One of the most important things to figure out at the start of a design project is what kind of client you’re working with. It can also be one of the most difficult things to discern if you’re working with a client for the first time. The issue is not at the interpersonal level–some people are good at what they do, some bad, some are professional and some not. Products, on the other hand, are successful because of coordinated teamwork on all levels–where every person contributes to the overall product quality. For example, a brilliant product could be introduced to the market through a mediocre sales team and get bogged down quickly. To help you be more attuned to the vibes the next time you walk into that first meeting, here’s a quick designer’s guide to client types.
The Gray Team: Some organizations opt for the middle in every way. These companies are filled with good people and, in many cases, brilliant talent. The latest management methods are employed and the latest tools are deployed. Consensus-building is a key factor in the dynamics. But this effort to satisfy so many aspects of the problem and so many departments of the company at the same time can drive the product development into the doldrums of the comfy middle. At all levels, from the top down, team members are committed to solid collaborative engagement, yet vision and optimism are tuned out. No matter how challenging the task is or how critical the product will be for the company’s growth, the results are going to be mediocre. Not bad, not good, just plain…gray.
The Dictatorship: This is a scary place, but if you’re on the right side, brilliant things could happen! In this case a very small number of individuals–possibly only one–are dragging a semi-cooperative organization on a journey to a place only they can envision. That journey is your project, so you better buckle up since you’re in for a wild ride. For many reasons this organizational approach to product development and design is centralized to the extreme, often due to a crisis, a turn-around situation, or maybe that’s just what tradition dictates. One thing to remember: Always keep the leadership happy. If not, you’re out the door the next morning. But after you’ve succeeded in making the executive suite happy, you’ll have to work with the organization to carry out the details. At this point, other individuals will try to do whatever they can to stop, delay, and downright sabotage the project. That’s the wild ride I mentioned earlier. Fingers will be wagged at you at all levels and the final results will depend heavily on your ability to take a deep breath and carry on nonchalantly in spite of the adversarial approach. If the right decisions are made at that upper level, the outcome could be an exceptional product.
The Oasis: It’s rare, but a surprising number of organizations manage to get it all right: Strong leadership at many levels, good communication of goals and strategy, and ultimately, the best ingredient: a positive, supportive atmosphere. The sky’s the limit to these teams since everyone feels connected to the greater goal. This client is definitely a keeper. They may have some less-than-exhilarating projects on the outset, yet every one of them will end with better-than-expected results. And most importantly–you’ll enjoy every minute of it!
That’s my view. What other kinds of clients have you encountered in your design work?
Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.