Liveblogging a presentation at An Event Apart San Francisco by Jeffrey Zeldman

This is like super-big D, because it’s all design. That’s what we’re gonna talk about, and selling it.

For me, it was awesome when the Web came along in 1995 because the clients didn’t understand it. Using the arcane science of html with B and I tags, I could (essentially snow my clients). Eventually I had a client asking for an entrance tunnel. Who’s heard of those? Of David Siegel? He’s the first one who tried to add design to the Web before it was possible. He proposed an entrance tunnel before the Flash intro was even invented. First site I worked on had a perl entrance tunnel that swapped images. You just had to sit there and wait until we considered it done. Nobody minded in 1995, but by 1996 clients were buying Davie Siegel’s design. They though they know what leading Web thinkers were doing, and it was time to start doing client services again.

1998, AIGA Miami: Thomas Müller was there from Razorfish. Shows a film of the Helsinki office. 72 different titles they came up with for designer. Why would anyone who lives in Miami want to move in Helsinki? For the cold small fish of Helsinki? But wow: Razorfish opened an office in Helsinki This Web thing is gonna be big. Get out of the cubicle and work with clients seemed to be the way to go. But I am most comfortable in my cubicle, with my music just right, my mousepad, my wall colour. Clients are really terrible for me, really stressful, so I’ve had to learn some tricks.

Relationships with clients and bosses are like any other kind of relationship. Once you stop being afraid of or hating the person who’s paying you and start thinking of them as a husband/wife/brother/sister, you can actually work some of your will and get some of your way.

(Tells story about his old boss. They kept bringing the client comps until they finally had to buy something.) (Slider: One way to sell great work is to never stop working on the same job.) Eventually they’re gonna go “We have to launch and we have to buy something.”

Respect flows both ways. I had to overcome the natural hostility people in creative fields feel toward people who get to say yes or no. It’s natural to become hostile. You have to do this Gandhi thing. I’ve heard that Gandhi said thank you to the man who shot him. I don’t know if it’s true, but I can’t imagine anything more spiritual than that. We have to become willing to be respectful to people who have the power of life and death over our work and can reject our work.

(Slide: The client is an idiot. Next slide: The client is not an idiot.) More positively, don’t choose idiots for clients. Marketing spin on it: Choose good clients. [Like maybe not the TTC. But I digress.] Finding people who are capable of buying good work.

How do we avoid bad clients? What signs can we look for? One the one hand you’ve got the landlord and payroll, and on the other a pile of stuff coming into our inbox that might involve work and money. Sometimes you have to take a job because you have to take a gig. After a while, once you build up a little bit of surplus, you can be choosy.

(Slide: Learn to smell trouble. Bad assignments pack paperwork.) When we get really long detailed RFPs, when we’ve taken those jobs we’ve come to regret it. A very prestigious publisher approached us, a little literary magazine in Oklahoma or whatever. They win Peabodys or whatever. They’re this hot magazine. Great content, no money, and this appeals to us normally, because you need bread-and-butter clients and others that can give you a portfolio piece you think is meaningful. You want that balance, right?

Then there’s like 27 pages of IA, of wireframes done in Microsoft Word. So that’s kind of a bad sign. Their Web site is one page long and they’ve been up since 1996. “Click here to download” single-article PDFs. And you’re giving us 27 pages of wireframes? I don’t think so. If you knew what you were doing, you wouldn’t be giving us that. You want someone coming to you with lots of information about themselves, but they have to be able to summarize what they want from you. We’d be flattered then, but since they’re not doing that, we look at them as a horrorshow client. A client should be able to boil down what they’re doing in a sentence.

We make ourselves weirdly hard to get hold of and we give a five-page MS Word document we ask people to fill in. What one thing would you most like people to do? What’s most wrong with your Web site? If they don’t even bother to fill it in, we don’t talk to them.

Listen for bad-date vibes. When someone comes running like a house on fire, we run away from them. “Your emergency is not my problem.” Here’s what it means: The business wisdom is you can dictate terms. It really means that they knew they wanted to launch on September 1, but they couldn’t agree to a strategy, with committee after committee, like things are like at a university, and then finally it’s almost September 1. When they’re in a rush and they’ve been indecisive and that’s why they’re in a rush, they’ll still be indecisive when they’re your client. They’re the same people.

We are a little bit informal. I kind of flirt back a little bit loosely, playfully. If they respond in an uptight manner, we won’t have a good time working with them. Since a spirit of play is kind of what we do, then we can probably work with them if they are too.

Next, build trust. (Mentions it’s Freight Sans, “a pretty nice font.”) Initially I was deathly afraid of clients who didn’t understand the Web. They may be sophisticated clients even if they’re not Web-savvy. So help them get up to speed. (Slide: Lack of Web expertise ≠ being a dummy [though he writes it !=].) (Shows example from Simon Willison about forum spam that has only two comments, one of which is spam. And the spam will still be there in 2012.)

How to? Have a process; be calm and methodical. It’s partly because we cant do the work if we don’t do the process. It acts as a soothing agent for the client’s nerves. We insinuate ourselves into the client’s life. We take these steps so the client understands we really care about them and are learning everything we can about their business and not just applying Template C that we weren’t able to sell tot eh last client. This process reassures them. We don’t show design for like two months. We have a long discovery phase before we show design. If you show design right away, people kill it. Do that before they know who you are, (they’ll kill it). Build real trust and build a real relationship. You’re talking about issues instead of arguing about colours and fonts.

Discovery phase is a way of asking questions, beginning to build a relationships. (Slide: Wireframes build relationships, not just user flows.) The Alzheimer’s method: You have to remind them of what just happened and what was decided. You don’t do it in a condescending way; you do it because they’re busy. They not along; they remember that you read and you’re good. If you don’t do that, they wonder why you’re showing that to them and they start to rethink. A months-long Web project has lots of time for buyer’s remorse.

Learn to translate. Listen to the subtext. Kind of like watching a Harold Pinter play. Harold Pinter – you can look him up on Wikipedia, and we have wifi, so there we go. [Or check the Pet Shop Boys reference?] (Lengthy slideshow of work.)

Responding to criticism: One response we’ve tried is “Where did you go to art school?” Better: What makes it bad for you? Let’s look at those moodboards we did before. I don’t like it myself, but our demographic is 13-year-old boys, so they like purple and lime green together. They may still hate it and you have to come up with something else, but at least you can talk about it. Before you get angry, try to understand what they’re really asking. (Communicating Design by Dan M. Brown, he says.)

When all else fails, push back. “No, we’re not going to change it.” Sometimes that works. We’ll look into it. (And you really have to.) Shock them: Agree.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.10.05 20:33. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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