“When was the last time someone made you feel special?”
There was a long pause. “Rhonda” and “James” looked surprised. Confused, even.
Rhonda broke out into a smile, “You know? No one’s ever asked us that before.”
I was meeting with Rhonda and James, the owners of a waterfront resort and marina on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia for the first time. Rhonda and her husband had bought the resort eight years ago as a way to celebrate their marriage and bring some warmth and personality back into the hospitality industry. Problem was, ever since, it suffered from inconsistent branding and a lack of traffic in the off season. They wanted to flip things around. The resort was going through a rough transition period and with inconsistent funding, they were dipping into their personal savings to keep the resort and marina up and running. I really wanted this project. I loved the resort and saw big potential to grow its brand, bring more traffic to the resort year round, and hopefully make the “RJ Resort & Marina” the place to stay when you visit. If Rhonda and James signed me on, it would be my biggest contract to date. I felt like it was going to be a huge undertaking and had no idea how to win them over. I felt like a fraud.
Say hello to ‘Bitchy Diane’
Rhonda reached out after a referral because she liked my work and wanted me to come in and update the collateral for the resort. After I checked out her website and visited the RJ Resort & Marina, it was clear that Rhonda and James needed a brand new website that showcased the resort for what it really was: a dreamy retreat away from everyday city life. The existing site served it no justice and no amount of new collateral at the resort was going to change that. I was terrified. I really wanted to land the project and bring value to the resort. I cared about Rhonda and James and knew I could help them. Now the hard part: How was I going to tell them their business focus was wrong? How would I get them to see my point of view and get on board with my idea of re-designing their collateral and entire website? My stomach dropped. Bitchy Diane, my imposter brain, smirks at me:
Go ahead, put your great idea out there, get criticized, insult the client. They’re going to tell you you have no idea what you’re doing.
Bitchy Diane was kind of, well, a bitch.
My client didn’t hire me for the sole purpose of telling me that I suck
You know what I’ve learned? Bitchy Diane never goes away. Every time I meet with a new client with a swarm of new challenges and ideas, Bitchy Diane shows up and tells me I’m faking it.
Why would anyone work with you? You’re still learning! Why would anyone listen to your ideas or suggestions?
Each time, I have to tell Bitchy Diane to settle down and push through that fear of failure. I let myself be vulnerable. I say: “Fuck it! What’s the worst that can happen?” Something great happens when I commit to “Fuck it.” I become neutral and completely open to feedback. I start to actually listen and respect my relationship with my clients. Believe it or not, clients are human. And once they realize you’re laying it out there with no judgement, they become candid and respect your honesty. I don’t see conflict as an obstacle. Instead, I see it as an opportunity to collaborate with them and solve their problems.
It’s all in your head
I am my worst critic. Bitchy Diane likes to remind me my work isn’t good enough. I compare myself to people who have been established five or 10 years longer than me and worry that I will never get to that level. You know what else I learned?
Sometimes it’s worth telling yourself to shut the fuck up.
The world is not out to get you. There’s no one waiting to shut down your ideas as soon as you say them. My client didn’t hire me for the sole purpose of telling me that I suck.
Let’s look at this for a minute: a rational brain would recognize a few things…
- These potential clients have already seen samples of my work, and obviously liked what they saw.
- They want someone to collaborate with, not a task monkey.
- My clients want me to succeed. They want me to do my best work because it directly correlates with how well the final product will turn out.
If my clients didn’t believe in me, they wouldn’t hire me in the first place.
Really, it’s not personal
Bitchy Diane is all about “me, me, me,” when really it should be about the client and the project. After all, it’s my clients who are putting themselves on the line by coming to me for guidance and advice. Like me, they aren’t sure if the risk they’re investing is going to pay off. It’s their cash above the lighter. There’s a lot of pressure to find the right answers.
It’s important to establish the tone and connection with clients from the get go. My clients are people, not walking dollar bills hell bent on ruining my creative process. I have to tell Bitchy Diane: “Stop thinking about yourself for a minute and put the client’s needs and concerns before your own. You’re on their side, remember?” And my friends, once you establish that, it immediately puts your client at ease as they become a true partner.
Shut up and listen
Rhonda and James were tired of meeting graphic designers who showed them a bunch of pretty pictures and solutions without context. I paused and dug a little deeper. I discovered that instead of focusing on luxury perks, RJ Resort and Marina needed to focus their marketing on the experience and hospitality they were giving their clients. I would have missed this if I hadn’t put myself on a skewer and challenged their initial vision.
When we stop, step back, and take time to listen to our client’s needs, we do three things:
- We set aside our egos, put ourselves in their shoes, and hear what the client is actually telling us.
- We get the whole picture of the problem, which lets us mentally map out the project.
- The client becomes a human being, not a job.
Get naked and vulnerable. Something magic will happen when you do. You add value to the project. Where there is value, there’s inspiration, collaboration, and the potential to do our best work. We have nothing left to lose because we’ve exposed everything.
Not only that, when we give clients the opportunity to get naked with us, they open up. The awkward moment is over and now they can give us insights and information they normally wouldn’t share. When our client trusts and respect us enough to get naked, they will want to overshare. They want to be included in the process and work to reach goals together. So always strive to get naked. Even after a connection is established. Get comfy and cosy with it.
Speak up and set boundaries
It’s a mixed blessing when I get clients who overshare. They like to email me at all hours of the day with great ideas, tips, and random thoughts. Just like being naked, it can get distracting. They change their minds or want to try different techniques because they want to play and participate in the creative process. All of a sudden the project is running out of money, resources, and time. If we don’t set up clear boundaries from the start, we risk becoming a slave to the whims of their demands and expectations. Worst of all, we might end up with a Frankenstein project.
We have to remember to set up goals and boundaries from the very beginning. And speak up when things start to roll off the track. I treat my clients the same way I want to be treated. I never flat out shut down ideas. I respect timelines and project goals. I give options and explain consequences. Sometimes this means bringing out the contract with a gentle reminder of the parameters. I remind my clients that we can always try an idea out, but it’ll probably cost more and take a bit longer. Oh, and I know to ask first before implementing any kind of action. Consent is important.
Say “I don’t know”
Every project is a chance to try something we’ve never done before as designers. Much of the work I’m most proud of evolved out of me saying I don’t know. Those three words mean, “I won’t rest until I find the right answer that fits your parametres.” It means clients like Rhonda and James can and do let go of their panic. It’s about listening, and I mean really listening to what they’re asking for.
Get humble. Get vulnerable. Get naked
Having great ideas and visions means forfeiting attachment and giving them room to expand, breathe, and suck. The whole journey of the creative process is about allowing these ideas to be stretched, tested out, and picked apart. Sometimes ideas are amazing, sometimes they’re shit. Sometimes there’s a whole lot of sucking before something awesome shows up. Being vulnerable makes us infinitely stronger and able to bounce back when we get hit with criticism.
As designers in this industry, it’s scary approaching new client relationships naked. We risk having our ego taken down a few notches and even getting our hard work thrown out. But once we’re willing to be let go and just say “Fuck it” with clients, we mail them the invitation to do the same. I’ve learned that getting creatively naked is a gift that clients are happy to return without hesitation.
So whatever happened to Rhonda and James? We’re right in the middle of the project. They were willing to get naked with me, weird moles and all. I can’t tell you how it will turn out, but I can tell you that this relationship I’ve started to build with them has been my most meaningful one to date.
Photos by Iryna Arapov