Many designers’ clients, my own included, often seem to have a lingering suspicion that they aren’t being a good client. Perhaps they feel that they’re being overly indecisive, and need some handholding to reassure them that they are “normal.” Although almost every designer has “client from hell” stories, in truth, the vast majority of clients are just fine. However, I thought it might be useful to describe some of the traits that make a GREAT client. This should be important to you, because great clients usually end up with great projects. And bad clients can sabotage a really outstanding design for themselves faster than a two-year old left alone with crayons and a clean wall.
Sure, there’s the obvious stuff like paying bills promptly, and not sending 10 or 20 e-mails a day. But when I think back on the most successful projects I’ve done, here are some of the qualities that stand out for me:
Great clients clearly articulate their goals, without telling the designer how to achieve them. (Clients who “know exactly what they want” and just need someone to “draw it up” often end up with a project designed by an amateur — themselves.) A great client would say, for example, “I want this room to be light and airy,” rather than “I want a 6′ x 4′ sliding window on the west wall.” They get exposed to more creative ideas this way.
Great clients are open to these creative ideas and relish the idea that they might end up with something completely different than they were first imagining, yet far more wonderful. They often are willing to spend just a little extra to get something really special. But they’re clear on their budget, and would rather do a smaller project, with better quality. They know themselves, along their tastes and preferences, but have the ability to enjoy a range of aesthetics, and realize that they are growing a little in this process.
Great clients understand that great design doesn’t happen overnight, and are willing to plan ahead far enough to be able to take the necessary time for a design to ripen into something special. They understand that good design is the result of iterations, and see the early designs as steppingstones to something much better. They are clear about any needed deadlines, but don’t put pressure on the designer needlessly. They do their homework when needed.
Great clients are great communicators. When in doubt, great clients ask questions rather than keeping issues to themselves, and know when to push the designer for something just a little better. They are doing the project for themselves and their own enjoyment, rather than some unknown future buyer. They have made sure to hire professionals they trust, and have the self-confidence to not second-guess decisions they’ve already made. Most especially, they don’t create a design committee from their circle of friends, each of whom has wildly different tastes and ideas.
Great clients value the relationships in the project. These clients usually choose to work with a specific contractor for the positive working relationship and the stress reduction this contractor brings. These clients consider the overall construction experience, along with the contractor’s project management skills and craftsmanship level, to be at least as important as the price.
When the inevitable construction problems come up, great clients stay in problem-solving mode, and don’t immediately start looking for blame. (They fully comprehend that humans don’t have x-ray eyes and reliable precognitive abilities.) Knowing that the designer and the contractor have done this many times before, they don’t try to micro-manage a process they don’t fully understand, but still act as full participants.
And when they get a great result that far exceeds their initial expectations, they say, “Thank you!” and are happy to talk about the designer to their friends. A designer couldn’t wish for more. I have been blessed with many great clients over the past twenty-five years or so, and look forward to many more.