An Event Apart: What Clients Don’t Know

by April 2, 2013

In his presentation at An Event Apart in Seattle WA 2013 Mike Monteiro outlined the problems with designer/client relationships and what designers should do to fix them. Here's my notes from his talk: What Clients Don’t Know (and Why It’s Your Fault).

  • If you are a designer, you need to convince people of things. That's part of the job.
  • You can’t put the onus of doing your job on the person who hired you to do it. Especially when they are paying you.
  • Empathy: share your expertise with others to make them feel smarter. Understand the situation people are in and make them feel welcome.
  • Don’t make feel people small because you know more than them. We hate this when we encounter it in the service industry. Design is a service industry.
  • Clients may know what they need but don’t know how to express it. You need to make them feel smarter for talking to you.
  • The body remembers what the mind forgets. Because we do design everyday, we are immersed in the design process. Clients rarely if ever are immersed in the design process. They may be buying design for the first time or for the first time from you.
  • We’ve embraced empathy for users but not for clients.
  • Client services are alive and well. Whether you work with outside clients or an internal team, your job will involve convincing people.
  • Making things is the easy part. The hard part is determining what to make and how to make it, then convincing someone else that your suggestions are right. That’s design.
  • Put yourself in your client's shoes.
  • Mutual success is predicated on how we empathize with your client’s perspective and professionally explain your own. Annoyance is easy. Empathy is hard.

Understanding Clients

  • When to get a designer involved? This question is an opportunity to get clients involved early and become part of the process.
  • Designers keep changing their labels, which confuses the situation even more.
  • But they never ask me! If you insist on acting like a dis-enfranchised creative, that’s how you will be treated. Go to meetings and add value. Stop waiting for an invitation to do your job. Assert yourself. Make a case for how your contribution will help make a great product.
  • Eye rolling is not a design skill.
  • You need to tell people what you need to do your job. You are the expert on telling them what you need.
  • Your portfolio needs to explain that you’ll create things custom tailored for clients. Use your previous work as a prop –a visual aid for telling stories. Clients can’t see themselves in work you do for others but they can see themselves in similar problems or situations. Talk about your problem solving experience.
  • Don’t take jobs that you can’t be successful at. Let clients know up front if you’re not a good fit for each other. Ultimately, this will benefit both of you.

Connecting with Clients

  • Referrals are awesome: someone thought you were good enough to recommend to someone else.
  • Every job you do for a client is a sales pitch for the next job.
  • RFPs use checkboxes instead of relationships to determine which firms to hire. This isn’t a great process but clients do it because hiring designers is hard and confusing. An RFP is a client’s attempt to add structure and manage a process they don’t understand.
  • Designers keep doing RFPs because they want the business, even though they know it’s not the best way to connecting with clients.
  • If you get an RFP, get on the phone to call someone at the company so you can understand what’s behind their requirements.
  • Learn to say no. Don’t take jobs where your process and work is not respected.
  • We have to do the right thing not because it’s easy but because it’s the right thing.
  • Learn to say I don’t know. Any designer that tells you they have an answer to your problem right away is lying. You can’t have all the answers right away but you can have confidence in a process that will get you there.
  • Clients don’t understand the process so they focus on the results. “Let’s make comps.”
  • Show people they are in good hands. Not by abiding by their request but by having confidence in your process. Clients need to know you are confident enough in your process to even say no to them. Never work for anyone you can’t argue with. Never work for someone you can't say no to.
  • How much does this cost? It’s a fair question. You should tell people what they can get for a certain amount. Buying a Web site is more like buying a car: what kind/brand, what features do you need?


  • Your process is a mystery. Show people what it’s like to work with you on a day to day basis. Let them the sequence of events, when you’ll connect and how often.
  • If you don’t control the process for the start, clients will start telling you how it should go. They’ll fill in voids when they see them.
  • Make clients feel confident you have a clear path to success. Otherwise, they'll step in. You have no one to blame when someone decides they have to do the job you're not.
  • Search out all the little details that could derail a project early on. It’s your job to make sure things are present and accounted for up front.
  • Find out if there’s an internal designer on the same project as you and make friends. Work together to make the project a success. Never ever go behind another designer’s back to advance your own agenda.
  • No is born being a good client just like no one is born being a good designer.
  • Most clients are trying to do the right thing. We need to help them and not complain about the things they don’t understand. Stop trying to read minds and communicate.
  • If you’re a designer expect more from yourself. If you’re a client, expect more from your designer.
  • Everything that’s wrong with design today is your fault. That’s a great opportunity. You have the power to change things. Fix it.