In a sailboat race, partnership is critical to optimize the performance of the boat. Each person contributes a specific set of knowledge and skill, and working together they can reach top speed. When working with a design firm, the type of relationship you have with them is possibly the key factor in the liklihood of getting great design work. There are three types of relationships I’ve noticed over the years that I’ll name “boss/worker”, “friends”, and “partners”. You can probably guess which one I recommend!

Boss/Worker: This is when the client knows exactly what they want from the design and provides specific, detailed direction to the designer. “We need a brochure for the conference that needs to look exactly like this.” Direction will include details such as the specific placement of content elements in relation to each other, colors to use, relative sizes of elements, etc. Essentially, the client is designing the piece and the designer is simply executing the client’s vision.
Friends: The client understands their brand, and has specific goals in mind they want to achieve, such as “create a brochure to hand out at the conference”. In this case direction will be more hands-off. The client will want to be sure the brand is maintained, may provide complete copy and images, but overall wants the designer to use their professional judgment as to how to arrange the various elements, relative sizes, colors, etc.
Partners: Here, something very different starts to happen. Here, the client and designer discuss the larger context and history of the organization and its communications (sometimes across multiple media), business and marketing goals, and personal goals of stakeholders. Specific problems are identified, such as “we need to attract attention to our product at the conference.” Priorities are established, such as “It’s more important that people remember our name than that they understand every detail of what we do.” Here the designer and client work closely together to identify design solutions to the problem. In our conference example the solution may end up being a brochure, or it may end up being something far more creative that truly does attract significant attention to the product at the conference and make the client’s name extremely memorable.
Working with a design agency as partners is clearly where real problem-solving in design can start to happen. To achieve this relationship both sides must practice truthfulness, transparency, and teaching.
Truthfulness: What this means is – in communications, be honest. If something doesn’t work, speak up and discuss why. Work together as a team to understand the problem and to fix it. Designers should take this as a call to help educate clients as to why we do things the way we do, why we deserve to get paid for our work (no spec work!), and why design is an effective way to solve communication problems. Clients should take this as a call to inform designers about their real goals and what they’re really trying to accomplish. Normally the goal is not simply “create a brochure”. The real goal is something more like “attract qualified leads.”
Transparency: Don’t be secretive. If you’re having a problem with the work or the process, share that information and work together to fix it. Designers should take this to mean that if you’re stuck, speak up or ask questions. Or if something is going to affect the budget – let the client know right away and discuss options. Clients should be forthcoming with budgets to let designers help strategize the best solution within the available budget, and should make designers aware of realities of timelines, approval processes, etc.
Teaching: This, I think, is the most important part of the relationship. Both sides should be teaching each other. Designers can teach clients about the design process, and help clients understand how design can solve their business problem. Clients can teach designers about their business, its context, goals, priorities, and problems to be solved. When designers and clients come together on this, the knowledge and experience of each combines into something greater than the sum of the parts, and opens the door for innovation and inspiration. Teaching well also means listening — to understand points of confusion or objections or new ideas — and so this becomes a two-way street of open communications.
I believe in the power of partnership and of open, two-way communications. When I work on projects with clients where there’s a true partnership relationship we accomplish truly great work, and it’s work that works … it solves problems, it helps goals become a reality, and ultimately it helps us and our clients to grow together.

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