Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

…at least until they do.

When I walk into my doctor’s office, I’ve often already decided what I want to hear — ‘healthy as a horse, keep eating whatever you want.’ Lucky for me I have an excellent doctor, and what she tells me is in no way influenced by what I want. She takes all the relevant information gathered from her examination, along with years of professional experience and training, and she tells me what I need to hear, (sigh.. so long loco moco).

In my 10+ years as a design professional, I have come in contact with who, for some odd reason, do not treat their creative partners as… uh, well, as partners. They fail to extend the kind of trust extended to other experienced professionals including doctors, lawyers, investors (some exceptions apply). But when they doextend this kind of trust to their hired design-guns, they are bound to disagree on things. Still, when this kind of partnership exists not only do clients get their money’s worth, but great things happen to the work itself.

The Seattle-based design and creative studio, Tether (source)

Early in my career I was working at the Seattle-based agency, Tether. We tackled big branding and design problems for companies like Gatorade, Starbucks, Pepsi, Microsoft, and others. And like any good doctor, Tether’s professional opinion was respected and heeded. In part because our experience was unquestionable, but also because we chose to work only with those who were willing to operate as creative partners.

One particular meeting stands out where a member of the client team for a caffeinated chocolate brand lobbied hard for a particular design direction. We politely encouraged the client to go a different way. There was a healthy dose of disagreement, but they extended trust and followed the creative team’s advice.

A lineup of early packaging concepts for Awake Chocolate (source)

“The other directions we proposed were a little more expected, promoting high-energy, but we felt the owl was the best direction,” commented Stanley Hainsworth, the founder and creative leader at Tether (source).

Awake Chocolate’s smarmy owl has since become an iconic and essential part of their brand story and a key device which gives the brand its distinct voice. Today, Awake effectively reaches their target age demographic in a way that creates a delightful and memorable brand experience — a result which, if the design team had remained silent, likely would never have happened.

So how do we achieve the kind of partnership needed to make the client and the designer (and of course, let’s not forget the work) happy? Consider the following:

are outsiders

In most cases, the design muscle on any project begins the work being outside the loop. Sometimes the designer is completely naive to the client’s business category. This should be treated like an asset.

Outsiders bring new observations and perspectives to creative problems. They ask new questions and unearth answers that those on the inside didn’t even know they wanted. But when designers recognize that the insiders know how to define the guardrails and mark the paths that lead to deadly cliffs, the designers stay efficient and deliver work that’s relevant to the brand.

Of course, one of the benefits of in-house teams is that they are on the inside. That said, a good in-house creative team finds ways to keep one foot out. While working as the Design Director for Freefly Systems, I experienced this benefit first hand. Freefly makes heavy-lift cinema drones, and innovative camera movement technology. As we were preparing to replace our flagship aircraft, the Cinestar, the team was discussing naming options. The company’s top brass had decided on a name, but some of us were unconvinced.

I retreated to my office and after filling pages of my notebook with alternates, I emerged with a new option and a rough wordmark sketch. The name “Alta” familied well with the other Freefly products, hinted at the drone’s unique capabilities, and was ownable in our category. Most importantly, the alternate name steered us away from some of the more “sinister” connections that could be made with the then-current name; connections which were harder to be seen by those closest to the product’s development. To this day, the best in aerial cinema know the Alta as one of the most reliable aircrafts of its kind.

The issue taken with the leadership’s initial name direction wasn’t just casually mentioned. We took care to present a new solution. And we knew that if, in the end, they didn’t like our idea, we would serve the client.

Clients are outsiders

The design profession is populated with distinct subspecialties including user interface design, typography, visual style, design trends, multimedia technology, and on and on. All have their own distinct histories, contexts, theories, and best practices. A designer worth hiring is going to have an understanding of these subspecialties. Conversely, a client probably won’t. They are supposed to be a whiz at running their emerging clothing brand, or multinational beverage company, or whatever it is they do. The advantage of hiring a designer is their expertise. Instead of giving marching orders, the best clients invite their creatives to the conversation early, making them a partner and leveraging their knowledge.

