The difficult client.

So, I’ve been thinking about the dilemma of an organization whose leader is not a champion of design or marketing. My mentor told me 40 years ago that "great design starts at the top." In other words, if the CEO appreciates great design, the company will have great design. And if the CEO doesn't see the value, it will be an uphill battle to make good design a priority for that organization.

Good design is good business

There’s a famous story about Tom Watson, the legendary CEO of IBM, and his own personal discovery of the importance of design. Previous to this watershed moment, design was not given much thought at IBM. One night Watson was walking down Park Avenue and happened to pass by a storefront owned by the Italian typewriter company, Olivetti, which has always had a reputation for beautiful design. Watson was struck by the beauty of the design and the impression it made on him.  From that moment on, he became a champion of design—he is quoted as saying, "good design is good business.” Today, IBM has over 10,000 designers working in the company. In the latter part of the 20th Century, IBM hired Paul Rand, probably the most important designer in the US at the time, responsible for the IBM logo, UPS, and many other famous logos.

People aren't tasteless

In the 40 years that I have been in the design business, I realized over and over again the people are not tasteless, in spite of what we might think—they have a lot more taste they might give themselves credit for. While they may not be designers themselves, most people can recognize when something is designed well. It may not be obvious in the design the CEO promotes within the company, but whether the clothes they wear, the car they drive, or the house they live in, some appreciation for design is probably evident.

Questions you need to ask the client

When I sit down with the client, I ask a few foundational questions:

1. who is your customer? whom are you trying to reach?
2. how do you expect to reach them?
3. what is your goal—what actions do you want the potential customer to take?
4. who else is doing the same thing you are? 
5. what makes you different from your competion?
6. are you pleased with your current efforts?

It's also about branding

I haven't said much about branding, but at the end of the day, that's key. Your brand is everything that anybody thinks or feels about your company. From the way the UPS driver feels you treat him, to the quality of your product, to your responsiveness, to the ease that you make your customer feel. A great brand is easily identified, feels familiar, inspires confidence, fosters loyalty, and instills trust. To build a great brand takes a lot of time and energy, but as we have seen, it can be lost in a moment. To quote Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, "once my good opinion is lost, it is lost forever.”

Don't give up

So if you get a chance, ask your client or your CEO what they want their ideal outcome to be, and what they want people to think about their company. Also, ask who they think has good marketing or good design. Get a sense of what their taste is. Once we know that, it might be a lot easier for us to present to them with something that resonates.

One last story: a few years ago I asked a well-known designer how it felt to be famous and have his clients love his work. He replied that his work was rejected as much as the next guy. So I asked him how he handled that. He quipped, "I just say to myself that the client might be right after all.”