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These days, graphic designers also have patrons. They’re called clients. But, for all intent and purpose, it’s pretty much the same thing. Graphic designers have an insatiable desire to create. Clients have an insatiable desire to have things created.

It might be to sell stuff or promote an idea, cause or other type of communication. Whatever the reason, it’s a symbiotic relationship based on the idea that client types need a [insert design item du jour here] and they find themselves somewhat wanting in the talent department. Designers fancy the idea of paying their rent and eating on occasion. It’s a match made in Heaven, but not without its challenges.

Consider Michelangelo. Michelangelo was hired by Pope Julius II, also known as “ll papa terribile,” to cover up some nasty looking stars on a blue ceiling. The Sistine Chapel gig took Mikey four years to complete for the sum of 3000 ducats. For those unfamiliar with the currency of medieval times, that’s a bit more than 300 grand, USD, based on today’s gold prices.

Way back in Mikey’s day, it was around fifty grand, give or take. Hmmm … just 12 and a half grand per year for painting a ceiling while practically standing on his head? Okay, he didn’t really paint it practically standing on his head or lying on his back for that matter. That was a notion popularized by Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy. It made for some great cinema at the cost of truth. Nonetheless, ‘ole Mikey probably had more than his fair share of neck aches.


creation sistine chapel

In an effort to under-promise and over-deliver, Michelangelo took the Pope’s original idea of a scene showing the 12 Apostles, which Mike thought was a “poor thing,” and transformed it into a sweeping 133′ x 46′ masterpiece. A perhaps little known fact is that good ‘ole Mikey was canned by the Pope during the course of the gig. A better known fact is their relationship was … er … less than amiable.

I wrote that little history lesson to say this: Does all this sound somewhat familiar to you graphic designer types? Let’s see, a first idea that wasn’t considered all that hot by the artist; a lot of work for what turned out to be a modest fee; a less-than-great client/designer relationship that’s prone to threats of parting ways mid-gig. Sounds a bit too familiar, doesn’t it? It seems little has changed over the years.

Or has it?

In an effort to find out, I did a bit ‘o research and asked some graphic design clients to describe and comment on their relationship with their designer.

Almost all the respondents said their relationship met or exceeded their expectations. Whew! Good job, designers! But there were still a few caveats.

Here’s a taste from Laura Benson, owner of Jeanne Beatrice, LLC:

“My creative director literally turned my business around. I hired him to design my new site: But he did so much more. My initial goal was simply to emerge from our work with a new website, and I ended up with so much more. Because of Bowman Design, I have a fabulously designed and technologically advanced website, a much evolved brand and business that operates much more efficiently on all levels. In addition to the website, Bill has designed two look books, a line sheet (catalog), and several email campaigns for me. He has single-handedly taken my business and brand to an entirely new level.”

That’s what the client/designer relationship should be all about. Like Michelangelo, amaze your clients. Under-promise and over-deliver. Find ways to propel your client’s business and make it better, more effective and exceed the project’s goals. Exceeding expectations tends to have clients doing the happy dance.

Even when a project doesn’t seem to be a Sistine Chapel, it can be a masterpiece in your clients’ minds. It’s all in how we, as graphic designers, approach the gig and bring our experience and unique way of seeing to the table. Strive to be hands-on. Mike was an utterly hands-on trooper, completing the Sistine Chapel from the brushstrokes to designing his own, rather unique scaffolding, right down to grinding all his own pigments.

Client input and feedback are pretty important, as Nancy Berton of Gardécor, Inc. notes:

… from my point-of-view being both a client of a graphic artist as well as in the middle, it takes a special understanding of the artistically creative mind and a client who is needing to get the job done to their demands. However, the client is always the one who has to live with the finalized design and when they cannot guide the graphic designer, it goes nowhere.

Gardecor homepage

Gardecor Homepage

Mary Sue Papale, founder of Ashbury Skies credits a graphic designer’s experience in the client’s industry as a boost to the relationship and, ultimately, the project’s success:

“Through networking, we have been able to find graphic designers that are in sync with our business. We have found that it helps if a designer has experience working in our industry. If not, the learning curve is just too steep.”

ashbury skies homepage

Ashbury Skies Homepage

Finally, for Magda Walczak a clear understanding of the project’s goals, for both the client and the designer, as well as clear communications are key:

“I’ve worked with graphic designers my whole career. I’ve had some in-house, some freelancers and some in agencies. In general, you always get there with a graphic designer, but I find that the initial conversations are always tough.

Graphic designers tend to focus on aesthetics, not the practical aspects of business. For example, it’s hard to get them to focus on conversion (the goal of most websites) or on SEO. I’ve had countless arguments over making things more practical so that the website we’re working on actually brings sales vs. just looking beautiful.

Part of the good relationship is clear communication. What do you hope to accomplish with this piece? And it’s best to ask for a draft in the early stages before they have gone too far down a path you don’t like.”

There are a few common themes running through these clients’ comments – clear communications and a thorough, spot-on understanding of what the client is trying to accomplish are mission-critical. Plus, having the understanding that whether you’re a freelancer, small studio or an in-house graphic designer, you’re in a business and one that provides a needed, valuable service to help your client’s reach their goals. Sure, your product is somewhat intangible, especially at the beginning of a project. It’s often subjective, with success or failure often based on the viewer’s emotional response.

But, like Michaelangelo, by going the extra mile, trusting your vision and talents, you might just create something truly memorable that goes well beyond your client’s expectation. I mean, look at the Sistine Chapel. The client, ll papa terribile, just wanted his ceiling painted. The service provider took that need and turned it into something amazing.