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Communicating Design to Clients

November 29, 2016

What makes a good designer? Well, of course, you have to be creative, understand how to solve problems in unconventional ways, and do it all within budget. But wait, there's more to it than being super creative and solving problems. You must be able to make others understand how your design vision solves their problems.

Why is communication important to design?

Design is all about communication. It is the heart and soul of design and the total object of design is to communicate in some form, shape, or fashion. As designers, we are the ultimate visual or experience sales machine. Communication is bound to a strong experience or visual language that gives it context. The very letters that you are reading are small individual logos that we call letters and numbers. To be a great designer is to be a great communicator. Now some might not accept what you have to say, but there are ways to ensure that your message is heard and felt respectfully

Who should communicate with clients?

Design is a team sport because so many people are affected and have a stake in the game. Clients have goals they want to see come alive inside the design, your business has goals they want to see proliferate inside the designs and you have, secretly, goals that you want to see play out inside your designs as well. This leaves everyone feeling that they have something to say and you end up, at best, with a group of silent and not so silent partners all trying to write their message into your new visual language.

The truth is everyone is a communicator in the design process. You, at best, are an elected official tasked to bare out the will of the people. So get your stump speeches ready - you have been elected and I bet you didn’t know you were running. If you must represent the people and not just your own special interest, pun intended, then remember that when you communicate ideas they are not totally your own. Rather, they are representative of communities of people who have something to say through your work.

What do clients want?

The same thing everyone wants, which is to be heard and to be successful. Everyone loves a winner so we spend most, if not all, of our lives trying to win. Your job as a designer and strategist is to help define what winning is to your stakeholders and make your stakeholders feel like winners in the process. I know, tough job right? Well, your clients feel they are paying for you to make them look good. At the end of the day, what the client wants is to look and feel good about their decisions and their decision to hire you. So, in summary, what does your client want? They want to look good, grow their business, and not have their business ruined by poor choices in hex colors, layout, and fonts.

What are the major keys to presenting design?

Major Key #1: Understand your client’s business model and what they like and don’t like. The secret is inside knowledge and understanding the there there. This point cannot be ignored. What you do and don’t understand about your client’s business will affect design approvals from key stakeholders. If you misread their needs then it confuses communications at all stages of the design process.

Our clients are just like us. They have likes and dislikes and some people are open to some ideas and closed to others. If you walk into your presentation thinking you are on an even playing field you are going to get blown away. If you don’t understand the business they are in then you will never be able to effectively speak to their likes and appropriately avoid their dislikes. Now, sometimes you have to go to their dislike to re-educate them on what they should like relative to what would help them reach their goals. Now, remember from the last section that the goal of 100% of all your clients is to look good and grow their business. So to make others look good and help them grow you are going to have to understand how they think and what they must do to survive in their business environments.   

Major Key #2: Know your audience. Everyone in the room has a voice that should be valued but not everyone has the same approval authorities. This is tricky because you may be given an assigned point person to confirm choices made on the project, but they might not have any real authority to approve your work. Or they could have the authority to approve it but they really are taking their cues from someone else they trust more than you. For example, I have seen this many times in the boardroom:

The CEO says: I think that the color should be orange and you really should update that widget during your next revision. 

Marketer interrupts and says: CEO, we have done some research and found that the color blue really resonates with our customers.

CEO says: Well ya, I really didn’t like the color anyway because the color red you have does seem to work better to me.

Marketer says: I don’t like the color red because it implies we are aggressive and yellow seems to be the right fit for our needs if we are not going with blue.

CEO says: You know you are right, the yellow would stand out more so Design please make that color yellow.

So right there you know you should really target your messaging to the Marketer because, even though they do not have the power of authority, they have the power of influence. Influence is more powerful than authority because you might be driving the car but someone else may have the map that tells you where to go next. #MajorKey

Major Key #3: Don’t talk over their heads. Speak in natural terms. Sometimes you need to speak “Designer” but not at the risk of losing your audience. They want to know that you know what you are talking about, but they also want to understand you. Remember: what do clients want 100% of the time? They want to look good, grow their business, and be confident in the decisions they're ultimately responsible for. Your job is to make them feel good about making uncomfortable choices. I know, I know, it is a tough job and sounds a little unfair. Well, like I said, design is a team sport. In sports, there are plays that happen that really are not your fault, but you are responsible for the direction of the game as a team leader. Winning in the design game is about foreseeing the plays and understanding how to respond to them using best practices.

Major Key #4: When in doubt use visual aids and live demos. Don’t try to verbally explain when you can show a prototype. People eat with their eyes. Support your positions with design research and best practices. Be honest when you are trying something new. People love a show and there is nothing more valuable to the human mind than sounds and images. We are wired to learn from our experiences, and we experience things through interactivity. Try to make your presentation informative and have something for your audience to take part in. It could be as simple as uncovering facts about their business that they did not know. You don’t have to go so far as to play a round of Jeopardy but people do like a little suspense so make it entertaining whatever you do.

What should you always include in your presentation?

  • Always present things in context or in their native environment if you can. For example, use mobile devices hardware when showing mobile-first designs photos of devices to put your design work in to give it context.
  • Never show work that you can’t stand behind. If you must for political reasons you should say I can't endorse this and here is why.
  • Focus on the problem you are solving.
  • Remember to speak to the persona needs and confirm strategy research.
  • Dress all of your concepts with a name even if you have to coin them yourself. For example, instead of just saying slider, give it a name like Sliding Door Slider so that it is unique.
  • Leave room for feedback and allow your audience to help you improve or build upon your work. Stakeholders and clients should feel it is a 2-way street.


Remember to repeat what you thought you heard often, so clients get the idea that you are listening intently to their words. Don’t take things personally; stay open-minded and empathetic. Support your position with design research and best practices. Clients want to feel they are in good hands and you want to seed the environment with the energy of sharing. Make sure you have an option that they were looking for in their original idea and put in the WOW factors to expand their thinking. This makes them feel safe as if they have come to right place.

Last but not least, remember all clients 100% of the time want to look good, grow their business, and feel confident while making tough decisions.


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