Designing with Your Client in Mind: 6 Questions to Ask Before You Start a New Project

I have been a designer for about thirteen years, and most of my business during the past two years has come from new clients. Many have been new up-start businesses, not-for-profit groups and educational networks. When you are embarking on a new project, you need to assess several important things including the client’s branding needs, what they can spend and how long the project will take. Many times I have forgotten to get key information while conducting a client assessment. It’s an easy mistake to make (especially if you’re a new designer), but fortunately it’s also easily avoidable.

Here are some helpful hints to ensure you get all of the necessary information when starting a project. First, I’ll list six key questions that need to be covered before starting a new project. These are organized so you can use them as a checklist when meeting with new clients. Finally, I’ll break down the three important phases of an initial consultation.

Six Key Questions

Six Key Questions

1. What do you need the final file format to be?

Many clients aren’t technically-savvy enough to know how to answer directly, so I usually just ask if it’s going to be for print or web use. I always ask this first since it determines the file size and color profile in which I will be working. When I am designing a new logo mark I always design in the RGB color profile at 300 PPI (pixels per inch). Although many entrepreneurs today are providing web-based services and intend to put graphics on the web, you never know when a client will need something for print later. You can always bump resolution down for the web, but you can’t add it if it wasn’t there in the first place.

This question also determines which one – or if both – of the next two questions are applicable.

2. What are the technical details of the online destination?

If some of your work is headed for the web, you’ll need to get specific information about the online destination for the graphics. For instance: Is the client using an existing website template? Which social networking sites do they have business pages on? Do they know which web-safe colors are on their template? Large, established brands will often have a style guide; but for small clients, you are basically making up the style guide as you go along. (Even if a client in this latter group doesn’t ask for it, after the project is complete I will usually compile a one or two page PDF with their logo, color and font specs.)

3. What printer are you planning on using?

If some of your work is headed for print, you should address this deployment-related question up front. For the most part, new clients won’t have a printer unless they are an established brand. Always suggest a small local printer who is well established in their area. These smaller printers often provide competitive rates compared to big office supply copy centers, and the quality is usually much better.  Since printing is highly specialized, it is best for the client and you as the designer to develop a close working relationship with the actual person who is operating the press. It is ideal to get in direct contact with the pressman working on your client’s job. I also encourage clients to ask their printer questions. Printers, like designers, want their customers to walk away happy; they want customers who will recommend their services to friends and associates.

Keep in mind, though, that this decision can be affected by the next key question – timing.

4. When do you need it?

Planning a time table for clients who have established brands is important, since many need to have their direct mail materials postmarked before a certain date or need printed samples to approve the color. In my experience, completely new clients with fresh businesses often have open deadlines since most of them still have their day jobs to maintain. There are exceptions, though, especially if they’re working in a partnership with a group or larger company. 

If you’re printing the finished product, scheduling press time is key to a successful campaign. If your client needs a fast turnaround, they may have trouble getting time on the press at a local printer. In instances like this you should rely on online printing services. There are many options (some drug store chains are even starting to offer fast printing services on their websites), but I always use Vistaprint. My clients and I have had positive experiences with them, and they also offer an all-in-one service for direct mail campaigns that saves time.

5. How much do you expect to spend?

Even though it seems obvious to tackle this subject head-on in the project evaluation, budget questions can accidentally be overlooked. Make sure that both you and your client have detailed, clear expectations up front. I always check the prospective client out online to make sure they are a reliable employer. If they employ freelancers online, you can often view their profile and read employee feedback.

6. How many samples would you like to see?

It’s nice to know what clients expect, so my best advice is to ask them. For small jobs, two samples usually suffice. For larger projects, I always try to show an odd number of samples. This makes it easier for the client to isolate the extremes they don’t like, leaving the happy middle they do like.

You should also find out in what format the client would like the samples to be delivered. Do they want hard paper copies, or digital files? If digital files, do they want an email or an online sharing service where they can collaborate with other decision makers? Will they want to meet with you and make decisions on the spot, or take samples home and mull the decision over for a while?

