Design Communication 101

Knowing what you want and communicating with your designer is key to any successful project. Your satisfaction with the results depends on  clearly defining objectives and expectations, just as you do with your own clients. Despite popular misconceptions, great design is not normally achieved in a flash of brilliance on the first concept your designer sends. The best designs involve a lot of trial and even more error. This process is often frustrating if you have not experienced it before. It is helpful to keep a few key ideas in mind to maintain open communication with your designer and expedite the entire process.

Know what your designer does

When choosing your designer be sure they are experienced in your type of design project. There is a big difference between designers who are able to produce online and for print. Know whether you are you hiring this designer for a website or print project. If you need printed items to coordinate with your website can your designer help? Will your designer arrange for the printing of your materials?

Communicate money and terms beforehand

Without exception, you mush secure a contract before any design work begins. Will you own your logo? Will your website include attribution to the designer? How many revisions will you get, and what happens if you exceed that amount? Your designer should have a detailed contract with a schedule of work and terms and conditions.

Start with the end in mind

Think about what you really want in your design and assess what it is you need from whatever is being designed and spend time doing some research. Think about the functionality you want your users to get out of the design, what information you need to convey, and what sort of feeling you want to evoke. Examples are the easiest way to communicate what you are looking for. That doesn’t, however, mean to send over a website from a competitor and say “I want this”.

All of my projects start with a “Project Brief” that requires the client to answer and explain a set of questions about their goals, expectations and other design considerations. I ask clients to communicate their target client, the most important feature on the home page, and the competitive landscape as well as obvious questions about websites they like. This is a great exercise for the client to organize their thoughts and starts our project on a mutually clear understanding. Even if your designer does not have a Project Brief or ask these questions you should be able to answer them.

Explain why you don’t like it

Every worthwhile designer is used to criticism, it is part of the process of improvement. However, try to be friendly and provide constructive criticism in ways similar to what you learned in elementary school. Sending messages such as “this is way off”, “it doesn’t pop”, or “can you jazz it up a bit?” are just not helpful. Try to be specific, like “the color is looking too muddy”, or “please make our contact info more obvious“, or  “the image doesn’t portray a our firm’s personality“.

Trust Your Designer, Give Up Control

Handing over control can be very difficult for some clients, but it is necessary. This doesn’t mean you won’t get what you want or that you can’t offer feedback, but micromanaging the design process is a terrible idea. You hire a designer because you value her expertise and skill, so trust her to take your initial input and create something that stands out from the crowd. It’s often said that you hire a designer to say, ‘No.’

While it’s important for designers to be receptive to feedback and suggestions from their clients it’s also important for clients to realize that a designer’s role is to have more experience in the field of design, passionately pursue the best path possible, use informed opinions, and approach the project from a user’s perspective. In other words: designers know design, so it’s best to get out of the way and give them freedom to create.

Do not be afraid of telling your designer the concept they just sent is not what you are looking for. The lack of perfection only indicates a need for further explanation. Give your designer a chance to work out a solution that you will be happy with by communicating what you want and in a clear, straightforward manner. It will make the design process easier and more successful for both you and your designer.



  1. Avatar Bob Larson says:

    As a former web developer, this article is spot-on. I can’t stress enough how frustrating it is when a design client has absolutely no clue what they want, tells the designer to “have fun with it” (which is a lot like telling a lawyer to have fun writing a brief) and then (inevitably) doesn’t like what has been created for them, but can’t articulate why.

    Actually, all of this is neatly summarized by one of my favorite web comic artists, The Oatmeal:

  2. Avatar Kevin Houchin says:

    Great article Karin. I’m glad you added the line “will you own your logo?” because as a lawyer for the design firms, the concept of Work-for-Hire is critical. Know that unless it is spelled out in the written agreement before the work begins, the default copyright rule gives ownership of all the creative work to the DESIGNER, even after you have paid your bill.

    I advise all my creative business clients to set the default in their agreements to NOT be a work for hire, but that upon full payment of all invoices contemplated under the agreement, copyright shall be assigned to the client with the design firm retaining a perpetual license to use the work in their own portfolio. This way the designer gets what they want: a chance to do great work, paid for the great work, and the right to show the great work in their portfolio. The client gets great work, a fair price for the great work, and is not required to go back to the same firm for modifications to the original designs.

    I’ve had lawyer friends assume that they owned the code for their web site after paying the design bill, then when they wanted to change designers, found out they didn’t own the code and have to start fresh. So, pay attention to the work for hire clause in your creative contracts.

Leave a Reply