How I Talk to Clients About Design
Creative Director and Owner of Modu Design, Josh McInerney RGD shares his approach to communicating the value of design and overcoming client bias. 


When I started my own design agency three years ago, I figured that talking about design would be the least of my problems. It's what I've been doing for well over a dozen years. It has been my job to talk not just about design, but about how it helps businesses compete and grow.


During my first year running Modu I realized there was something wrong with the way my message was being delivered. I’d wax poetic about my understanding of corporate identity, the perfect harmony and balance found between type and imagery and colour choices and how it will make a stronger connection to a client's target customer. I was preaching at the altar of design and just waiting for the converted to follow me to the promised land!


So I waited.
And waited.

It soon became obvious the gospel wasn't getting through to the masses.


That first year was a real eye opener about how our agency talked about graphic design with new clients. Speaking about our agency's professionalism and high design standards just wasn’t enough. We constantly found ourselves getting pulled into the uncomfortable cost comparison grudge match with our competitors. We were continually being asked to lower our prices, lose this part of our process here or shave off some time there. Simply put, our clients just didn’t see the value in graphic design.


While this realization prompted us to seek out better clients, it also made it clear that the industry is facing a serious problem: in a profession that has become so commoditized, where anyone can call themselves a 'designer' regardless of whether they have the skills to back it up, how can qualified professionals set themselves apart? 


After taking some time to think about our delivery, we decided to try a completely different approach, making graphic design the last thing we bring up with clients. 


Every conversation with a new client now starts with understanding their brand position. Or more bluntly “who are you to whom and why should they care?”


The first client we tested this new approach with was a new female-focused entrepreneurial program launching in Ontario. The client was looking for a new logo design and other communication material.


In the early stages of this client courtship they mentioned that they had been in talks with several different freelance graphic designers, that they had originally been thinking about having their in-house marketing intern do the design and that they might also work with their printing vendor who also provided “design services”. As the three stakeholders of the company sat across from us at the table, I figured this was as good a time as any to test the new approach (either that or run for the exits).


“Ok, just one question. Can any of you, in one sentence, tell me what your business does?”


After a few moments of silence and blinking eyelids, we were hit with a barrage of thoughts; industry facts and ideological insights filled the air. Different visions and ideas on what this new venture was going to be bounced off the walls with a ricochet effect. Within 20 minutes it became quite apparent to everyone in the room that the client had not put nearly enough thought into how this new venture should actually be positioned. With this opening question, we were able to highlight the importance of establishing a brand position first, before jumping into any design solution. The client agreed and we arranged a brand audit session the following week.


We asked each stakeholder a series of questions about their company, their business model, their competition, how they were truly different in the Ontario incubator landscape and what they wanted the organization's future to look like. The answers flowed quickly and soon a clearer understanding of their business came into view. The process allowed them to begin thinking outside of the day-to-day operations of their venture and into thinking of the bigger picture. In turn, they also began thinking of Modu as more of a partner in their overall business growth than just another commodity supplier.




Starting the conversation with the client's brand position shifted the perspective completely. Instead of speaking from a sea of perceived sameness as just one of many offering 'great design', we could now lead the discussion from a position of strategy, offering specific insight into the client's business and building on the potential for a long-term partnership. 




We have since extended our initial engagement with this client to include renaming their entire business, supplying copywriting services and building their corporate website. 





Talking brand strategy first can be seen as a kind of Trojan Horse to open the door to a design partnership; it's about taking the time to understand the client's needs with the added bonus of helping them better understand their own needs as well. While it's always important to ask these questions and understand the business, framing the conversation from a business-first design-later perspective changes the nature of the client relationship, elevating design to a level where it can be recognized as an essential component of a successful business. 


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