Why can’t my clients make decisions?


Q: I get really frustrated when a client just won’t make a decision. I try to give them three options of my designs so that they can be sure to get exactly what they need. Sometimes they “sleep on it” for days. Sometimes they come back to me asking for bits of each design Frankensteined together. How do I get my client to just make a simple decision?

A: Give them fewer decisions to make, and ask them to make them at the right time.

Take a step back for a second. Why are you giving your client three options? That’s crazy! I’m not a brain doctor, but I’ve noticed that people can decide between two things, but more than that paralyses them.

It is easier to choose between than from among.

For example, do you prefer apples, or oranges? Apples, right? The choice is simple. You’re not a savage. But what about if I throw peaches into the mix? Peaches! Now what? Instead of choosing whether one thing is on balance better than the other, you have to weigh up three things. You can’t make a quick decision anymore — you’re going to have to think it over. You’re going to have to talk to your spouse about it. You might even come back to me and say you’d actually prefer an apple with fuzzy skin.

This is the situation in which you put your client when you set the expectation that there will be three options.

A lot of people disagree with me (including some of my fellow Dear Design Student writers), but the traditional design agency methodology is stupid, wasteful, and wrong.

Basically, the traditional model goes something like this:

  • Client gives you a brief
  • You disappear for a week and undertake a bunch of research. Maybe some joints are smoked.
  • You take another week to “explore a bunch of design ideas”. More joints. Some whiskey.
  • You narrow these ideas down to the three you ‘like’ and feel meet the brief. Maybe they also meet the ‘vibe’.
  • You make polished executions of these three ideas. You’re probably on coffee now.
  • The client rejects two, and asks you to make changes to the execution they did choose.
  • You sullenly make those changes, and deliver work with which both you and the client are secretly unhappy. Now you’re drinking gin.
  • You write a really sad story about your project on Clients From Hell.

There’s a lot wrong with this process, but the part that keeps me awake at night is how damned wasteful it is. If you present three polished ideas, you go into your presentation knowing already that at least two will be rejected. You’re behind before you even begin if you know that 66% of your work is going straight into the crapper. Design isn’t like having children in the Royal Family. You don’t need and heir and a spare.

That is insanity. But there is a better way.

Here is another process that you can try instead. It won’t work for every project (fast-moving consumer goods, for example), but I’ve found it works for a hell of a lot of things, and it might help you get to ‘yes’ a bit quicker while helping you give more value to your projects within the same amount of time.

  • Take the brief from your client. Ask your client a lot of questions. Make sure you’ve understood the problem they’re trying to solve, and help them understand you’re a partner, not an order-taker.
  • Undertake just enough research on the project to give you the understanding required to ask your client more questions.
  • Come back to your client with strong ideas and establish a shared visual language. Involve them in the decision-making process. Don’t just let them know how the sausage is made — get them to turn the handle on the mincer. Your job here is to get the greatest number of decisions made early so you only execute things that have a high likelihood of hitting the mark. You know how startup bros say ‘fail early and fail often’? This is when that actually makes sense! Designers are forever claiming that they partner with their clients; it’s time to actually do it.

Don’t just let them know how the sausage is made — get them to turn the handle on the mincer.

  • Work with your client to agree on one or two possible solutions.
  • Showcase each early and showcase them regularly. Assess with your client which is going to have effort expended on it.
  • Deliver the one execution that the team (that’s you and your client) have agreed will address and meet the problem to be solved.
  • Write a case study on how great everything was.
  • Get ready for a lot more work.

Designers have a tendency to blame clients when there are bumps in the road; the war stories we all tell one another over drinks are testament to that. Meanwhile, we tell the world that we’re problem-solvers. Well, maybe it’s time to admit that one of the problems is our process, and to do what we can to solve that. Our work is more than our output, and if we want to be seen as more than order-takers, our processes need to change to allow for that to happen.

Ross Floate is the creative director of Floate Design Partners, and he wants design to take less time so that we can work on more things.


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