English for Design-Speakers: How to Communicate with Clients

- Lance Johnson 08.19.2015


You are all familiar with the saying: "a picture is worth a thousand words”. When a client comes to you and asks you to design something, they have a picture in their mind – it may be vague or sharp, simple or complex. But, what your client will probably not have is the vocabulary needed to describe that image. And they most certainly cannot be expected to have knowledge of technical terms familiar to every designer. Effectively communicating with your clients, regarding the picture in their minds, is a primary ingredient to successfully delivering them the design that they are seeking.

Communicating with clients

As a designer, you are entitled to dream of clients who have the technical know-how, good vocabulary, the knowledge of what they want, and an excellent ability to describe what they visualize; but, you will have at least one client who disappoints you. So, how do you ensure that you and your clients are on the same wavelength? 

  • Do not expect your clients to have memorized a dictionary. Whether or not your clients are native English speakers, it is highly unlikely that they know the exact (dictionary) meaning and the proper usage of the words they use. Your client wants a “convoluted” design? Do they know what the meaning of convoluted is?
  • Ask your clients what they mean. If your clients asks you to design a “magical” web page, what exactly do they mean? Are they speaking of magic, as in the Harry Potter kind? Do they want the pointer to be in the form of a wand? Do they want colorful sparks erupting every time someone clicks on a link? Do they want you to design a Harry Potter-theme page? Or do they mean extraordinary, unimaginable, or something similar? Tell your clients the dictionary definition of any word they use and ask them if that is what they want.
  • Provide examples and analogies. When trying to explain any concept to your client, explain it to them as you would to a layman. Use analogies that they are familiar with. If you can ask your client to explain the concept to you using a different analogy, you will know if the client has understood the concept. Show a few examples from your portfolio of “convoluted” designs, if that is what the clients are looking for. This way, you will both be on the same page. But, do not provide too many examples lest you end up confusing your client.
  • Ask your clients to provide examples. If you have never designed anything “convoluted” or “magical” before, and even if you have, ask your client if they have examples of what they are looking for. While you can, and should, provide them examples, asking them to provide a few will give you a good idea of what exactly they mean. If you have gone to meet your client in their workplace, or if you are meeting them in yours, ask them to provide examples from their immediate surroundings. Keep in mind that your clients may not be trained to describe anything, let alone a complicated design. Also, in cases where your clients are unaware of the exact meaning of “convoluted”, you providing them examples will not work, especially if they are looking for something simple.
  • Avoid jargon. Clients may not be willing to admit that they do not understand design-speak. Instead, they may just nod and agree with whatever you suggest. When you deliver the project, however, you will both realize that you have given them something that they neither asked for nor wanted. The best way to avoid this issue is to not use technical terms. Whether you are giving them a proposal or requesting them to send you content to use in the design, use simple language, and if you absolutely have to use technical terms, explain to them exactly what it is you are saying in easy to understand language. While communicating as you would with a baby might be overkill, if the occasion calls for it, you may have to do so.
  • Ask lots of questions. The idea is to get a clear picture of what the client wants you to design. Going to work with the idea of designing something “simple” is not really a good idea. How simple is simple? What exactly makes the design simple, according to the client? Are they looking for something minimal? Or are they looking for an easy-to-use design? Ask of everything you can think of; clarify their answers with the help of examples. Do not assume anything about the project. Never hesitate to ask questions; go into as much detail as possible. Only once you have the complete picture in your mind should you start working.

All of the above aspects talk mainly of you getting a clear picture of the image that your client has in their mind; it may take some time, and a lot of patience on your part, but it can be done. But, communicating with your client is not limited to just this. It is also important to keep your client in the loop during the course of project, and to receive and respond to feedback, incorporate feedback suggestions and again ask your client questions to ensure that you have properly followed their expectations. You may also provide suggestions, but let your client have the final say.

Your goal, as a designer, is to put on paper (or computer screen) the image that your client has in mind and to sharpen various features of that image in order to deliver to your client exactly what they are looking for. Remember: you are not communicating with another designer, you are communicating with clients who probably only have a hazy image in their head, and a very limited  vocabulary, in terms of both language and design-speak, to describe what they want. It is your job to extract, bit by bit, the various pieces of the image from your client's mind and to bring the whole picture together.

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