As one of the hosts of the Every Axis podcast, I interviewed veteran drone pilot Trent Palmer about his work capturing aerial footage for national TV commercials and blockbuster films. In our interview, Trent explained it well:

“We know the limitations of our gear and when it makes sense to use it. … We find a lot of times that directors and DPs are trying to use us for an application that maybe a different piece of gear would be [better] suited for… I found a lot of directors that haven’t worked with drones will sometimes fight us … forcing us through in a way that just doesn’t work. That can be trickier than a director that we’ve worked with before that respects our creative input and understands that, hey, I can help you achieve what you’re trying to do… we can help tell your story.”

With Trent Palmer and heavy-lift cinema drones, part of his plight is the mechanical and technical limitations. But Trent also knows how the drone moves and what kind of movement provides the intended emotion for any shot. He flys every day. He knows how to style each shot. This unique insight is why people hire him. It’s why brands turn to Tether, and me, and any other professional hired to illustrate or design or write copy or tell their brand’s story.

Get inside

When all these outsiders come together and collaboration happens, the boundaries are allowed to be pushed and pulled. When the product expert and the design expert are heard, creative balance is achieved, and it births a brand identity, or campaign, or website that not only meets the brief, but carries that brand to the next level.

You’ll know this is happening if the designer and client aren’t afraid to disagree.

Imagine this: the designer pitches a style that creeps a little too far beyond the brand’s comfort zone. The client pushes back, the designer defends their work, friction creates heat, which starts a fire and new energy is injected into the project. Once equilibrium is found and the work goes live, it reaches new audiences without alienating the core.

Or, in reviewing a website mockup, the client asks for the logo and headlines to be bigger, bolder and flashier. The designer pushes back just so, defending the design principles found throughout his portfolio (which impressed the client to hire the designer in the first place). A good designer can pivot on such a request, balancing the client’s desire for a bolder design with the tasteful layout and typography needed to keep things classy. The result is a potentially awwward winning website, complete with the emphasis that the client saw lacking in the initial mockup.

Respect experience

This is not a call to defer to the all-knowing designer. Such a free-for-all leads to a bunch of monstrous, designer-toddlers in the creative studio, demanding all street signs be hand-painted and political borders be redrawn to be more aesthetically pleasing.

The same is true for clients! A client with an designer whose only song is “yes” is prone sing that terrible rock anthem “make the logo bigger!”.

This only works if the client and designer each respect the others’ experience. Young designers often feel miffed when a client stubbornly rejects their push back, but creative insight and intuition is something gained with years of experience, and even the most seasoned designer knows that sometimes they’re wrong. I’ve endured the vetting and hiring process in search of design talent before. In reviewing portfolios or even a simple resume, one can often get a sense of who has developed that kind of insight.

A designer is wise to heed the feedback of a chef with 10 years of experience and two other successful restaurants. She knows what works. And the accountant-turned-entrepreneur who’s opening his first smoothie shop might yield to the brand designer with 15 years of design practice. Sure, the smoothie shop is his baby, but his design partner knows how make it stand out in a sea of smoothie shops.

Designers are professionals

In the past 25+ years, the design profession has demanded more and more respect, earning the clout tacit in medical, engineering, legal and other professions. Just over 10 years ago, author Daniel Pink argued that The Master of Fine Arts is the new MBA; citing how even old-dog companies like GM are adopting the new trick of elevating right-brained creatives to the c-suite.

In my own individual freelance work, I’ve had many clients that work as true partners, and an unfortunate few who do not. When the creative partnership features the give and take between client and designer, the work rises to the top. When it’s absent, the result is often a “pig-dog” of once-good ideas which have been deconstructed and then frankensteined together.

So when you find yourself in Dr. Design’s exam room with your brand sitting half naked on the butcher-papered table, be ready to act on their advice. Even when the prognosis isn’t exactly what you were expecting to hear. And designers. For goodness sakes. Listen to your client before you operate. The last thing we want to do is remove the wrong kidney.

Do you have a professional opinion? Share this article and leave a comment below.

Evan MacDonald is a freelance designer and art director from Seattle. His work can be seen at

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