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UX Design Your Client Relations: The Client is Never Always Not Right

Our commitment is not to a specific outcome, but to a successful journey, which (if we do things right) will lead to a successful outcome.

There’s a tendency for some designers to view clients as sort of a necessary evil of doing business – clients bring you the project, then they just get in the way as you try to create “brilliance,” hopefully showing up at the end to pay for said brilliance. A designer might get upset when clients don’t recognize their artistry immediately and thus ensues a difficult back and forth that’s usually laden with hurt feelings and miscommunication.
<gripe>Why can’t they realize that I’m the expert and they’re not….and just trust me?</gripe>

I’d love to say this mindset is primarily a recent-grads thing, but while on a panel with Cheryl Heller last year at the Design Ethos conference it struck me that this seemed to be prevalent in professionals as well.

With that in mind I thought I’d share some of our insight that might be helpful if you find yourself feeling frustrated by your clients’ input.

What we’ve learned over the last 9 years is that getting to the Holy Grail of “Final approval” can have more to do with emotions than your skill with the pen tool.

I think a large part of the frustration that designers may feel has to do with cognitive dissonance. What that means is that we homo sapiens find it hard to hold on to two conflicting ideas in our minds. The competing ideas cause us some serious headaches until we justify or rationalize our way to some sort of internal agreement and resonance is restored. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced when one of those ideas duking it out is tightly linked to our sense of self-worth or identity.

What’s this got to do with designers? Well, I dunno if you’ve noticed, but designers take their role as creators of beautiful artifacts VERY seriously, (maybe too much sometimes). So when a client provides critical feedback it smacks in the face of all they’ve learned in design school and the heart and soul poured into the project, and they take offense. It’s as if they’re forced to reconcile two ideas…


1) “the client’s right – and I’m not as good a designer as I thought”,


2) “I’m right – and the client isn’t smart enough to realize how bad they’re decision is”

Both ideas can’t coexist peacefully in a designer’s head so the outcome is exactly the knee-jerk response you’d expect.

But can you spot the logical flaw? By setting up the scenario where only of one them can be “right” they’re forced to choose. The ideas are in conflict because designers see themselves as the experts who should know better, which leaves only one option.

Of course we’re designers too, so over the years we’ve made a point to intentionally cultivate a different attitude towards clients and their involvement in the design process. From our perspective our clients actually HAVE to be involved in the process. And I don’t mean just showing-up-and-giving-feedback-at-the-end kind of involvement. But input throughout the entire journey.

Our role as Designers is not as mere makers of things but more facilitators of progress. So our commitment is not to a specific outcome, but to a successful journey, which (if we do things right) will lead to a successful outcome anyway. With this attitude, we’re free to objectively hear what the client’s saying without being clouded by any emotional knee-jerk responses.

A final word of encouragement for any designer or student struggling with this – If you’re not attaching your self-worth (or self-esteem) to the “things” you create, there’s no dissonance when a client critiques those “things” as it doesn’t conflict with your view of your role in the arrangement. You’ll find the experience much less frustrating and might even enjoy the input you get! Maybe.

Andrew Davies

Drew's degrees in Illustration, 2D animation and Broadcast Design, and his volleyball skillz mean he can get your design done and play well with others at the same time. He’s the Creative Director at Paragon and will call you out if you start hanging out with shady-looking fonts and messing around with whacked-out color palettes.