The biggest design myth, debunked

Once upon a time, I did some work for my mother because I was going to do “a beautiful job” (her words). She thought I had a beautiful style and an eye for great design and liked to tell everyone how good I was. Unfortunately, my mother suffers from the belief that an age-old design myth is true.

The work I did for her that time was a bookmark for my grandmother’s funeral, one of those that they have lying on a table in church for whoever wants a keepsake (when I die I don’t want anyone making bookmarks, okay?). In the end I sorely regretted accepting to work for my mother because, in her mind, this myth was true:

“My job as a designer is to design what the client wants.”

It wasn’t the first time she’d soured after the initial enthusiasm of “Let your creativity do its thing, I’ll love it”, and I’d started the project knowing it might sour again (I’m a pessimist). In the end the design was all hers and I had in my hand a bookmark with a blurry pixellated background that she had chosen because it showed the lake my grandmother had dearly loved, while I’d chosen a similar background from a stock site knowing it would print better than the unprofessional photos she’d sent me.

The fact that this wasn’t even for her mother and that she was that pernickety was a little strange, to say the least, considering her own mother had passed away around a year earlier and she hadn’t made a fuss for her bookmark (which I’d designed, too).

Is the customer always right?

I know the old adage says “the customer is always right.” While I always strive to make the customer happy and create a design that they are pleased with, I would like to consider the following scenarios:

Let’s assume you’re not a designer anymore. You’re an accountant. Your client comes to you and says something like “I want you to ignore these bank statements and put the numbers I want instead”. As an accountant, you know this tactic is illegal. Would you do it anyway just because the client wants it?

Or imagine you are a doctor and your client, a construction contractor, says, “This is how you should operate me.” Would you follow their advice because they supposedly “know what they’re doing”?

Seems ludicrous right? Of course it does, and frankly if you are a doctor and would allow the latter I never want you to see me. Just sayin’.

So why do we, as graphic and web designers, allow our clients to sway our decisions with statements like “I think this would look a lot better in ____”, “Why don’t we use ________ instead of ________” or “I think you should use Comic Sans”? In response to client issues like this, I have heard this phrase from dozens of designers multiple times: “I told him what I thought was best, but in the end, the client is the one who is paying me”.

No. We are professionals. Our job may not require a PhD or juggling with concrete numbers, but we do study our craft and we do generally know what we are talking about when we offer ideas and suggestions. Trust us, we know what we are doing, and we’re just as good at what we do as you are at what you do.

How to work with clients

Imagine the accountant above had just been released from jail for fraud or that your doctor weighed 300 lbs but reprimanded you for your diet. Are you likely to trust their judgment? No, right? It works the same way when your client hires you. If you allow your client to walk all over you with their recommendations, are a push-over and are unable to defend your design decisions, why should your clients trust you?

Your success depends on how much you know and how confident you are in your decision-making process. I mean, you still need to be respectful with your clients, but you also need to intelligently defend your design decisions. None of that “I thought it looks nicer” drivel. Back up your decisions with facts, studies, etc. For example, “I chose primary colours for your daycare because these are colours that are strongly associated with childhood development and learning.”

When defending your design decisions, always keep these points in mind:

  • Always design with a purpose. If you don’t know why you did something or did it based on feelings, you can’t explain it to your client, and they can’t trust your decision.
  • Be respectful. If you’re rude, it’ll just raise your client’s hackles and they won’t want to listen to you.
  • Back up your design decisions with research. Add credible opinions to your defense. This means more than just your opinion.
  • Educate your client on the benefits of design choices, effective design, typography, resources, jargon, etc. They need to feel like you’re communicating on the same wavelength in order to fully trust your decisions.

Busting the myth

Sorry, but the customer isn’t always right – at least not in the creative industry. When we take on the attitude that the client pays the bills so they make the decisions, we undermine ourselves creatively and are basically telling them that we’re not quite sure what we’re doing here.