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Expectation Mismanagement

The very talented Graham Smith – aka the Logosmith – posted an essay about a dissatisfied client. Graham is one of the best logo designers working today. He was understandably troubled by a recent spate of less than glowing reviews from clients. Professional graphic designers will agree that his experience isn’t exactly uncommon.

Technological advances and business trends have made design, designers, and design tools familiar to a wide swath of the connected public. As YouTube has made clear, the public does not let their ignorance of a topic prevent them from offering their less-than-expert opinion. 

Familiarity with a subject does not equal expertise. But familiarity with the process and technique of graphic design has hampered the working relationship of designers and clients.

I wrote Graham to share some thoughts:

Hi Graham.

I was really intrigued by your post about your experience with a dissatisfied client. I, too, am familiar with the less-than-elated client.

As an experienced designer, I find that it’s become harder to please clients. We are immersed in a culture that is bombarded with so much visual stimuli in the form of brand communication. This culture has produced a generation that are overtly experienced consumers of graphic design. Their familiarity with graphic design has proven to be a challenge for those of us who create it.

While clients may be familiar with design, too many aren’t savvy enough to be good client collaborators. Often, they have expectations that they themselves do not understand. They are unable to adequately describe what they want, and they may not be able to provide their designer collaborators with the necessary information required for success. Every good client relationship I have had began with a period of early communication (and resolved miscommunication) that ultimately allowed us to understand and trust each other.

Your clients’ positive reaction to your portfolio likely stems from their surprise and delight inspired by your work. They may not be experiencing the same surprise and delight because they know their brand already and they have expectations for what you should be providing. Their informed anticipation cannot yield the surprise and delight they want from your solution. (Please note that my repeated use of surprise and delight renders it less surprising and delightful).

Ultimately the biggest flaw in this interaction is in the relationship. You have failed to manage your clients’ expectations in a way that would allow for a successful solution. And they have failed to trust you enough to understand that your solution is as good as it will get with them as your client. The problem with bad clients is that they don’t always reveal themselves before we commit to working with them.

I also think we might be guilty of sharing too much of our process with clients. Visiting a slaughterhouse will make me rethink a delicious hamburger. Likewise, witnessing your development might make them see the end result with a less-than-fresh perspective. Familiarity can make the work and the result feel commonplace.

I wish we could all succeed like Paul Rand and tell our clients to simply pay our six figure fees to solve their problem. Our solution will be the best we can provide for them. And they may choose to use it or not. Rand did not let his clients determine the success of his solutions.

I think you need to chalk this up to a bad client experience. 

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