Who Are You Designing for? How to Keep Your Work Artistic Yet Client Driven

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James Fruth
James Fruth



who-are-you-designing-forBack in 2009, there was an ill-fated TV show named “Trust Me.” Following the lives of the employees of fictional Chicago advertising agency, Rothman, Greene & Moore, you got to meet several generic characters of the advertising agency. You got to meet the smooth-talking account rep, the witty pitchman, the brilliant copywriter and of course the “you don’t get it” art director. To be honest, the show wasn’t that great, and I can’t even remember most of the plot. But I bring it up because of a single line the art director character screamed that I never forgot. The line was, “I am an award winning art-director! They are clients … CLIENTS ARE IDIOTS!”

Unfortunately, this has become the persona of the art director. An ultra-sensitive “artist” who is out for personal accolades and career development. While there is nothing wrong with winning awards (who doesn’t like a nice trophy?), when working for a client, this scene got me thinking about how creative should think about their work. The first priority should be communicating the client’s message. When you put the message first, and then put it in an award-winning package, that’s when the art director is at his or her peak.

The way to achieve this can be tricky. The temptation to be avant-garde first and then see if you can somehow work in the messaging can be overwhelming, especially for a young designer. Below are three principals for keeping your work artistic yet client driven. Following these principals can give you a better understanding of your work, the creative process and how it relates to and represents both you and your client.

Principal #1: Be a Communicator First, a Designer Second

So many of us begin our creative advertising careers as art majors, and making the switch to advertising can be pretty seamless. But because what we do has so many artistic elements, it’s very easy to see ourselves as artists rather than communicators. And while sometimes you may have that client that just wants some “buzz,” most of the time you will be asked to convey a message to an audience. Think about how to communicate this message in the most basic way possible first, and then add an artistic vision on top of the message. You may be surprised how much your work can improve by just starting with the message first.

Principal #2: The Nature of Business Is Compromise

Clients are usually never right … and neither are art directors. What is “right” usually lies in the middle of the spectrum (give or take.) Never take a client’s knowledge of their product or their audience for granted — however much more you know about design, they also know more about their product and audience. Always listen to what they want, and rather than being combative, think about how to blend ideas into something you both can be proud of. Clients are a very underrated source for editing, and if you feel passionate about an idea, defend it by telling them what the benefits are. Clients are hardly ever out to play art director, so have a discussion about creative freely with an open mind, and, as a result, you both will usually find common ground.

Principal #3: Responsibility of Service

I know it has the same tone as “morality clause” but responsibility of service means that, as an art director, your responsibility is to give your client and their product the best service possible. This means your primary goal is to get the message heard, as opposed to making the coolest creative you can. Remember, they have contracted you to perform a service for them. Don’t use them as a means for a great portfolio piece.

Think about hiring a contractor to redo your kitchen, and when you do this, you really want to highlight the new oven you just bought. The contractor then re-models the kitchen his own way, and he blocks the oven out of view because he wants to show off his skills with cabinetry. While the cabinets may be beautiful to look at, he didn’t keep his responsibility of highlighting the oven. However, if the contracted had sat down with you to discuss a couple of ideas he had about how to make your kitchen better, you could have listened to him and also voiced how important it was to highlight the new oven.

When you create a piece for a client, make sure your putting them first because they are paying you to put them first. It’s wonderful to make suggestions to them, and, more often than not, they will agree with your suggestions. But they have a goal in mind for the piece your working on, and you have to make sure that your work achieves that goal first and foremost.

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