Let’s set the stage, shall we?
You’re a creative professional, or in a creative department. Let’s say you’re a graphic or interactive designer. Honestly, though, you could apply this to anyone, if you twist it the right way.
We all have to work with clients. Let’s define “clients” as people that provide you with information or a brief that you need to interpret and convert into deliverables. It could be artwork, a photograph, a wireframe, or a bunch of copy. Some clients are good, some are bad, some are great. I’ve seen them all- some while I was in-house, and some while I was running my own studio. The thing that I’ve learned over time is that if you’re not communicating efficiently and identifying issues, you’re going to be burning a lot of time.
The problem? Not enough information.
Don’t bitch. Get the information you need, or suffer the painful and time-sucking revision spin cycle. There are a lot of ways to do this. The first thing to do is to put your negativity and ego aside for the time being. You may know more, have more experience, or be a better communicator… but when it all boils down to it, you’re not the person asking for the creative, you’re providing it. Help the process, don’t hamper it.
Ask for more information, but define what you need.
Sure, you need more information, but are you telling the client what you’re missing? Provide them with a list of what’s missing, related to what you’re looking for that will help you flesh out the skeleton. Put the onus on you first to make sure that you can do your job.
What is their target demographic? Who is this creative being directed at?
What is the purpose of the creative? Joins, clicks, social interaction, information, education, sales?
Are there any inspirational references that they can point to?
Are there any specific things to avoid? Specific brands, imagery, thematic elements?
These four bullet points should be enough to get an initial concept roughed out. Honestly, if you get answers to these questions, you know who you’re targeting, what the end goal of the messaging is, have guidelines of things that might be included in the aesthetic, and most importantly- what NOT to include.
Reject “I’m not sure what I want to see, but when I see it, I’ll know it.”
The immediate response is “The Fuh?” Sometimes it’s mind boggling to think that a client wants you to magically create something out of nothing. There are some ways to shut this down, if you’re respectful, and clear in your need for more direction.
Identify that comments like the one above are uninterpretable.
There is no possible way that any forward progress can be made when there is nothing provided that is actionable. Using analogies like “I’m being asked to build a house… but I only have tools, and no lumber.” or “I’m being asked to build a delicious burger, but I’ve only been given the condiments.” Make your own humorous analogy that they can relate to, and then drop it on them. Note: Don’t be a snarky asshole (and make sure your analogy doesn’t include any obscure references).
Make the time.
Flip it on them. If they have a deadline, simply tell them that they’ll have to adjust the deadline if they can’t identify WHAT THEY WANT. Not being able to define what they’re looking for comes from a number of different issues. Here are a few of them.
The client doesn’t actually know what they want– If this is the case, push back. Provide them with the specific questions provided above with the premise that these questions being answered will begin to flesh out the concept. They can’t give you nothing. Period.
The client is too busy to prepare an accurate brief or request – Sometimes a client needs to learn the lesson the hard way. If they’re too busy to provide an accurate brief, see if there is someone that it there that can. It’s a kind of passive-aggressive way of indirectly identifying that either they’re not doing their job, or someone else can do it better. If that’s off the table for whatever reason, just let the client know (with examples, if neccessary) that not taking the time on the front end is going to cost FAR MORE time on the back end because of revisions, approvals, back and forths, and associated fuckery. Let them know that you’ll be faster, and do better work, if they take the time at the start.
General Laziness – Ugh. This is more of a personality defect that anything. If you have enough rapport to tell them to stop being lazy, fire away. If not, statements like “I can’t do my work until you do yours…” can sometime work. If you have the conversation and you don’t make headway… get ready to (if you can) bring the slackass behavior up to someone that can light a fire under their… well… slackin’ ass. Lazy people don’t usually don’t last long when deadlines drive revenue, unless they’re in the C Suite (insert rimshot).
Work as hard as you can to let them have your way.
In any of these cases, make it really easy for the client to get you what they need. You’ll need to push, sway, and manage them appropriately.
What’s a great tool for this? Prepare a simple questionnaire that allows them to answer the questions easily, and provide links or imagery directly into the doc. Google Docs works really well for this, as it also provides a date and time-based audit trail that will identify how long it takes for the client to get back to you, make revisions, and more. There’s nothing wrong with covering your ass, right? (Thanks again, Google. I love you.)
You have the tools; don’t keep them in the toolbox.
Look. It’s never easy to deal with nebulous requests. Hopefully this is a bit of insight into how to deal with getting things back on track. By asking solid questions, identifying missing items, and holding your client (or anyone else for that matter) accountable for the job that they need to do, you might be able to affect some change.
Build the systems you need to make your way of doing things the the standard.
Provide them with a stack of questionnaires. Use a solid, trackable project management solution like Basecamp.
Trust when I say, that if you make their job easier, they’ll be faster, and more importantly, they’ll have the time to present you with a detailed request, as opposed to a blank piece of paper.After a few times of going through the process, they’ll turn it into their process. This has worked many, many times for me, and I hope it works for you. Be creative. If it doesn’t work out the first time, refine your approach, and go again.
Remember, you’re not just a creative tool. You’re someone who can influence standards and procedures, and act as an advocate for leaner, faster methodologies. You can change the way others visualize their requests, and produce better work because of it. Go.
Good luck. As always, I’m happy to discuss stuff like this; in the comments, in a Hangout, on Skype… you name it. Just ask.
A special thanks to Kate Daly ( you can find her at @tikikate on Twitter) for chickity-checkin’ this post, and providing some tweaks.