Converting your clients into design thinkers

For design thinking to really succeed, it’s not enough today for designers alone to be the design thinkers. After all, that’s what we are trained to do. More challenging is helping clients – who may come from a variety of fields – become design thinkers and an integral part of the process and solutions.

We all understand just how critical collaboration between designers and clients is to our success. It only makes sense, then, that we do all we can to help clients join us on the design thinking path as we travel toward a common destination.

But that’s a formidable challenge requiring clients, and us as designers, to adopt a new thinking process. We live in a world of good clients and bad – even dysfunctional – clients. The best ones push us to do great work. The worst ones can also push us – right to the edge: the ‘micromanager’ who tells you how to do your job, the ‘waffler’ who can’t decide, the ‘wet blanket’ who trashes every idea, the ‘hidden agenda’ client who never gives you the full story on what’s needed, the ‘Scrooge’ who’s never satisfied.

It can make you feel like we are in two solitudes – which is quite true when you consider that clients and designers inhabit two very distinct worlds of problem solving: the analytical versus the intuitive and creative.

Here, then, are a few suggestions on how to transform your clients into design thinkers. The client-designer relationship needs to work if we are to succeed. So what makes for a great client-designer relationship, one that leads to design thinking clients?

Start by understanding who the real client is. Knowing who the real decision makers are -and what their real objectives are – takes time and focus. Often there’s more going on than meets the eye. Ask yourself: Do you really know who and what you are dealing with? If you do not know, find out!

The other question you need to ask yourself is: Why have you been hired? It sometimes seems obvious – a new identity, an annual report, a new brochure. But what are those things really for, what does the client hope to achieve, what’s driving the work being requested? The better you understand what you are there to do – the better the process and results. It might even lead to new solutions the client never thought of in the initial design brief.

It’s also crucial to recognize and understand the culture of the organization you are working for. How does that culture view success? How does it handle prototypes and new ideas in other parts of its business? How do the people in it prefer to get their information? And, most importantly, how does it treat its own people? Understanding your client’s organization raises everyone’s potential for a successful relationship, because you can customize how you interact with their culture.

Finally, focus on the criteria for success. Sometimes these are never clearly articulated. So develop criteria with the client, articulate them, and use them both as the basis for the design team to develop and review options, and for the client to select options based on the set criteria. Remember – liking something is only one criteria. Never ask, “Which one do you like?” Instead ask, “Which one meets the criteria?”

Transforming good clients into great ones – and bad clients into good ones – is not easy but it is indeed a worthwhile undertaking. You might not always succeed but you will be surprised at times by the results of your efforts to lead clients on the quest for design thinking.


LEE JACOBSON head of Lee Jacobson Consultants in Toronto and one of Canada’s leading brand, marketing and communications strategists.

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About rgddesignthinkers

The Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario (RGD) is the professional body for graphic designers in Ontario. RGD grants graphic designers who qualify the right to use the designations Registered Graphic Designer and R.G.D., a quality signal of standards of professional practice. RGD has approximately 2800 members. Attracting over 1,000 participants and a full line-up of fascinating speakers, DesignThinkers is Canada’s largest, most important graphic design event. It’s an occasion to listen, learn and interact with peers from across the country.
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