When I first started designing, I didn’t realize how important meetings were. I figured designers didn’t interact much with clients.
I was in for a rude awakening.
Since starting my own digital and branding agency just over two years ago, I’ve become intimately involved in client work. I’ve also made more mistakes than I can possibly count. One time, I assured a client that, “We can absolutely embroider your extremely detailed and intricate logo on dozens of hats with a tight turnaround.” Ha.
On the bright side, those mistakes helped me establish efficiencies. Now that I know what works best for me, I can better support my clients and set the stage for a harmonious design-oriented relationship.
“Mistakes help you establish efficiencies.”
Clients: the good, the bad, the extremely frustrating
I’ve found that there are three types of clients in this industry.
The first, which I search for every day, is a client who has one decision-maker. That person either miraculously loves the initial designs, or can give clear and concise direction on the changes they want to see. Unfortunately, this kind of client is rare in today’s world of marketing.
The second client cannot make up their mind. They like this from the first design, but want to see it with that from the second design. They like the second design, but want to see it in this color. And so on and so on.
The last is a client who has multiple decision-makers. The nightmare begins when you and your client get down to the final design. The client will say something like, “This is perfect! Exactly what we’re looking for. I just need to show it to my boss for his/her approval.” Or there’s the classic, “Let me share this with my team and get their feedback.” At this point, you know you’re going to have to start over, walk through the entire process again, or go in a completely different direction.
Ideally, every interaction would play out like the first scenario, but how do you encourage that type of collaboration?
There’s hope. Here are my tips for how to run a successful meeting with clients.
Make sure the right people are there
Ideally, the ‘real’ decision-maker should be in your first meeting. Countless times, I’ve found myself working with the head of marketing only to discover that they need approval from the owner first. Nine times out of 10, this leads to either a different opinion—and new design mockup—or the owner decides they’re way off budget.
Often, it’s not possible to get the decision-maker in the first meeting. But you’ll kick yourself if you don’t try. If I know the head of marketing will have final approval, I always ask if the owner would like to join us. I’ve found that simply asking the question often inspires both your direct contact and the decision-maker to get everybody in the same room to kick things off. Your contact feels less pressure about making decisions, and the decision-maker feels more involved from the start.
Be prepared to explain your designs
If you’re lucky enough to get the decision-maker in the room, you need to be ready to back up your designs.
I’ll use apparel as the example, since I also lead creative design for our apparel and lifestyle brand Belong Designs (a sister company to FlowState Marketing). If you haven’t already done research on the client’s brand standards, you need to do your homework before the meeting. This allows you to relate your color schemes and design elements back to their company’s aesthetics. For example, you could say, “I chose this color for the men’s T-shirt because it’s energetic and matches your company’s young and adventurous lifestyle.”
Another important thing to research with apparel is how the materials and cuts affect your designs. If you know the capabilities of a particular fabric, you’ll be in a position to immediately gain the client’s respect.
“Always be ready to back up your designs.”
Let’s say they want to make a change to the designs that’s simply not possible with the material you’re using. You’ll tell them it can’t be done—and win them over with your careful reasoning. “Unfortunately, we can’t make this branded hoodie brighter due to the custom material we’re using. We can screen print your logo instead of sublimating it, which will make it brighter, but the customer will feel the logo instead of it being a part of the material itself.”
We learned this at Belong Designs, and as a solution to some of the limitations of fabric printing, we engineered a fabric that’s comfortable, wrinkle-resistant, and durable. Best of all, it can be easily printed onto with high-resolution graphics. FlowState Marketing now actively sources this custom fabric for clients looking for high-quality material.
Categorize your feedback
Finally, I recommend putting the client’s feedback into three different categories based on your knowledge of the product.
1. Functional and/or straightforward improvements
Your client knows their market better than anyone. This puts them in a unique position to improve your designs by changing or adding details that would better fit their customer. This is when design becomes exciting, and you get to challenge yourself every day to improve.
For a recent project we did for Breckenridge Brewery, they wanted their merchandise to reflect the value the brewery places on its brand, which is just as important as the beer they sell. Breckenridge rewards its sales staff and fans with branded apparel, and sells their merchandise to customers at the brewery storefront. We presented them with custom vests in a cotton twill fabric, which is a softer, more unique material. We then produced the vests with bespoke sizing and a catered look that ﬁt the brand better than previous merchandise—and at an amendable price point.
2. Possible but difficult improvements
This is the most common type of feedback from clients. They love your design, but want to add a detail that’s difficult for your team to produce. Hello, scope creep!
I once held a kickoff meeting with a client who told me they wanted a casual zip-up hoodie. After seeing the designs, however, they decided to add a hidden zip pocket on the side seam. I knew this was possible, but it meant the price of the hoodies would increase.
Prepare for suggestions like these from the client, and quote them appropriately as the changes stack up. It’s fair to communicate that additional features or upgrades will change the final price, then let them decide.
3. Not viable
There will always be design suggestions that are simply not possible. As long as you’ve done your research, these ideas are easy to dispel quickly—whether it’s because of cost, function, or time.
Clients respect designers who come to meetings prepared, and that includes knowing what suggestions aren’t possible. Even when you may not have good news to share, your client will be happier and respect you more if you’re upfront with them about both their ideas and issues.
When in doubt, listen
These are just a few quick tips to help you get the most out of your client meetings. Whether for the first or 100th time, meeting with a client is exciting, but it also requires focus and few distractions.
That kickoff meeting is especially crucial and acts as the initial step in your client-designer relationship; it’s like a first date or interview. You’re gaining their trust and establishing a foundation for future projects. You want to present your best self, maintain professionalism, and instill confidence in your work.
“When in doubt, listen.”
When it comes to setting the framework for getting the most out of your client meetings, the overarching theme is to be transparent.
And remember that a strong client meeting is all about listening.
by Mark Grubbs
Mark Grubbs is the Co-Founder and Creative Director at FlowState Marketing, a Denver-based digital and branding agency, and Belong Designs, an apparel and lifestyle brand. Together, he serves hundreds of the biggest companies including SendGrid, HomeAdvisor, Blue Moon Brewing Company, Ibotta, iHeartRadio, Breckenridge Brewery, and Oskar Blues.