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Beware of would-be psychic clients and mutant projects

Friday, 12 October 2007 — by

Clients are strange creatures. Personally lacking any kind of secret psychic brain implant, working with them can be a challenge. Similarly, their projects often take on a life of their own. Transmogrifying into mutant projectomorphs, hell-bent on not meeting deadlines and shredding budgets like wet tissue paper…

The designer safari: hunting down wild designs

You see, clients don’t always know what they want, but they always seem to know what they don’t want. And inside that logical conundrum is a route to success, albeit a circuitous and potentially expensive one.

Having spent two weeks drifting from one design to another, I finally hit the jackpot: “Yes, you’ve got it! Excellent stuff! Let’s go with that, shall we?”

But then there’s the small matter of an invoice for the aforementioned two weeks of designer safari: “How much?! But, it’s only a couple of designs!”

Well not quite. That’s the end product, yes. But the exploratory work is work none the less. And entirely billable work, too.

“My wife likes beige, you know.”

You’ve spent hours pawing over a design. You’ve invested endless extra hours ensuring the colour scheme fits their meticulous and extensive corporate guidelines.

It’s the day of the meeting. In your head, you run through the list of things you need to discuss, how you’re going to wow them with the new designs and up-sell them on some ideas of your own.

The lights go down, the projector fires up and the wall at the far end of the conference room is filled with your design. A hush covers the room, broken only by the tinkle of cups on saucers and the shuffle of paper; the thrumming of fans emanating from various laptop computers atop the table.

The door to the conference room bursts open. Everyone turns to see the managing director breeze in with a cup of coffee in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, pushed to the side of his head: “Yes darling, that’s fine. I’ll make sure Prunella is taken to and from the stables and Guy goes to rugby practice before 6pm. Yes, love you, darling.”

He drifts into his seat, without a word of apology. For a moment he squints at the end of the room. Neck extended, nose wrinkled, he reaches for his glasses and places them on his face.

He sits back in his seat, idly taking a biscuit from the plate held out to him by an eager employee and sighs wistfully: “The wife has this thing for beige. No idea where that comes from. Buggered if I care, really. But it’s her pet project, so get rid of the blue thing…” – yes, their corporate blue – “…and drop in some beige.”

And there you are, a broken man. A shadow of what you were only moments earlier. An entirely emotional decision slices through your deft planning like a scythe.

You look on in horror as he nonchalantly flicks away crumbs from his shirt, without a care in the world.

Design by committee

“It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”
~ John Wooden

Too many cooks don’t spoil the broth, largely because none of the ingredients are ever fully decided upon. So the actual process of cooking is still some way off. Often, what’s needed is a better business recipe for success.

Of course, this extends quite neatly into the world of business. And more often than not, as a designer and business owner, you can be your own worst enemy.

Take for example the effort made to invite various department heads into some kind of oversight committee, to ensure all interests are being taken into account.

The IT department will usually attempt to usurp control of the actual web design & development process from you. Ensuring they get first dibs in the “sexy stuff”, but showing little interest in the real bread & butter stuff that really matters.

Someone from a rather obscure department, who was only really invited for completeness, will form an immovable object to your unstoppable force.

If this is an academic client, typically, this person will be head of fine art. Their decisions are almost entirely cemented in the emotive, tethered like a lead balloon in high orbit. Beyond either the reach or comprehension of the layman: “But why blue? What does blue really say? It’s speaking to me, but .. I don’t feel its need.”

Of course, you’re drawing stick men on your note pad. And the IT guy stands in the corner, facing the wall like a naughty child, speaking to a colleague on his mobile phone. Everyone else is wondering if hell is an oversight committee like this.

Key decisions get bogged down in minutia, politics, dogma, petty interdepartmental squabbling rivalry. Meanwhile, the hours gently waft by. Time no one will want to pay for.

And in conclusion? The project has “the arse end of a donkey and the front end of a bloody giraffe!” We’re still undecided about the middle portion of this particular mutant projectomorph.

And the moral of this lamentable collection of nightmare business scenarios is?

Have faith. Suck it up. Swallow it down. Get used to the heat and keep your cool.

This is business. This is how things go sometimes.

How you deal with these situations and situations like them is essential. Sometimes, there’s no clear right & wrong. Sometimes, no matter what you say or do, you’re the bad guy.

So of those things you do have control over, exercise your control well, do those things to the best of your abilities and demonstrate what makes you different to the other guy…

Recommended business, personal branding & brand management reading

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Heidi Cool → Friday, 12 October 2007 @ 19:47 BDT

Brilliant, I could swear I’ve been to that exact meeting, though I don’t recall the daughter being named Prunella. I’m dealing with a very reasonable couple right now. When discussing color they told me they were fond of the colors found in certain Tartans. I used those as my color palette for one of my 2 preliminary design decisions and they approved it immediately.

But others can be more challenging. The ones that have the worst ideas, ideas that are counterintuitive to their goals are usually the ones least likely to listen to your advice.

I have a potential client calling me back at the end of the month that I suspect I will reject. She called me 3 times on the day she discovered me asking me a variety of questions and showing me various interpretations of her current sites, and her reasoning for not wanting to stick with her current designer. My fear is that if I take her business she’ll call me at all hours wanting to fine tune each pixel, then dump me halfway through to hire someone else. She also hinted at wanting a discount for being non-profit.

I think I’ll either bid really high or say no. I try to stick to one freelance project at a time since I’m doing sites for the university all day, and I can’t have her calling me while I’m at work, or reading, or trying to sleep!

Steven Snell → Friday, 12 October 2007 @ 22:37 BDT

Very entertaining. Yes, I can definitely relate. I’m sometimes amazed when a client wants something a particular way that I really hate, and then they love it. It bothers me that I’m not happy with the product, but it’s how they want it, and that’s what matters the most.

Wayne Smallman → Saturday, 13 October 2007 @ 9:35 BDT

Hi and thanks guys, and and a special welcome to Steven, who was mentioned to me by Kate yesterday.

I find writing these things quite cathartic in a way. This is my eighth year in business, and still these situations turn up.

Not because I’m not quick enough to avoid them, but because I’m not able to influence enough of the variables to steer everyone clear of what will often be a fruitless and hugely frustrating encounter.

And then sometimes, it’s a worthwhile exercise to let such situations come about, to illustrate a point.

It’s a fine line, because you’re essentially playing a game, and if the client sees it that way, you may find yourself falling out of favour.

As a designer and a business owner, I often find one in conflict with the other in certain circumstances.

A client might ask for something that I know will work really well, but cost them more than their budget allows for.

And because the idea appeals to the designer in me, I want to do it anyway. But as businessman, I’m not a charity or a miracle worker, so I have to say no.

All good fun!

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