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