During the last few weeks, I’ve been asked several times for advice on two particular issues. The first, how do you manage to persuade clients to trust you and to accept surprising and individual answers to their briefs, and the second, how do you deal with the situation when they don’t. Well, I’m not a great advice giver. But since I was asked so frequently about both these issues, I thought I’d use this letter to tell you what’s always worked for me. It’s not really advice, it’s what I’ve found to be effective.
No relationship, no great work.
The first thing I do, and have always done during all of my working life so far, is to disappear the word ‘client’. When I do that, human beings emerge and then the potential of conversation and being in each other’s shoes becomes possible. I can’t help anyone unless I can be in their shoes. Usually people are so busy they want to jump straight into whatever’s causing them concern. They want solutions quickly. They don’t want therapy sessions or consultancy babble. Many may have already thought through and written what they call a brief and decided to invite presentations from several design companies or individual designers to see who will suit them best. It’s often not an easy choice for them to make. Usually considering reputation or fame, quality of past creativity, speed of service, price or simply the chemistry of attraction is the way people make their choice.
Experience can be reassuring, but authenticity, honesty, talent and self-confidence have always worked better for me than a portfolio of history.
Do they feel trust for me, are they ready to create me as a brand they want to choose, is there mutual respect between us and a feeling of potential friendship? For me these are essential because any design project, short or long, is a journey of personal discovery and collaboration. I don’t trust people who already know the answer so why should they trust me if I say that I do. What people call credentials aren’t as effective as empathy in starting a journey with people you don’t yet know. Experience can be reassuring, but authenticity, honesty, talent and self-confidence have always worked better for me than a portfolio of history. Track records and past experience can close minds and bore people, and history can blunt expectations and prompt repetition. Neither have been good friends of mine. I prefer to start a new relationship with an open mind but not an empty one, because I believe that risk is a more fruitful territory than safety and since my clients are usually business people or politicians, they feel better connected with the excitement of risk than the predictability of safety.
Ironically getting what I think I want is nearly always disappointing.
In any genuine collaboration people are open to discussion and exploration but I’ve often found that it’s hard for people to tell me what they want. When I was a teenager telling a hairdresser what I wanted my hair to look like and choosing hair styles from photographs of male models, or when I bought clothes that I imagined would look good on me, my choices frequently turned into crushing disappointments. This can still be true for me today. Buying an imagined image of myself often ends in disaster. So when someone I work for tells me what they want, I treat it as their best shot. Many times in the past, and even today, I never trust people’s ideas of what they believe they want or how they want things to look. It’s usually aping someone they admire, as I used to do with my appearance. Ironically getting what I think I want is nearly always disappointing. It’s when people answer my self-conscious requests by going beyond what I could have imagined myself that things can begin to get inspiring and exciting.
So, in my preliminary discussions with people I work for, about their wants, desires and pre-conceived ideas, I always treat these as circumstantial information. I empty my conscious mind of all they say and wait for my creativity to act from nothing. Creativity, for me, always comes from nothing and that’s my best description, without going into neurology, of how I create surprising and individual answers.
A bit like an athlete, I have to exceed my past performance and always be sharpening my creative blade.
I don’t believe in offering several alternative ideas. Often designers advising those they call clients will say “here are three concepts”. Why three, why not three thousand? Mutual trust allows people to ask me for what I would do in their shoes. So that’s what I show them. Maybe I’m arrogant but I think I do what the people I work for would do if they went about it with the trust, freedom and licence they give me. And then I go further. A bit like an athlete, I have to exceed my past performance and always be sharpening my creative blade. I trust my curiosity, my appreciation and my imagination to take me, and those I work for, into new realms. Everybody wants their identity to express who they are and not some imitation or variant of other people’s identity.
On the whole I’ve found people look for differentiation but fear eccentricity and so end up in conformity. Look, for instance, at what designers have often done for banks, airlines and gas stations. That’s what makes Shakespeare’s great phrase, “To be or not to be”, so apt for the design community and those they serve. For me, you always have to go beyond. On the whole, I think that how to be and look like themselves and not like someone else, is what people want and expect from me. And that is always what I set out to achieve.
How I deal with rejection
I’m conscious of having one principle and four gateways to go through to cope with rejection and these usually turn rejection around for me. The principle is that the creative work I do isn’t mine. Somehow in the ‘nothing’ that I create from, there’s still an inner understanding that what I’m doing belongs to the people I’m serving. The four gateways to diminish rejection are so simple and obvious that I imagine you already know them. But in case you’ve forgotten them, here they are again.
Although rejection can affront your vanity, it’s only someone seeing what you’ve done from another point of view.
The first gateway.
Although rejection can affront your vanity, it’s only someone seeing what you’ve done from another point of view. It’s what they genuinely see and feel and think. So my first gateway is to accept what they say without the urge to disagree or even the slightest tendency to feel irritation or disdain. I make sure that whoever’s expressing criticism, feels respected and listened to. I offer no quick reactive argument, no look of disappointment and no attempt to push their comments back down their throat. I’m able to see their point of view and make sure that they know that I have. Often when people feel heard, they let go of their conviction and criticism and their minds open again. That’s my first gateway and going through it can often dissolve criticisms.
The second gateway.
Obvious again. This can be about a colour, a word or a detail of some sort. Then I change it. Any reasonable person can work with that. Does my work really depend on that one detail? Rarely. So it’s easy to change it. Going through this second gateway will often allow us to progress and at the same time feel the encouraging warmth and empathy of ‘like-mindedness’.
Although I’d only believed passionately in and recommended the one concept, I’d certainly considered others. So I reconsider all my concepts and in the light of our arguments, nearly always find that an alternative earlier concept that I’d rejected was actually better.
The third gateway.
This is harder. It’s usually about my single recommended concept. In someone’s opinion it simply doesn’t work. Here I might express my disagreement with them and, with enthusiasm for what I’m recommending, try and get some people on my side. That can only succeed if you know that what you’ve produced is exceptional and works brilliantly. Then I go into skirmishes and occasionally, verbal fights. Sometimes, I simply have to accept defeat. Here’s the third gateway. Although I’d only believed passionately in and recommended the one concept, I’d certainly considered others. So I reconsider all my concepts and in the light of our arguments, nearly always find that an alternative earlier concept that I’d rejected was actually better. Like anyone else, I sometimes make bad judgement. So, after asking for a few days of reflection and re-firing my creativity, I then reveal another way forward, and nearly every time, on the very few occasions that I go through this third gateway, it resolves the issue, sustains mutual respect and so we carry on.
It’s important to accept the situation gracefully and so I do what I can to maintain mutual respect. We may meet again.
The fourth gateway.
This is a gateway that I’ve hardly ever used. It’s called bye-bye. You can’t win them all. It’s important to accept the situation gracefully and so I do what I can to maintain mutual respect. We may meet again.
All these were experiences I’ve had and that I’ve described to those people who asked for me for my advice. If you read my letters, I’m sure you’ll know by now that I never intend to advise you. In this letter I just want to answer the questions “What do you do to persuade your clients to trust you and to accept surprising and individual answers to their briefs, and how do you deal with the situation when they don’t.”
If you find my answers useful, then I’m happy to have shared them with you.
Till next time,
Recognised as one of the world’s most experienced practitioners in expressing identities and guiding the resulting brands, Michael has a body of work which spans over 5o years. He enjoys encountering situations where he doesn’t know what to do or think. That’s when he counts on his creativity to achieve the successes that have shaped his international reputation.