In my last post, I suggested that the shared interests of nonprofits and design firms make us ideal collaborative partners. One of our readers, Emily, added a valuable perspective, commenting that trust was an essential element of the client/design firm relationship because while those who work at design firms and at nonprofits may have shared goals and values, we often have different experiences and vocabularies.
Emily's comment made me think about how, in my experience, communication often is the biggest impediment to a productive client/design firm relationship. It also underscored the importance of discussing the dynamics of the client/design firm relationship before exploring the nuances of the design process itself.
In other words, what do clients and design firms want and expect from each other? And what can we do to ensure that those needs and expectations are met?
Process Makes Perfect
For clients in any consultative relationship, it can be unsettling to work on an important project while navigating unfamiliar territory. You've got a lot invested professionally, financially, and emotionally. You have a sense of where you'd like to go, but only a basic understanding of how to get there. And to get there, you have to depend on people you only recently met.
This dynamic highlights a truism: when it comes to design, process is far more important than results. Process enables us to more consistently create effective solutions, embrace the unknown, and blend a wide range of skills and disciplines (especially if you accept Herbert Simon's definition of "design" I shared) in my last post. Structured effectively, process turns design into an inclusive endeavor by inviting participants from both sides of the client/design firm divide to set expectations, establish benchmarks, and work toward a common goal.
At my firm, process is as collaborative as the work we produce. We are continuously evaluating it, getting feedback from clients, discussing it internally, and evolving how we work – all with the goal of creating the best possible experience and the best possible results. Given the complexities and competing interests inherent in collaborative design, that is no small task!
The Convergence of Business and Design
Used to be that design and business professionals operated in silos, with designers brought in at the end of a process to execute other people's ideas. Over the last twenty years or so, however, "design" has become an integral part of the business lexicon. Clients expect to be part of the process, and designers want (and often expect) a seat at the table when strategy is being developed. This new, more collaborative "co-design" model offers great advantages. It can also bring its fair share of challenges, as individuals with shared goals but different experiences, vocabularies, and expectations are asked to work together to design solutions to complex problems.
An effective process with clearly defined phases can help strengthen this collaboration. Process, however, is only one part of the equation; for it to work, everyone must respect and be mindful of everyone else's goals and priorities.
Rules of Engagement
To help foster this kind of open, collaborative dynamic, we at MSDS have made the following principles the cornerstones of our design process. We live by them, and we look to build relationships with clients that encourage them to do the same.