5 Tips for Bridging the Communication Gap by Sunny Bonnell

 How To Communicate Effectively

how to communicate effectivelyHave you ever had an art or design business relationship go sour over a miscommunication or perhaps a complete lack of communication? If so, you’re not alone. Clients often find it difficult to communicate visual ideas into words, and excessive use of design jargon and art speak is frustrating to everyone involved. In her article “Common Ground,” Sunny Bonnell offers 5 tips for bridging the communication gap and making sure you and your client are on the same page. You can read an excerpt from this article on how to communicate effectively below, or read the entire article on ArtistsMarketOnline.com.

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Common Ground: 5 Tips for Bridging the Communication Gap by Sunny Bonnell

Recently, I made a trip to my veterinarian because my dog was favoring his back leg. When the vet came in to discuss the X-rays, he prattled on about tibias, fibulas, tendons and a host of other anatomical terms I couldn’t possibly reiterate. Forty-five seconds in, I began to glaze over. After five minutes of his doctor-speak, I craved the company of my pocket dictionary. Finally, I just asked, “Doc, is it broken?” To which he replied, “Yes.” All that mumbo-jumbo for what should have been an easier conversation: “The leg is broken. We’ll make a cast. It will heal in six weeks. The cost is $400.” Simple. This got me thinking: How often do clients experience this frustration when communicating with designers?

Most clients don’t have a deep understanding of design; that’s why they hire us. From the seasoned creative professional to the newbie freelancer, communicating effectively with clients is a critical component of being or becoming a great designer. Whether you’re working with a rookie client or someone who’s been in a few rodeos, there will be times when you don’t share a common vernacular. This can lead to simple misunderstandings—or worse, a damaged relationship.

Each client is different and requires an individual approach to communication. Joe Duffy, founder and creative director of Duffy & Partners in Minneapolis, says, “We have clients who are bold, brash and opinionated, while others are meek, mild and couldn’t be nicer—and everything in between. The best designers learn to communicate in that particular person’s language.”

As you learn the art of communicating with clients, you’ll develop a sense of how best to connect with each individual, and you’ll adjust your style and language accordingly. Here are five tips that will help you improve your communication for a higher level of interaction, more successful design solutions and much happier clients.

“How do you want to be known as an expert? For your dizzying knowledge of CS5 and the Pantone rainbow? Or for your abilities as a problem solver?”
—Jennifer Visocky O’Grady

1. Understand their business

For many designers, learning about the client’s business and why it’s different and better than those they compete with is a challenge. But that should be priority No. 1. Clients hire designers with the intellectual wherewithal to understand their business as a way of ensuring that the solutions are tied to strategies and goals. While clients might not be designers, they obviously know their brand much better than you do. Understanding the client’s business is key to a solid designer/client relationship. Typical protocol includes requesting baseline information, gathering assets, conducting consumer and competitive research, interviewing key management or stakeholders, observation and so on.

. . . .

2. Nix design-speak

In school, designers spend years in critique, honing both their craft and their ability to talk about design with other designers. It’s wrong to expect that clients understand that specialized language. “Designers do the design business a disservice by making it sound mysterious or complicated,” Duffy says.

It frustrates clients when designers speak in terms and phrases they don’t understand, resulting in miscommunication and failed solutions. Using design-speak equals bad communication, and bad communicators are inherently bad designers.

Breaking down technical jargon can be equally frustrating for designers. It’s not that easy to explain what a vector file is. File formats are becoming more complicated, and the programs used for design are becoming less similar to those used in a business environment, so they come with their own lingo. Explaining all the different file formats can be overwhelming for a client, especially when designers start using terms like “pixel-based” and “line art.”

“The trick is to meet people where they’re comfortable, while still maintaining your expert status,” says Jennifer Visocky O’Grady, owner of Enspace Design in Cleveland. “How do you want to be known as an expert?” she asks, “For your dizzying knowledge of CS5 and the Pantone rainbow? (You know what PMS means to the average person, right?) Or for your abilities as a problem solver?”

. . . .

3. Communicate visually, not verbally

Both miscommunication and misinterpretation are common problems in conversations about design. Think about all the words that clients use when they tell you what they want: Sexy, bold, sleek, bright, colorful, modern, hip, funky, simple and so on. But words like these are highly subjective; they can be interpreted any number of ways depending on who says them and who hears them.

The Duffy & Partners team averts confusion by translating those words into pictures when they begin a project. “Once we are given an assignment, we are given a verbal brief by the client. What we always do on every project is work to visualize that brief,” Duffy says. “We compose a collage that in effect translates the words in the verbal brief to pictures in the visual brief. The great thing about this is we then have a filter with which we make design decisions and the client has a clear indication of where we intend to go through the design direction.”

. . . .

“Leaving a meeting with confusion because we were too bashful to clarify is counterproductive. We want to create an atmosphere where asking questions is an encouraged part of the dynamic.”
—Jennifer Visocky O’Grady

4. Explain your reasons

As you offer your expertise throughout the process, it’s important that you also explain to the client why you’re giving that advice. Clients will often direct you to do something that you don’t think is a good idea. Rather than either doing it the way they want or doing it your way with no explanation, take the time to demonstrate to them why your recommendation is important and how either solution may affect the project’s success. Designers sometimes default to explaining their choices subjectively, which can lead to an exchange of diverging or opposite views.

For example, instead of saying this: “We chose PMS 7543 because customers respond affirmatively to shades in the cool spectrum,” say this: “This gray blue conveys stability and reliability and will help your customers feel confident in your brand.”

. . . .

5. Ask questions

Many clients won’t provide detailed information about their business or their customers unless you ask, simply because they may assume you don’t need to fully understand their business to provide creative solutions. Clients who don’t understand what’s involved in creating a successful solution may think that a skilled designer can pick up a new project and create something special without really taking the client’s specific situation into consideration. In these cases, be proactive and ask questions.

Then listen to what the client tells you—and how. “Part of being a good creative partner is learning to listen as well as you speak,” Visocky O’Grady says. “When we meet with our clients, we have our ears (and eyes) open for more than just the details of their current project. We’re also listening for levels of formality in their language, phrases or ideas that they’re genuinely excited about, interests (perhaps personal) outside of the immediate assignment—heck, even body language and clothing choices can provide insight.”

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Your clients are busy, so they may be rushed when you’re prodding them for information. But don’t let that discourage you from getting what you need in order to do a great job.


Sunny Bonnell is co-founder and creative director at Motto, a brand strategy and design firm that works with innovative and inspiring companies to help launch, grow and reinvent their brands. www.mottoagency.com

Excerpted from the January 2011 issue of HOW magazine. Used with the kind permission of HOW magazine, a publication of F+W Media, Inc. Visit www.howdesign.com to subscribe.


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