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  • Writer's pictureScott Russell

The Myth of "The Client is Always Right" and the Art of Steering Creativity

I've often given my students the task of going out into the world and finding bad design. Contrasting poor design with good design, whether in marketing materials, game development, or a coffee maker, helps students learn how to create designs that are not just beautiful, but that work beautifully in the real world. One question those students often ask is "What if that's the way the client wanted it?" There is a pervasive myth in customer service, and it has particular implications in the creative industries: the notion that "The Client is Always Right." This belief, while founded on the well-intentioned desire to deliver excellent service, often overlooks a crucial reality - as professionals, we possess specialized expertise that our clients do not. Just as a doctor must guide a patient away from self-diagnosis and harmful treatments, we too must lead our clients to the best creative outcomes, even when they come armed with their own ideas about design, production, and marketing.

To start, let's consider why this myth persists. Originating from the early 20th century retail magnates like Harry Gordon Selfridge, the phrase was designed to emphasize the importance of customer satisfaction in retail settings. However, when transplanted into the creative industry, this ethos can lead to significant challenges. Unlike purchasing a standard product, creative services involve subjective judgments and highly skilled tasks - whether it's designing a logo, creating a marketing campaign, or developing a website.

The problem arises when clients, who lack the relevant expertise, attempt to dictate the creative process. This is akin to a patient insisting on a particular medication that a doctor knows to be ineffective or harmful. The result? Potentially disastrous projects that fail to meet professional standards or achieve the client’s ultimate goals.

So, how do we navigate this tricky terrain? How do we ensure that our professional knowledge is respected without making clients feel sidelined? Here are some strategies and examples to consider:

1. Educative Approach:

Begin by framing your interactions with clients as educational opportunities. When a client proposes an idea that you know won't work, use it as a springboard to discuss the principles of good design, effective marketing, or video production. For example, if a client insists on using a cluttered layout for their website, you might show them examples of clean, effective designs that have led to increased user engagement and explain why these designs work better.

2. Collaborative Prototyping:

Sometimes, seeing is believing. Instead of outright dismissing a client's ideas, create prototypes to show the strengths and weaknesses of various options. This could involve presenting multiple versions of a logo, each adhering to different levels of the client's input. By visually comparing these options, clients can more readily see why professional recommendations often lead to better outcomes.

3. Strategic Questioning:

I'm not just a creative professional, I'm also an educator. So any chance I get to teach, I seize. Instead of telling clients that their ideas are bad, ask questions that lead them to the right conclusions. For instance, if a client wants an overly complex logo, you might ask, "What are the core values of your brand, and how do we best symbolize these in your logo?" This approach helps clients reflect on what really matters, guiding them to a more appropriate design choice.

4. Highlighting Past Successes:

Use case studies or examples from your past work to demonstrate how professional expertise has led to successful outcomes. Explain the challenges faced, the solutions implemented, and the results achieved. This not only showcases your skills but also helps clients understand the complexity and nuances of creative work.

5. The Sandwich Feedback Method:

This is a standard in education. Constructive criticism can sometimes be rough on a student. When presenting feedback on client ideas, use the "sandwich" approach - start with something positive, follow with the critique, and conclude with another positive statement. This method helps keep the discussion constructive and reaffirms your commitment to the client’s vision, even as you guide them towards better decisions.

While "The Client is Always Right" might be a helpful mantra in some industries, in the realm of creative work, it is a myth that needs careful handling. Our job as creative professionals is not just to execute tasks but to steer projects towards success with our expertise and insight. By employing these subtle techniques of guidance, we ensure that the final product not only meets the clients’ needs but also reflects the best professional standards, making beautiful things work beautifully in the real world.

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