Abracadabra: Demystifying the Design Process for Your Client…A Little

Kirk Wells
June 1, 2017

As designers, we know there is no such thing as magic. Well, at least not in the design world. If you see an exceptional website or a genuinely creative logo, your thoughts might be “Why in the world didn’t I come up with that?” or “Wow. How’d they do that?”

It seems like it would be a complicated answer, but it’s not. Work. That’s it. No magic spell or ancient pagan secret. Just hours and hours of concepting, editing, feedback, testing and, sometimes even starting over. Sure, there’s the occasional breakthrough in the shower or “it came to me in a dream” moment. But for every one of those, there’s a dozen more with less than mystical origins.

That being said, our clients don’t live in our design world. They don’t spend hours thinking about proper kerning or selecting the perfect complimentary pantone swatch. To them, it is a magic trick. And sometimes that’s a good thing – like when your client leaves a presentation with child-like awe at the “magic” they’ve just witnessed. But it can also be a bad thing – like when those clients feel cheated or conned.

With the latter in mind, here are a few tips to help you demystify the design process for your clients. These pointers will leave them happy with the results, but still wondering how you did it.

1. Fire is magic…if you’ve never seen fire before.

Clients come in all different shapes and sizes. It’s always good to get a feel for how versed they are with the design process and terminology from the get-go. Creating a dialogue throughout the entire design process will help make sure that they know what you’re doing and the expected outcome.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to give away your secrets. But it’s important they don’t perceive your work as some kind of enigmatic ritual that they aren’t allowed to witness or understand. Keeping them in the loop on the project’s progress will make them feel more comfortable and confident in the result. The client will be curious and excited to see what you’ve come up with, and it’s a lot more fun and reassuring if they feel like they are included from the beginning.

2. The woman isn’t really sawed in half.

Now that you’ve begun the dialogue and have brought your client up-to-speed on your design tricks – I mean project – make sure they aren’t expecting you to make the statue of liberty disappear as well. All showmanship aside, be very clear about expectations. Be clear about what you will be doing, and more importantly, what you won’t be doing. And make sure these expectancies and goals are set both before and during the work, as scope or direction may change.

Additionally, identify potential blind spots and dead ends. This prevents the client from feeling confused or alienated by a shift in the thinking, and gets them excited to see what could come from this new turn. You want to keep their attention focused and moving through the process with you, not speculating what’s going to happen next.

A great way to do this is to treat them like the audience and give them a task. Doing this maintains their involvement and creates a little excitement – like being picked to go up on stage.

3. There’s nothing up your sleeve.

When it comes to the work, no amount of sleight-of-hand is going to save you if you don’t deliver on the promise. Make sure that you are developing concepts and designs that meet the expectations that you set with the client. They want to be wowed. But if you promised to pull a rabbit out of a hat but instead you make their cornflower blue tie disappear, not only have you failed to deliver on what you promised, but they aren’t going to be happy. (I know I wouldn’t be if my cornflower blue tie disappeared! Do you know how much that thing cost?)

However, don’t completely throw out the element of surprise. If the solution you and your team came up with took you off in a different direction and you think they’d be open to hearing about it, feel free to give them a little unexpected thrill. But make sure that you’ve also created something that satisfies the creative brief. Show some process, but not everything. The trick is not as good if you know how it’s done. It’s more engaging for the client when they think they have it figured out.

4. Is this your card?

It would be great if, on the big day, you marched confidently into that meeting room, presented your portfolio and your work received an enthusiastic applause from all in attendance. But it doesn’t always work like that. In fact, at best, you might get some affirmative nods and a gentle smile for all your work and showmanship.

Don’t panic, though. If you’ve put in the work and executed per the brief and client’s expectations, you’ve succeeded. Be confident, even if it’s not the card you were expecting. There’s 52 cards in the deck (not counting the jokers). It wouldn’t be a good trick if there were only 10 cards to choose from.

Don’t let it derail you if they don’t swoon over your favorite option. Show them the rest; show them that twist you came up with. Options are great, but never show them a design that you’re not happy with or that isn’t ready. The client typically picks the design you like least. It’s like it’s a law of nature.

In contrast, if there is applause, don’t stand there like a goon. Take a bow already!

So, no. There’s nothing supernatural about design. It takes practice. And it takes an expert. That’s where you come in. You are that expert; you are the magician. Don’t reveal your secrets and how your “tricks” work. Finding out how your amazing designs came to life might be more disappointing than not knowing at all.

But, just because there’s no literal magic in it doesn’t mean everyone can do it. When handing over files make sure the client understands that, yes, they now own the files, but the real magic happens during the process. Tinkering will only lead to bad designs and mistakes. Hand off the files, but don’t give away control. Remember, the client has only paid to you to see a single trick, don’t give away an entire show for free.