Honesty and forthrightness are the characteristics of a good design as well as a good designer. Never try to confuse or bamboozle your client with industry terms to brow-beat them into accepting a design. Here are some of the industry proven methods for ensuring a smooth creative process that I employ:
The Techism Creative Process:
Plan, Communicate, Sketch, Tailor, Design.
Find out who the decision makers are and be sure you are talking to them. I have wasted a client’s time and resources in the past by tailoring an entire corporate identity to a particular company representative’s specifications and navigating their personal taste only to have their boss throw out the whole thing. That’s expensive for the client and demotivating for the designer. Make sure you are talking to the decision maker or have clear channels of communication to whomever has the final say.
Establish who is going to be reviewing and differentiate feedback from creative input. You can really foul-up the creative process by letting everyone at a company HQ have input on the logo in an uncontrolled way. You will never stop having changes revisions and suggestions and all 200 people will never agree. I doubt you could make one that 3 people could agree needs no revision in any kind. So in order to work in feedback for groups larger than 3, you need to draft a process for getting opinions, ranking creative options, airing concerns, and making executive decisions about creative. If you do not define how this will work up front with the client, they will improvise something – like pinning a photo copy of the logo to the company cork-board with a not reading: “Make suggestions on the new logo!”
Either tell the client that the creative process will be streamlined and define who is involved, or design forms and personally invest yourself in the work of gathering feedback. Note always that feedback and input are two different things. Show creative to the broader audience or company employ, while projecting creative authority or else you will get stuck in the cyclone of infinite-revision death. Many a good logo have met their doom there. You can have logos on a sheet with a check box for the best one…you can have a logo on a single sheet and ask people to write-in words that the logo evokes. This lets you look at trends and see generally how it resonates. Note that a customer and internal impression may need to be different…a company that does in-home contracting may have employees that don’t want to see creative that will appeal to the home-owner looking for the spiffiest person to let into their house. Manage this, air it, discuss it with the client and plan solutions for it or it will manage you.
Speak with your client, listen carefully, hear the words they say over and over. Write those words down and be sure to represent them in the work, perhaps literally…A client will like or hate a design often based on arbitrary elements that aren’t critical to the work, or because some pet notion of theirs isn’t included (like the image of a key that they are obsessed with). From this, you can draft a creative brief. A creative brief or “abstract” can be used to define your visual strategy with the client or reviewer on-board.
After the abstract, it’s time to sketch. Thumbnail sketches, crude mock-ups, and discussions of the sketches are vital time savers in helping to get ideas for which design options you want to present to the client. Get some crude sketches together and have the client help you decide where things go, how the sizes of elements work, etc.
Tailor your creative approach to the client’s individual taste. Clients often have strong opinions on color and type that might not be immediately evident. I try to travel with a pantone guide to see what kinds of colors they like and to nail down what specific colors we will use. If you don’t have it, you should consider getting the big font book and letting them flip through it. I keep issues of Communication Arts laying all over the office and encourage clients to leaf through them for ideas / inspiration. I always ask the clients to give me examples of what they see as good designs and talk about sites / materials that they like.
Present multiple options to a challenging clients. NEVER PRESENT AN OPTION THAT YOU DON’T WANT APPROVED. If you present three amazing designs and one ugly one just to show them how bad their suggestions look, you will end up with the ugly one approved. Never show anything that isn’t good work that you can be proud of. In my 20 years doing creative work, I find that’s the single greatest challenge of being a client-pleasing designer. You have to find a way to make what the client wants look good. This is where you will end up needing to access your reservoir of creativity the most.
If after you have planned, communicated, sketched, and finally designed, but they are still not happy…you have a paper trail of an approved creative brief, an approved sketch, evidence demonstrating that you were paying attention when they talked, and similar materials that they liked. It’s very unlikely that if you have done all this that you will still have a problem. It’s very hard to go wrong when you have all of these things proceeding in order and if you are dealing with the right person.
Sometimes, however, it still doesn’t work out. This field is not one-size-fits all, so the only way to deliver a quality design that also pleases the client is to communicate, communicate, communicate. If that fails, then perhaps you and the reviewer are not a good creative fit? Sometimes, two people have such divergent tastes that they really should not work together. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just the nature of this business. Have some colleagues that you respect that you can refer an unsatisfied client to that offer creative sensibilities other than your own. Often this helps you build industry relationships and really sets you up as a pro with the security in what you do that you can connect people who don’t mesh with your brand of service. This will lead to great word of mouth and convert a contentious relationship into a more positive experience.
Here’s some links from established pros talking about some of these stages and methods. In particular, you want to study “creative abstract” and “sketching thumbnails”.