Maintaining a healthy relationship with your designer takes work just like any other relationship.

The outcome is different, but the reward is just as substantial. If you keep a healthy relationship with your designer, you’ll find it fulfilling for both you and the designer.

Here are some tips for growing a healthy relationship with your designer.

Give meaningful feedback

It’s really not helpful to say, “I like it,” or “I don’t like it,” or “make it pop.” The reason is that these things don’t explain your reasoning for your reaction. Try to get to the root of your concern and understand why something isn’t up to your standard. Otherwise, your designer ends up shooting in the dark at an unknown target.

When looking at design, it’s best to put aside your personal preferences and think about who the intended audience is. Chances are, it’s probably your customer who it’s intended for, not you.

Bad example: Make the logo bigger.

Good example: I’m afraid our name is getting lost in this, is there a way to make it more prominent?

Respect the designer’s time

This is one of those things that goes both ways in the designer-client relationship. When you show up on time and reply to emails in a timely fashion, you build trust. Observe time limits for meetings and phone calls, and don’t tack on extra things to a project that make push it beyond the original objectives. This is called scope creep. Also, what seems quick and simple is probably more time-consuming than you can imagine, because simplicity is a lot harder to pull off than complexity. Respect for your designer’s time is one of the most important components of a healthy relationship with your designer.

Bad example: I know you’re working on this project, but can you do something else as a favor in addition to this? It’ll be super-quick, I promise.

Good example: After we get done with this meeting, I’d like to talk to you about an additional project. Do you have the bandwidth for something else?

Pay with real money

When you pay on time, it shows you respect the designer’s work. And pay with actual money, not exposure. I like to joke that creatives die from exposure. The people who try to get creative work in exchange for exposure get a terrible reputation in creative circles. (Yes, we talk shop and warn each other about this sort of thing.) It comes off as cheap and tasteless, especially when you are pursuing professional-level work. (Student contests are a different matter, since it teaches them how to put a concept together.)

If you want to show appreciation for a creative’s work, pay money for it. This underscores the value of their work.

If you can’t afford it, do what you can to tell everybody you know about them, by liking all their posts and sharing them and buying their products when you can. Tell the designer/artist/developer that you plan on hiring them or purchasing from them in the future, and you can’t wait to talk to them about a project. Then follow through.

Bad example: I’ve been a fan of your work for some time now. I have no budget. But it’s a cool project and you’ll get tons of exposure and I’ll pay you on the next project!

Good example: I’ve been a fan of your work for some time now. My budget is X. Can you do anything for that? If not, do you know someone who can?

Know what you want, and why

Think about what you want and why. Since you’re not a designer, it can be hard to articulate what is you’re looking for. We don’t expect you to know all the designer lingo, but if you can provide visual examples of what it is you’re looking for and tell us why. Maybe you found a brochure that looks appropriate for your target market because of the way white space is used. The better you are at communicating that, the healthier your relationship with your designer will be.

Bad example: I said, “make it retro. This isn’t retro.”

Good example: My bad. I was thinking more “Leave It to Beaver” than “Flower Power.” I should have made that more clear.

Understand that it’s not enough for a design to be cool. It has to be relevant.

Design looks like it’s fun because there are so many different fonts out there and they get to do photography and “play with colors.” And don’t get me wrong, it is fun. That’s why I’ve been doing it for twenty years. But it’s also a lot of work, and a lot of thought and theory goes into what I do. It’s a blast to make something that looks really cool, but it’s a letdown when something looks cool but isn’t even appropriate for what it should be.

Bad example: A website that is trendy and funky but irrelevant for the customer base.

Good example: A website that might not be the most clever or trendy but resonates with the ideal customer.

Don’t micromanage

Nothing kills the designer’s creativity more than trying to micromanage them and dinking a project to death. All this does is annoy your designer and send the message you don’t trust them to do their own job. Designers truly want to be a partner with you on a project, not an order-taker. Micromanaging is demeaning.

Bad example: Let’s move this box over one-eighth of an inch to the right.

Good example: I’m afraid people aren’t going to see this particular emblem in the bottom corner. How can we keep it from getting lost?

Finally, be kind

As I was putting together this post, my 9-year-old son suggested, “be kind.” And he’s right! A little kindness goes a long way in this world.

So give meaningful feedback, respect the designer’s time, pay with reach money, know what you are looking for, understand the importance of being relevant, don’t micromanage, and be kind. This will set the stage for a healthy relationship with your designer.

Bonus resource

Graphically Speaking: A Visual Lexicon for Achieving Better Designer-Client Communication

Years ago I purchased a book called Graphically Speaking: A Visual Lexicon for Achieving Better Designer-Client Communication. (My copy is probably in a box in the garage). It’s somewhat dated as it came out in 2002, but it’s a good way to get started understanding each other by providing an alphabetical list of buzzwords and their definition as well as visual examples.

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