What type of client are you?

By Neil Smith

Over the past 30 years, 15 of them as Howdy, I have worked for a diverse range of clients, from incontinence pad manufacturers to major banks. I’ve visited laboratories in Germany and international news agencies in New York, I’ve had meetings at 10 Downing Street and in offices above kebab shops in Finchley. This experience has enabled me, very unscientifically, to identify a number of client types. Obviously I haven’t bothered with the ‘friendly’, ‘efficient’ and ‘reasonable’ clients, as I couldn’t think of anything funny to say about them. New clients are very hard to come by, and we’d be happy to work with any of the following client types. And I’d just like to add that at Howdy we love all our clients, especially our current ones, most of whom fall into the final category.

The well informed client
Not to be confused with the client who thinks they know it all, this client actually does. One particular client’s knowledge of typography, design history and print technology put us to shame. She took a sadistic pleasure in getting us to re-kern lines of text with a scalpel often late into the night (this was pre- Macintosh) and was an intimidating presence whenever she visited the studio. We produced some of our best work for this client.

The randy client
This group of clients doesn’t exist, until you give them alcohol. You’re more likely to encounter this client at a Christmas party or a company launch than in the board room. I encountered one at a party as a young designer, and felt terror and confusion in equal measure as the company’s biggest client tore my favourite shirt off my back and ran her clammy drunk hands across my naked chest. I think she might have even snarled a playful ‘Grrrrrr’ in the process. It still sends shivers down my spine after all these years. I’ve blanked the rest from my memory.

The ‘more is more’ client
This client doesn’t really get Swiss typography or Nordic minimalism. They’d rather buy design by the square metre. A client once phoned and asked if they could have a ‘bit more design’ on the cover of their insurance policy document cover. We argued that the white space was working as hard as the text and imagery. They didn’t buy it.

The deluded entrepreneur
The most troublesome of the client groups. They lure you in with promises of fame and riches, of shares in their new Google / new Amazon / new Starbucks venture (delete where applicable). You commit totally, you submit to their infectious passion and before long you are an enthusiastic ambassador, telling anyone who will listen that this is the next big thing and that by this time next year you’ll be sunning yourself in the Bahamas. Then you get the phone call: ‘The backers have pulled out’ or ‘We have patent issues’. Six months (unpaid) work down the pan and you swear you’ll never be seduced again. The phone rings… ‘Hi, we’ve got this idea for a new range of oxygenated fruit drinks’… ‘Great, when do we start!’.

The ‘more money than sense’ client
Not sure that this ‘type’ exists outside the 1980s. We once worked for a City chap who was setting up his own trading firm. After briefing us on his branding project he took us to his basement to show us his Ferraris (yes, that’s plural). We figured that this gentleman would be happier paying over the odds for this design work so that he could brag to his chums about how much he’d spent on his new logo. Our hunch paid off, our client was as happy as Larry with the estimate and with the finished project, and we were able to fund an extension to our studio Scalextric track (well, this was the eighties).

The ‘design is for girls’ client
Thankfully not so common these days. We presented to the Chairman of a large textile company and his board of directors, who seemed preoccupied by our funny haircuts and blouson jackets. At the end of the presentation the Chairman seemed slightly non-plussed, saying that he thought he liked it, but he would have to show his wife before he could make a decision. We also encountered the following, from a CEO at another presentation: ‘Purple? it can’t be purple – my wife hates purple!’.

The ‘I’ll know what I want when I see it’ client
The presentation went well, everyone’s happy and excited then suddenly you find yourself producing endless variations and colour combinations of the ‘approved’ design because, apparently, its not quite right. The client can’t quite put their finger on what they don’t like, but of course ‘They’ll know what they want when they see it’. These projects can seem infinitely long, but unfortunately not infinitely well paid.

The frustrated designer
The only reason this client doesn’t design it themselves is because they don’t have the time or the software (or the talent). Ideally they’d like to sit next to you listening to your Smiths CDs, drinking espressos and offering handy suggestions on what typeface to use.

The ‘play it safe’ client
This is the client whose logo and pithy strap line gradually morphs into a Novella as they desperately try to keep their bosses and ‘stakeholders’ happy.

The bad driver
You’re collected from a rural railway station and driven at terrifying speeds, in an executive saloon, through narrow lanes to an out of town business park. I’m not sure, but they seem to be saying ‘I’m the client, i’m in control, and I’m going to drive really, really fast and scare the shit out of your trendy, fixed wheel riding, London arse’, or something.

The perfect client
This client is a careful driver. But more importantly, they’re open to ideas and trust your skills and advice as a designer. They provide a comprehensive brief, or enough information for you to be able to write the brief with them. They have an understanding and appreciation of the benefits of design, a realistic budget and realistic expectations. They also don’t leave things to the last minute. They’re pleasant and friendly to work with. That’s about 10 points I reckon. If a client can fulfil six or more of these, I think they’re pretty perfect.

Here we are having fun with some of our perfect clients
Here we are having fun with some of our perfect clients having just won an award for the great annual report we did for them.  

Five tips for writing a design brief

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It goes without saying that the first step to getting the right design solution is getting the brief right. Your designers can help you to write a design brief but the basic information that you need to provide is outlined in the five steps below.

  1. Outline your objectives clearly.
    Why are you commissioning this project? As with any marketing exercise you need to set clear goals outlining what you want to achieve. Typical examples might be to raise awareness, increase sales, reach a new audience, etc.
  2. Give as much background and supporting information as you can.
    No one understands your business as well as you do so make sure you tell your designers about it. Good designers will engage with your business and share your enthusiasm. Tell them about the culture and personality of the organisation as well as a factual overview. Share what’s good and bad, what is and isn’t working. Be honest. Recognising issues and addressing them is key to business success and design can help reflect changes and alter perceptions. Tell them about your competitors, industry and audience.
  3. Clearly state any specific requirements.
    What are the deliverables? Try to give a guide budget and timescales. If you have brand guidelines ensure that you supply them. If this needs to work alongside other marketing materials ensure that you show them.
  4. Don’t be overly prescriptive.
    Try to involve your designers as early as possible in the process before too many decisions have been made. They can recommend formats, distribution methods and production options that you may not have considered. Try not to influence the design solution too strongly with your own ideas at this stage. You’re paying designers for their creativity so don’t stifle them at the start of a project even if you have to rein ideas in at a later stage. This leads to more exciting and innovative design solutions.
  5. Supply any examples of designs that you like or think are effective.
    While you don’t want to copy what others are doing it’s a good starting point to see examples and get an indication of what you do and don’t like. If you have any examples of materials that you have produced previously it is important to show these – even if it’s to show what you want to change or feel isn’t working.

These are all discussion points to develop a dialogue between you and your designer and help them gain a deeper understanding of your organisation and create something that is unique and relevant to you and specific to your brief. The more information you can give the better the outcome.