The dual myths of free rein and strict direction.

4 Nov

Occasionally, I’ll get a project lead where the client says I can do whatever I want: they have no direction in mind, and they’re giving my creativity free rein. Other times, I’ll get projects that are touted as easy because “the client knows exactly what they want”, and just need my technical expertise to make it happen.

Both can be the start of unbalanced and unhealthy relationships. I believe both the client and designer are essential to analyze whether we’re going the right direction at all: the client, because they know their business inside and out, and the designer, because once they know the audience, they’ll be able to craft the right message into the design to reach the intended audience.

It is only when they work together in the right balance that great design happens.

How does a healthy relationship start?

Here’s a path a potential client might take with me:


When the balance is too client-focused

Now, if my client’s already at point C but can’t explain to me how and why they got there, it can be frustrating for both of us. The client is standing around waiting for me to catch up to their thought process, and I either have to waste their time figuring out point A and B, or trust that they’ve researched it well enough.

But sometimes, the client has NOT had the guidance they need to give the right message to the right audience. They are making poor choices (and in a few cases I’ve seen, illegal choices) that will not have the results they want. They think they’re at point C, but they’re really on a completely different road altogether.


There’s a great post at Apex Creative about red flags she sees as a graphic designer and what prompts her to walk away from problematic projects, a lot of which I also believe. The core of it is that nobody likes being told they need to turn around, and I hate being put in that position as a designer:

  • Psychologically, I would be debasing my client’s positive feelings that they’ve found the solution into a negative feeling of being ignorant, perhaps (to a more cynical client) for my own profit.
  • If they feel resentful, defensive, or angry towards me, they definitely won’t be hiring me for future projects, which isn’t good business for me.
  • People in other fields might not have practice with integrating critique into their ideas, which might make them take my critiques personally.

In the end, it’s a tug of war, with both sides pulling in opposite directions until one gives up.

When the balance is too designer-focused

Isn’t the idea that a designer can single-handedly solve all your problems flattering? Many graphic designers start out loving the projects where they get “free rein”… only to find they’re not being given enough direction to make it relevant.

While there’s absolutely a place for open, out-of-the-box thinking, some clients withhold crucial information from designers that will make their designs more effective, and the designers will waste a lot of time trying to bring the design where it needs to be.


Why does this happen? There’s a few reasons:

  • They might not have the mental bandwidth to give a designer direction, or the designer might not understand them properly.
  • Sometimes a client is so unfamiliar with the creative process that they put the designer on a pedestal, believing they know things intuitively.
  • Other times, there are huge politics behind the scenes in a company, and (to a more cynical designer) your client might want you to fail to prove a point.

These kind of relationships also end in frustration. The client might never see the solution they need, the designer spins her wheels trying to guess, and the billable hours skyrocket.

But it’s also damaging to the way they view design. When your only experience with the design process is that it’s long and complicated, it becomes a luxury that you only utilize for the most important things, not a need for your everyday communication with your customers.

Keep your design relationships mutually healthy.

The healthiest client/designer relationship is one where a client can trust the designer to know not only their art tools, but the philosophy behind why certain techniques work (again, I’ll link to Chris Oatley’s discussion of technique from the art side).

But also, the designer has to trust that the client is putting the right kind of research and analysis into their business and has a rough idea of the right direction to go. This partnership is the best way to ensure effective, informed design that both parties can be proud of.


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