Insights: Responding to 'Bad' Client Ideas

Beyond fundamental design principles and creative ability, an essential component of successful design is a happy client. As with any relationship, the client-designer dynamic can be tricky to navigate, especially when disagreements arise. What's the best way to respond to negative feedback? How do you tell a client their idea won't work? How do you avoid scope-creep and last minute changes? 


RGDs share their strategies for managing client expectations, keeping projects on-brief and ensuring end results that will satisfy both clients and designers. 

Adam Antoszek-Rallo RGD, Creative Director & Principal, Catalyst Workshop
John Furneaux RGD, Principal, Projektor Brand Image
Wendy Gray RGD, Creative Director & President, Gravity Inc.
Ben Hagon RGD, Principal, INTENT 
Bob Hambly RGD, Creative Director, Hambly & Woolley
Brent Long RGD, President, Fusion Design Group
Angelo Morano RGD, Principal, Morano Design
Megan Oldfield RGD, Creative Director, Coolaide Design Field Office
Jennifer Van De Vooren RGD, Principal, Van De Vooren Inc.
What strategies can you recommend for responding to client feedback that you don't agree with?
"Often when a client gives us feedback that we don’t agree with, it’s because an element in the solution isn’t working for them and they can’t find a way to articulate what it is. We will ask them to take a step back from the idea, avoid rushing into a solution that may not work and try to break down which elements of the original design are working and not working. Encouraging feedback in this way often leads to a better solution where both the designer and the client are happy with the end result." John Furneaux RGD 


"Always remembering that the client is indeed the client, and in the end, they pay the bills, we have always had a three-pronged strategy. If a client has feedback that we believe will harm the design's integrity and thereby harm the effectiveness of a particular project, we 1) re-iterate why we have developed something in the way that we have and justify the decisions that have brought us to that point in the design process. If the client persists, we 2) push back; discuss with the client why we don’t agree with their feedback and how it may go against the strategy/project brief/audience response based on our experience and education in the field of design. If they continue to persist, potentially becoming “heated”, we 3) concede to their demands in a way that we believe finds the best compromise to make them “happy” while still retaining a level of effectiveness for the project that aligns with the original goals of the job." Brent Long RGD 


"Often, you may feel you are in sync with your client and have all the answers covered, but being challenged by client feedback is perfectly acceptable. I recommend keeping the lines of communication open throughout the design process so that you build trust with your client. As a designer, you bring strategy, design direction, expertise and knowledge to the work. Collaborating with your client is an important ingredient to a successful project." Angelo Morano RGD


"Even the best clients will have thoughts and input on how to enhance the design process. Part of the designer's relationship with the client is about listening, educating and creating an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, which will ultimately result in a better client experience." Megan Oldfield RGD


What are the most challenging experiences you've had at client presentations and how did you solve them? 


"The worst experiences are always due to premeditated agendas or internal politics. No matter how good your work is, or how charismatic you are, if you are walking into a toxic client environment you will face significant challenges. In these situations, all a designer can be is professional, calm and respectful. It won't save the project or the work, but it will save the relationship. This has happened to me a handful of times and I have always strived to be the better person. This approach worked out for me every time." Ben Hagon RGD


"I think that the most 'challenging' experience I have had personally at a client presentation was early in my career, when a co-presenter became so nervous that he could not present. In the transition to his part of the discussion in front of a boardroom of 20 senior leaders he simply looked at me and shook his head. I stammered a little and then moved on. Only our direct client contact noticed the misstep, and they agreed that in the end the presentation was still successful. We laugh about it now, many years later, but at the time it was very nerve-racking. The key message is, 'the show must go on'. In a client presentation, there are many variables at play. All you can do is roll with things as they present themselves and stay calm. See it as a discussion rather than as a presentation. It should be a two-way event, and not you talking 'at' a room of people. Make it interactive to take some of the pressure off of you and ask the right questions to get a conversation going." Brent Long RGD 


"I went to visit a client in the United Arab Emirates for a rebranding project of a large conglomerate, which was to be approved by a board of directors and CEOs that were flying in from across the Middle East to see my presentation. Because the clients were very busy, I only had one hour to sell them all on the new brand direction and get a 100% buy-in. On top of the standard brand strategy slides, I did some research on the executives and personalized different statements and nomenclature so they could see how the new branding would specifically benefit them, not just the conglomerate as a whole.  Extra effort was put into visually showing them what the results would look like with mockups, video and photographs. The presentation ended with a thumbs up from everyone around the table. It goes to show that knowing your client’s audience and your client themselves really pays off." Jennifer Van De Vooren RGD


In your experience, what have been the most effective methods for talking a client out of a 'bad' idea? 


