The designer/client relationship

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Adrian Shaughnessy’s 12 paradoxes of graphic design

I was recently inspired by some beautiful and simple art by student Tobias Bergdahl, which he created after a lecture by Adrian Shaughnessy. While Bergdahl’s work was creative and beautiful, it was the 12 Paradoxes of Graphic Design that got me thinking more than anything else. Every point rang true to me, having been in the business of graphic design for 12 years now, and working with clients for at least 10 of those years. This is a superb checklist of how I can function better as a graphic designer, and essentially, how to form better working relationships with my clients. See the list below, and keep reading for my quick take on each item.

12 paradoxes of graphic design

by Adrian Shaughnessy

  1. There’s no such thing as bad clients. Only bad designers.
  2. The best way to become a better graphic designer is to become a client.
  3. If we want to educate our clients about design we must first educate our self about our clients.
  4. If we want to make money as a graphic designer we must concentrate on the work, not the money.
  5. For graphic designers, possessing verbal skills is as important as possessing good visual skills.
  6. Most ideas fail, not because they are bad ideas, but because they are badly presented.
  7. Designers who use the argument “I know best because I am a professional” are usually unprofessional designers.
  8. We often imagine that all the good projects go to other people. Not so, in fact, nearly all jobs start off as neither good nor bad.
  9. The best way to self-promote is to avoid talking about yourself.
  10. A designer’s brain is capable of much more than making things look pretty.
  11. If we believe in nothing, then our clients will have no reason to believe in us.
  12. Designers often imagine that they need to be embedded with the clients, but there are advantages in being an outsider.

My Take on the 12 Paradoxes

There’s no such thing as bad clients. Only bad designers. So very true. I try to keep this in mind every day.

The best way to become a better graphic designer is to become a client. It’s all about putting the shoe on the other foot. I know how I like to be treated as a client. So I try to emulate what I would expect myself.

If we want to educate our clients about design we must first educate our self about our clients. Every project is a learning process, for both myself and the client. When we both believe we are on the journey together, the results are usually phenomenal.

If we want to make money as a graphic designer we must concentrate on the work, not the money. Sure, this is my profession, so my aim is to make a living at it. But my focus must be on the part I love—the creative process. That’s what makes for a good experience on each and every project.

For graphic designers, possessing verbal skills is as important as possessing good visual skills. If I can’t talk about my work intelligently and succinctly, then you can’t possibly understand where my work is coming from. Designers are certainly visual thinkers, but I must translate my ‘visual’ into ‘verbal’ for maximum client interaction.

Most ideas fail, not because they are bad ideas, but because they are badly presented. This relates greatly to the previous entry. It’s all about communication. If I can’t communicate my vision and process to you, I’m not doing my job.

Designers who use the argument “I know best because I am a professional” are usually unprofessional designers. A designer can’t simply “know best” because they have experience. It’s about understanding the problem, working out the possible solutions, and determining which one will work best for the client.

We often imagine that all the good projects go to other people. Not so, in fact, nearly all jobs start off as neither good nor bad. “All jobs start off as neither good nor bad” is an excellent mantra for any designer.

The best way to self-promote is to avoid talking about yourself. People in the creative industry have a tendency to be viewed as prima donnas (a label I think many in the industry have unfortunately earned). No job is about the designer. It’s about the client and how to best help them with their marketing needs.

A designer’s brain is capable of much more than making things look pretty. My clients often come to me for advice on much more than the actual design of their project. I have to think of the effects of every design decision I make. It’s not about art, it’s about reaction.

If we believe in nothing, then our clients will have no reason to believe in us. As a designer, I can’t be afraid to make suggestions or ask questions based on my experience. I’m doing a disservice by just doing the work with my head down. That doesn’t mean every suggestion will be accepted. But the client should know that I am always trying to find ways to better the outcome of the project.

Designers often imagine that they need to be embedded with the clients, but there are advantages in being an outsider. It’s always good to have a fresh perspective on a project. And freelance creatives provide that in spades!