Client Side of Design

In a candid conversation with Fast Company, Paula Scher, partner, Pentagram, expands on choosing the right client.

FC: In your book, Make it Bigger, you devote a substantial amount of text—not to mention diagrams of org charts—to the Byzantine process you had to go through back in the 1970s at CBS Records trying to get various designs approved. Why was it important to spend so much time on that?

Scher: The CBS Records story is a parable. It may have happened in 1972, but students getting their first jobs tell me I’m describing their lives exactly. Good design often doesn't have much to do with equipment, or the cultural milieu; it has to do with the way in which hierarchical organizations behave.

FC:But you've managed to do some pretty amazing work under those circumstances.

Scher:That's how you do good work; by understanding the obstacles. If you don't, you don’t get anything made. And 50% of doing great work is actually having it made. There are many people who do great work all year long, but it never sees the light of day. Or by the time the thing gets realized it's so compromised and mediocre that they feel defeated and go off to find another career. Imagine if that weren't the case.

FC: So what advice would you give people on the client side for getting the best work out of their designers?

Scher: It's complicated because being a good client takes innate talent, just like being a good designer takes innate talent. And that makes things difficult because it means that even if you study a, b, c, d, it’s not necessarily going to be good. That makes people very uncomfortable because it's not totally manageable. You have to have someone in the organization who makes decisions and creates a climate where those sorts of decisions happen.

FC: That sounds lovely, but how often does it actually happen?

Scher: Working with Peter Gelb (the new managing director of the Metropolitan Opera) recently was amazing because I had a client with vision and power. Want to know how you can get good things done? Have a client with vision and power. Without power it's pointless because nothing will happen. Without vision, it doesn't matter because something mediocre will as easily get made. Most organizations rely on a process that involves a series of checks and balances where you set up parameters and create a strategy and then decide if the design itself adheres to the strategy. So you’re making decisions and thinking you're quantifying the reasons why the design should exist, but in fact that's a flawed supposition, because design, despite what anybody might tell you, is in fact inherently subjective.

FC: But if design is so subjective, and if you're not Steve Jobs, how do you know, then, if you’re getting good design or not?

Scher: If you don't know, why are you in that position?

FC: But that's the problem. How do you know if you're hiring a good designer?

Scher: There are firms—and I won’t name names here, but you know who they are—that are phenomenally successful because they're structured in a way that serves corporations. They understand that most places don't have people who are really capable of making design decisions. So they'll serve them in a process-driven way through a long, step-by-step methodology that will get them to a mediocre decision that could be designed by any reasonable designer in five minutes. It will take this organization a long time to go down that road, but they'll still end up with nothing but a big billings and a copycat solution. They don't make innovation. Look: You can make things that are adequate for the marketplace and if you put enough money behind it, they often will succeed.

FC: So, is that what you look for in a new project? A good client?

Scher: I like trying to persuade bureaucracies if I see a reasonable shot. If the client doesn't know what's good, I hope, if they've hired me, that they'll assume that I do. So perhaps I can lead them and explain bit by bit why it’s good. I can do that if I have their trust, and I can't do it if I don’t have their trust. If they function in a completely corporate manner, and they have a set of checks and balances and they're totally fearful, I'll never get their total trust. If they really want to change, and want to take the risk of trusting me to take them through the process, and I can gain their confidence, I'll have a shot at it. It will always be somewhat compromised and you always go through a testing period that will be somewhat detrimental to the work, but you can get it done.

FC: It seems like what you're saying is that being a good designer is at least 50% knowing how to work the room.

Scher: My partner, Michael Bierut, had a wonderful post on his blog, wwww.designobserver.com on bullshit. There is a certain amount of bullshit that can be used to justify decisions because, obviously, you can argue things one way or another way. Your goal is to show that what you've done is a logical right brain, step-by-step perfect little piece of thinking that gets a client where they want to get to and makes them feel completely comfortable. So you demonstrate things in specific orders. You take a job and deconstruct it and show that when you put it back together it all logically fits because all the elements came from the design brief.

FC: Is that a totally cynical strategy?

Scher: If we are totally honest that's the case: why justify this one design versus the myriad that you could set up the same way to fit the strategy? But you do it because you actually believe that what you’re making is the right thing to do for them, and if you have to persuade them, then this way is as good as any.

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