"Think like them, put yourself in their shoes. What are they going through? Who are they accountable to? Where are they coming from? If you are respectful, understanding and intelligent with your response, you can almost always come to a more agreeable decision. It is also a good idea to wait before saying no. Sometimes a good night's sleep will change perspectives, either yours or the client's. The designer is not always right. We work with incredibly intelligent and qualified clients, and I always try to be aware of that." Ben Hagon RGD


"If a client is really insistent on seeing their idea, fighting and resisting often ends up wasting a huge amount of time and leads to bad feelings all around. Designers have a unique ability to see in their minds why a solution will or won’t work before executing it, but many clients do not have that skill and need to have an idea presented visually to help them get there. As long as the client’s idea is not illegal or unethical, we will quickly mock up what they asked and then refine our original concept based on their feedback. In almost all cases, once the client sees their 'bad' idea, they end up realizing why it won’t work and we can move forward with a version of our original recommendation." John Furneaux RGD 


"When a bad idea is suggested, it's usually a case of the client lacking the confidence to try something new or different. They'll often fall back on cliched and ill-conceived ideas because those are the concepts that make them feel safe. If your ideas are strong, defend them. Your confidence can make a big difference." Bob Hambly RGD


"For an idea to be truly 'bad', I believe it needs to have tangible costs attached, monetary or otherwise. You should be able to explain to the client what these potential costs are. If you cannot make a strong case against the direction they are suggesting, or if you feel uncomfortable making this case, you need to re-assess how strongly you oppose it and make sure it's not just a matter of differing opinions." Adam Antoszek-Rallo RGD


What strategies do you employ to ensure you and your clients are on the same page?
"A signed creative brief is the ticket. After the initial meeting we prepare a brief with as much detail as possible, reiterating all that was discussed and agreed upon along with our intentions moving forward. We then have our clients sign off on it. This eliminates the potential for misunderstandings, mismanaged expectations or any ambiguities. It works like a "same page" guarantee. It also emphasizes the fact that we listen carefully to them before the creative begins, which instills more trust from the get go. Win win for both sides." Wendy Gray RGD
"I would estimate that, on most projects, half of our billable hours are spent leading up to the presentation of the first draft. This includes research, development and strategic consensus building. Before the first draft of a project, our clients are already primed on the sort of feedback we will be looking for and we are aware of what they are looking for from us. We have discussed some hypothetical scenarios together (when working with a new client) and have already built up trust and respect for each other. Perhaps most importantly, all of us have agreed to a clear set of project goals and parameters for success." Adam Antoszek-Rallo RGD
"It helps when you are working with clients who are respectful and are focused on their role in the process. The best strategy is to have a clear understanding of what they can bring to table and what they expect the designer to bring, as well as a solid contract outlining project goals and aspirations." Megan Oldfield RGD
"A designer's goal is to understand the client’s product and to be skillful and confident enough to start anticipating their needs. My approach is to build trust by being an authority on the services I am providing while being open enough to recognize value in another point of view. By creating an environment that allows for open and constructive discussion, communication continues to flow throughout the design process and the client and designer move forward on the same page." Angelo Morano RGD 
"I like to set aside at least one hour at the commencement of a project for a kick-off meeting. Even if I think I know all the goals and criteria before this meeting, I still review them with the client and discuss them again. It’s surprising how additional things pop up that were forgotten in previous discussions, and the wish list becomes a little more actionable/feasible with a little massaging. At the end of the meeting, I always give the client a one minute synopsis and get a nod of approval. This nod lets us both know we’re on the same page." Jennifer Van De Vooren RGD
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