Designers- since this is our tip I know I can talk to you. I’m a designer, you’re a designer, we speak the same language. But how many times, after you had client meetings, do you return with your hard work to find a big mismatch with what they had in mind? It’s like you don’t speak the same language. And in many ways you don’t. In a language as rich as English you are each using your own style of communicating. Different careers attract different personalities and lifestyles and communication styles.
Business people (clients) have spent their lives being rewarded for discussing cold hard facts and are comfortable discussing design in literal, specific, definite ways, (left-brain, Mars). When you ask questions to start developing a design they often feel challenged by questions that are open ended, no right answer, or ‘touchy-feely’. So they do their best, grasping for buzzwords, to try to give you something to start on.
Designers, have been rewarded all their lives for creating visual communications, and are often uncomfortable with verbal communication altogether. Their verbal communication (if developed) tends to be unique, sensitive, qualified, questioning and even playful (right-brain, Venus). When starting a design the critical elements for these free thinking questioners is to find overall goals, basic parameters, and how the project is to feel. To us, details can be fit in once a vision is articulated. So starting out we are miles apart, Where does it go from there?
Designers want to develop projects in a free, non-judgmental space and clients think in terms of control and linear progress. So the presentation and revision process can be difficult for both. It’s nobody’s fault but it can seem like a ‘War of the Worlds’. What are we to do?
I was thrilled to find Graphically Speaking
by Lisa Buchanan in 2003. It is a visual lexicon for achieving better designer-client communication. In consultation with other designers she has created pages of visual examples for the 30 words most commonly used in client-designer meetings. She includes fonts and pantone swatches for words like ‘innovative’ and ‘natural’. I was suspicious at first. How could we be sure she was right on all these words? Then it clicked. The idea is to bring it to your meeting. You and your client would be looking at the same thing and it wouldn’t matter what the word was. And that is lesson one on overcoming the communication crisis. Use visuals.
I strongly believe in face to face communication because I get so many clues about a style the client will respond to by meeting them in their environment. I often find that the values expressed in their offices, clothing, and body language gives me more information than they can express verbally. Of course I need to find out their budget and booth size verbally but the rug in their office can tell me if they are more ‘old world charm’ or ‘mid-century modern’ in their personal style. Not that the project will necessarily reflect their personal style specifically. It will hopefully be aimed at their target market. I have found it does have to reflect their values for it to have traction with them.
Bring visuals with you to brainstorming sessions. Always have a portfolio and often scrap files from your research. Be sure to grab their current (and past) visuals and then ask what they like and what they don’t like about them. Never assume that just because they have produced a brochure that it reflects what they like. Ask them to bring visuals to the meeting. Ask them to start looking around with their booth in mind, and who knows what kind of inspiration will strike. At least it prepares them for a different communication experience.
Ask questions they can answer, that leave you room to create. Graphically Speaking has a great starting list and the questions are focused on goals and values. I always find it hard to get clients to focus on these kinds of questions rather than what they think is important to me. If they start talking color, copy and shape right out of the gate, where is my chance to give them my expertise, conceptualizing the visuals to support a message? To get off on the right foot I send them my questions in advance now so they can start thinking in terms of values and vision before we get to our session.
Be sure you are in direct communication with the decision makers. I know not every designer is cut out for this, but hopefully those that are not, are teamed up with a design director who can bring the design mind into communication with the final decision maker. I don’t mean to discount the skills of a sales person or account manager to communicate the client’s needs, but to get the clues to inspire a designer’s creativity in the right direction, I believe in face to face communication. Hopefully so do the rest of you since that is the essence of our tradeshow industry.
Just being aware of our communication challenges is a big step toward overcoming them. The fantastic research that is coming out from the fields of brain science, psychology and sociology about communication helps people to appreciate diversity of thought. I hope that what you learn allows you to create unique ways to touch people of all personalities, lifestyles, and communication styles.
Originally published in the EDPA Newsletter: As a designer tip by Hilary Howes. published here by her permission.
Hilary Howes was a panelist for the EDPA Design Trends presentation at TS2 2005 presented the New System Architecture at TS2 in 2006. Her 30 years of design experience includes Theatrical Sets and Lighting, Retail Store Fixtures, Photography, Exhibition and Exhibit Design. She creates concept designs for GES Exposition Services worldwide from the National Design Center in Washington DC. A trend watcher for many years she serves as a member of the Color Marketing Group that researches color (and other) trends for a wide range of industries.