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8 Keys to a Successful Client/Design Firm Relationship

March 19, 2015

Casablanca-Blaine-RenaultIn 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 Constructive 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.

Be Collaborative. Design requires the expertise and insights of multiple stakeholders with different perspectives. A successful engagement encourages input from many, recognizes the particular expertise of each person at the table, and emphasizes a shared language that avoids jargon.

Be Transparent. More than just being good-faith partners, clients and design firms should embrace transparency by clearly explaining the issues that may be outside the other partner's area of expertise. By educating each other about what's possible, the cause-and-effect relationship of different choices, and the tradeoffs made during a design process, we avoid nasty surprises and ensure that the process runs smoothly and efficiently.

Listen Actively. Design is all about change, and those engaged in the design process must remain open to new information and ideas. We may not always get the answers we're looking for, but in a true collaboration new ideas are what push our own thinking forward.

Embrace Complexity. Good design synthesizes the needs of an organization, the demands of its audiences, psychology, aesthetics, and lots more — and transforms it into things that are useful, inspiring, and essential. Realizing that in design we are engaged not just in making artifacts but in creating ideas, systems, and experiences, designer and client must problem solve from multiple vantage points if they hope to develop successful, sustainable solutions.

Create in Context. If design is to be strategic (as all design should be), it requires extensive research into the needs of a client and its audiences, as well as trends within the field, the sector, and society. Only then can we explore and design solutions that work for real people in the real world.

Hit Your Marks. We're all depending on each other to do a great job, so once a schedule has been agreed to, everyone should do their best to stick to it and deliver on their deliverables. Missed deadlines erode trust, dampen enthusiasm, and cost time and money.

Work Within Scope. Design is a process filled with unexpected discoveries and developments, good and bad. In order to innovate and create solutions to complex problems, client and designer must always remember the spirit and scope of the agreement upon which the process is based — understanding that sometimes good ideas will need to be set aside and/or resources added.

Be Accountable. In branding and design, success is often evaluated by soft or subjective metrics or metrics that can only be accurately measured over time. For the process to succeed, clients and design firms must work together to identify achievable goals (qualitative and quantitative) that inform decision making and drive progress.

As the owner of a design firm, I believe these principles are key to every successful and enjoyable client/design firm relationship. Do they resonate with you? Are they something that work with your realities as a client? What else would you add? I'd love to hear from you.

In the next several articles, I will begin to explore the different aspects of brand strategy, design, and content, as well as some of the best practices you can apply to your own design process.

Headshot_matt_schwartzIn the meantime, take a few minutes to think about how your brand reflects your organization's strategy. And if it doesn't, ask yourself, Why not? I'm pretty certain you'll be surprised by what you discover.

Matt Schwartz is the founder and director of strategy at Constructive, a New York City-based design and brand strategy firm specializing in nonprofits and education. For more articles in Matt's Cause-Driven Design® series, click here.

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