In school, designers learn a variety of techniques, terms, and tools necessary to execute their craft. Skills are developed and nurtured; opportunities are given to produce somewhat “real world” projects that stretch the student’s knowledge and understanding of formal and technical aspects of strong design. Hours upon hours are spent sketching ideas, designing layouts, making decisions, second guessing those decisions, revising, then printing and mounting the final product for presentation.
Then comes the critique.
The critique in art/design school is meant to be an introduction to the very real world practice of design criticism. This can be an overwhelming and somewhat unnerving process of putting the work up, giving a short presentation explaining the ideas and concepts that went into it, and then listening to feedback from the class and instructor. I still remember a professor in one of my undergraduate studio courses explaining, “once the work goes up on the wall you must divorce yourself from it.” No longer can the designer hold on to their work from the point of view of the artist, but now they must stand back and receive critical review of their work for its strengths and weaknesses in hopes that they will improve. This is incredibly difficult for any artist or creative person. So much time is spent in expressing their ideas in visual form that an artist has a very real emotional connection to their work. Many young designers starting out have a tough time with criticism and get very defensive of anything negative being said. And this is why so much time is spent in school showing your work for critique. To work professionally, every designer must develop a “thick skin” so to speak.
When you leave design school and enter the professional world, it doesn’t end there! Giving presentations and receiving critiques are an everyday reality for a working designer. What they rarely teach you in school, however, is the importance of “selling” is. Selling, it turns out, is woven throughout the entire industry! From selling a company on yourself to get the job, to selling your ideas to your creative director for approval, to finally selling your final design to the client, it’s in every aspect of the industry. As Michael Bierut said in his article Graphic Design as a Spectator Sport, “simply having the idea is not enough. Crafting a beautiful solution is not enough. Doing a dramatic presentation is not enough. Convincing all your peers is not enough. Even if you’ve done all that, you still have to go through the hard work of selling it to the client. And like any business situation of any complexity whatsoever, that process may be smothered in politics, handicapped with exigencies, and beset with factors with have nothing to do with design excellence. You know, real life. Creating a beautiful design turns out to be just the first step in a long and perilous process with no guarantee of success.” And weather a given design solution makes it out into the real world, largely depends on the SELL.
I am often heard quoting a phrase I read somewhere, “Great design requires a great client!” And it is so true! I have worked for clients where there is a great deal of trust and respect for what we do and the “sell” is a wonderful exchange of collaboration leading to a great end result, winning awards and most importantly producing results. Conversely, I have worked for clients that had little to no respect for the creative process or the designer themselves. In such situations, “selling” them on an idea was a laborious and often fruitless task. Instead of a fulfilling collaboration, they ruled over each project with an iron fist, squeezing all style and creativity out of it, until the end result was wholly unrecognizable! What makes such a difference in client experiences and my ability to sell them on the work?
Well, I asked this question to a couple of good account executive friends (Art Greene and Ryan Hammond) and learned the following:
Overall and it all starts with developing a good RELATIONSHIP with the client. If the relationship is bad, selling them on a design will be a long road. From there it’s a process that starts by LISTENING to what the client’s needs are. “You don’t want to think about the next thing your going to say. You want to be open eared and listen to your client” says Ryan Hammond.
From there develop the GROUNDWORK, creating a strategy with measurable goals for the work. Then EXECUTE the strategy. “Screw the Sizzle. Give me Steak! I can sell anything if it includes elements to accomplish the goal.” says Art Greene. Only present strategic solutions back to them that are well crafted, meet the agreed upon goals, and directly tied to the strategy.
No matter how amazing the design work is, establishing a good relationship and adhering to a good process with the client can make all the difference in selling the work. Selling isn’t something that comes naturally to designers, but it is an important skill to develop in order to be successful in this industry. My friend Ryan once told me he could “sell a t-bone to a vegetarian!” I may never be that effective, but with practice I keep improving.