The Three Key Phases of an Initial Consultation

Three Key Phases of an Initial Consultation

The six key questions I just outlined should be woven into the initial client consultation. But what should the overall structure of this meeting look like? These consultations should have three distinct phases:

What clients need

It’s of extreme importance to listen to the client carefully during the first consultation. This is where you will learn about their new business and where they see their business in the future. I prefer to talk to the client on the phone or meet in person over lunch to get a feel for the style and personality that needs to be conveyed in the project. It’s hard to get this across in an email alone. Above all else, It’s my job as a designer to make my clients look good, and this requires a close familiarity.

People with new businesses need to know about the various services you provide as a designer. More often than not, people first want a logo for their new business venture. Usually, they think that’s all they need – that they can do everything else themselves. In reality, most non-designers don’t have the right eye for brochure layouts or business card compositions. Make sure your client understands how you can help them with these other materials.

(Tip: I see many business cards with way too much type and too many different typefaces all together. If a logo or business card is going to be successful, it needs to embrace the negative space around it. The viewer needs a place to rest the eye; allowing for white space means you are highlighting content. I see many new designers overwhelm the small space of the business card, when they need instead to accept and learn to work with negative space.)

I usually advise other designers to avoid educating the client about the design trade unless they ask a very specific question or they are in the trade. Otherwise, you may overwhelm them or end up confusing them. Some employers will say, "I need this graphic recreated in software application X.". My instinct is always to ask, "What are you using it for?" Basically, have the client tell you what the final product will be. Then you can better determine if you can deliver, and if perhaps another tool would be more appropriate. For example, some clients insist on deliverables that include files created using the Adobe CS3 Suite. Many people who don’t use these products every day don’t realize that the CS3 version of Adobe Illustrator is unreliable. Unfortunately, in my own experience as well as that of my fellow designers, it has corrupted files and failed to save when the file was too large. Because I use Adobe products daily, I’m aware of these pitfalls that clients don’t (and needn’t) understand. Most clients are just interested in the final product, so emphasize that over the technical details.

During the assessment, I always also ask if the client has (or is planning) a social media page or an app for smartphones. This allows for planning multiple-platform branding and for looking ahead to the long-term maintenance of the brand. 

What you (the designer) can deliver

It is highly important to address functionality when starting a logo, signage, website or social media branding project. If the end product doesn’t meet the client’s expectations it is a failure. I always start from scratch when developing a new brand. Making something from nothing is the ideal situation, but if the client has a piece of clip art they love and stubbornly insist on, you obviously have no choice. On the other hand, previously established brands come to me with typefaces and colors in mind. It’s gratifying to find design solutions in these situations too – it challenges you as a designer to problem-solve.

Many new businesses need guidance developing an advertising strategy. Most are aware of Google Adwords and Facebook Ads but have a hard time trying to figure out actual execution. A few of my clients depend on me as their one person marketing team, and you may want to consider providing this service as well. Online ad services like Adwords and Facebook Ads make this an easier task than it was in the past.

If the client asks you a question and you don’t know the answer or asks you about a software program you aren’t familiar with, tell them so. Don’t say yes to a job and then go home and try to figure out what they asked for. I’ve been there and it’s a waste of time and money on both sides. The best way to respond is to simply say, "I don’t know, but I can find out and let you know the next time we speak."

Work with their budget

Always ask the client about their budget after getting all the information about what they want created for their new brand. Double-check that you’ve determined a set number for the budget and a payment schedule. Try to always get paid in three installments or less. I’ve noticed that when work is done in small multiple installments, it can be hard to track what was done or what files needed to be delivered to receive or complete installment number "umpteen."

For new brands I always suggest an hourly rate, especially when dealing with entrepreneurs and not-for-profits. This benefits brand stability, since you’ll have the time to ensure their images are unique, setting them apart from competitors. If it’s an established brand looking for a small alteration or a quick turnaround on a direct mail postcard, a flat rate works best. They usually have their logo, colors and fonts already picked out, so you as the designer don’t have to create any content that determines branding.

For small business ventures and not-for-profit groups I always try to provide an offering that matches their budgets. Today’s economy is tough and competition is global; adapting to your clients’ situations will serve you well.

Conclusion

In this overview, I’ve provided some valuable tips from my years of experience in the design field. Whether you’re a newbie just starting out or a seasoned veteran looking to refine your processes, my advice will help you become a better – and more valuable – designer.

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