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Trust and Collaboration

Trust and Collaboration

I said the following phrase to one of my team today: “who cares why? It looks sick!”. Now, this might seem like strange feedback for a Creative Director to give to a Designer, but I stand by it as I know exactly what I mean, and in this post I’m going to try to explain it, because I think it’s hugely important to what we do as designers.

We (the royal ‘we’ – that is, designers and agencies in general) talk a lot about trust and collaboration in our client relationships, but I’m starting to feel from experience that a lot of this is hollow, and in some cases, misplaced. Clients are generally happy to trust their designer or agency initially; allowing us to go away with the information we have gathered from working collaboratively, workshops and/or the joint writing of the creative brief. I think the thought process that allows that is sometimes one based on mistrust, however — outwardly showing trust and letting us going away to do what we think is right for them, but reserving the right to rein it back in when it comes to feedback. This isn’t just down to the client, however, and it would be unfair of us to suggest that it was. Due to the high value of the projects, and each client’s importance to the survival and growth of an agency or consultancy, we are just as guilty of, and just as culpable in occasionally letting this happen.

We often push back against feedback of this kind, taking it as subjective and reminding them (as often outlined at the start of the process), that the brand or website in question isn’t for them, it’s for their customers — who we have gone to great lengths to collaboratively define. This works for some, but not for others, their argument then moves from “I don’t like it” to “well, I think my customers won’t like it either” or “it’s not right for them”. This then puts us in an impossible position. Even after countless workshops and strategy meetings, it can be very difficult for an appointed agency to argue that they know the customers of a business better than the business (who in some cases has been trading to these exact same customers for a long, long time). The collaborative approach finishes and the trust usually stops here, and the agency or designer starts to make amends at the client’s behest, and so their concept and vision is diluted, changed or, in some cases, lost entirely. A lot of these amends, changes and the watering down of concepts comes about (from my experience) from clients not understanding the nuances of graphic design — making them unable to rationalise why certain creative decisions have been made, and why something looks a certain way that doesn’t fit in their non-graphic design orientated brain. This is absolutely fine, but this is also where the trust element already discussed needs to be more prevalent.

Obviously, designers don’t pitch in concepts that they have slaved over for days or weeks just to get a reaction or intentionally annoy their customers. They haven’t decided to ignore all of the research and information they have gathered, or forgot about who their end users, viewers or customers are. They will have produced their concept/visuals based on all of the above and their intuition — that is, their eye for detail, years of experience and careful consideration of the influences they have picked up throughout their careers. Each little flourish that a client sees as superfluous is actually key to the concept, removing these with the flat response “I don’t like it”, “it doesn’t need it”, “my customers won’t get it” or anything else under the sun is akin to introducing systemic risk. Contentious, I know but hear me out.

Firstly, removing or watering down the visual aspect of a concept will ultimately dilute the meaning behind it. The more generic a client is allowed to make a concept through their restrictive feedback, the more bland it becomes and the more it fades into the noise of their market — going against the exact reason that the majority of clients approach branding and design experts in the first place. This is bad.

Secondly, all agencies want to retain clients, and I think if they are honest, clients love a single relationship with a single supplier for all their creative. It gives their owners or marketing manager/director one less thing to worry about. Yet restrictive feedback that the agency has received ultimately (and people may be afraid to share or hear this) ensures that further creative work is restricted by proxy and that the future projects will sometimes never reach their full potential. This is really bad.

The answer? Listen to the designers when they tell you something looks good because trust me, they know. Be honest with your clients, a disagreement like this comes from the best possible place — one of making sure that clients get the best possible end product. We all preach trust and collaboration, but how often do we actually experience this from the client’s side of the equation? An up-front and frank discussion along the lines of my ramble here could work wonders, making sure the project starts off on the right footing.