Off the Hoof

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Always Be Disclosing


We have had the good fortune to work with many terrific, absolutely stellar clients over the years. Every one of these client relationships began with an initial contact as part of a “business development” process (while I am a fan of plain language, the whole interaction seems too nuanced and mutual to call it “sales”). We understand that clients want the best design that helps them meet their goals within their budget while working with a compatible team. In turn, we look for clients who want to accomplish something meaningful, will pay us adequately, and act as a good partner for the course of the project.

As with all things, clear communication is essential.

We tell our clients that a design project boils down to a series of decisions. Business development is a series of questions. Fundamentally, the client is asking, “Should I hire you?” and the designers are asking, “Should I work with you?”. This is truly the first phase of Discovery. Our research people often get involved to help think through the approach.

Depending on the client and the project, the time from saying “hi” to signing on the line can take anywhere from 3 days to over a year. You’d think that timeframe correlates with the scope and scale of the project, but it doesn’t. Sometimes, organizations are in the early exploration stages of doing a project when they contact us. Sometimes more pressing concerns pop up and push out the schedule. This is perfectly fine. We just ask that folks let us know and we adjust our expectations accordingly. We like to talk to people as early in their planning as possible.

Another of our handy maxims is,

“The way people behave during the sales process is the way they will behave over the course of the project.”

In general, this mindset helps us better prepare for the communication and decision-making style of a particular organization or individual once work is underway, making everything proceed more smoothly. In a few cases, it has allowed us to walk away from otherwise appealing projects with a clear conscience. Whatever the actual design challenge, the attitude and behavior of the individual humans involved make or break a project.

We have noticed over the years that some prospective clients are perfectly comfortable throughout their selection process and some people are ill at ease. (Every now and then someone is a complete jerk to a degree that utterly mystifies us.) I know some people arrive at our doorstep pre-burned by some other agency. Regaining trust on behalf of our profession can be a challenge.

So, I wanted to offer our perspective and some suggestions. My goal is that everyone involved makes the best use of everyone else’s time throughout what is—let’s be honest—the least enjoyable part of the process. Working together on a design project is way, way more fun than securing a budget, evaluating a few firms, and then telling some nice people they didn’t get the job.

These may all seem obvious, but as with all obvious things, they can be hard to remember in the moment. As a potential client, we ask that you:

Be clear about your needs, goals, concerns, and priorities

If you are thinking of working with designers, if you are going to place the future of your product, service, or company in the hands of design consultants, it is your absolute responsibility to be clear with them. If this is your first time hiring designers, ask what the particular people you are taking to need to know to understand and scope the project. The answers will be revealing.

In terms of user-centered design, when we are designing a project approach, the client is the user. The more we know about a client’s needs and context, the more appropriate that proposed project structure will be. In the same way that focus group responses uttered to impress participants can mislead a design team, concealing project realities will make it hard for us to create the right proposal.

Share all relevant constraints

Money is usually the thorniest constraint. Talking about money makes people a little crazy. That’s why Suze Orman always has that look on her face.

When a prospective client is upfront about their budget to the extent possible (some people honestly don’t have a number until they hear a ballpark, and that’s fine), the whole process is way more efficient. This saves time and money.

Design is finding a new way to solve a problem within constraints. Constraints themselves are not an issue, they are essential. I’m not saying all designers can work within all constraints. You might have some dealbreakers in there, but give the designers a chance. And separate actual constraints from personal preferences.

Ask every single question you have. Think of more questions. Ask those.

Our best client relationships have invariably started with people who asked a lot of questions, and I mean hammered us, sometimes in front of a conference room full of their colleagues. We don’t mind being challenged on any aspect of our work, because this is an interaction that should continue through the whole course of the project. Go ahead. Bring it.

Ask how we work, why we’ve make certain choices, how we’d respond in hypothetical situations. If you have a proposal in hand ask why it’s structured the way it is. If anything is unclear, ask. We consider our proposals as we do other deliverables, better with client feedback.

Don’t hope that we will get around to answering your question and don’t feel weird about “not speaking design language.” We don’t expect you to know our business. We do expect you to know yours and question everything we do from that basis. (The idea of designers “educating” clients is condescending hogwash. Both parties need to communicate clearly, and we each have a lot to learn from each other as we work together.)

When you buy design, you are shopping for problem solving. Asking a lot of questions will help you evaluate the merchandise, and get a sense for what the team will be like to work with.

Be open about your process.

For us, as well as for prospective clients, the selection process is overhead. It’s the work we have to do to get to the work. Particularly at this stage, everyone wants to use their time efficiently. The more we know about your decision-making process, the better equipped we will be to give you what you need in order to reach a decision—even if that decision is that we aren’t a good fit.

And if circumstances change and the project is off, or you’ve selected someone else, or an internal team is taking on the work, just pick up the phone, or send a quick e-mail to anyone you’ve been talking to. Maybe it’s a little awkward, but it can be really quick and everyone can move on feeling good about the interaction. Stuff happens. Just please never say “We’ve decided to take the project in a different direction.” That phrase kills kittens and deadens souls. If you summarize what actually happened in the most accurate sentence your NDA permits, we will be forever grateful and stop wondering how we offended you.

“No news” is also news, especially if the whole process is taking a while. A one-sentence update is both helpful and humane.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, we want it to be something we arrive at together—efficiently, openly, and with a productive exchange of ideas. It’s just the best way to work.

A word about RFPs

An RFP is a request for proposal, a highly-structured document inviting vendors to bid on a project through a formal process, often with constraints on the amount and type of communication allowed and the format of the proposal.

We understand that some organizations are required to issue them for a variety of reasons. It is a way to impose structure and demonstrate impartiality. While we appreciate that prospective clients are clear about their needs, goals, priorities, and constraints before they talk to us, we prefer to avoid the RFP process. I’ll summarize the points and leave the rest for another post.

  • The best way for designers and clients to figure out if they are right for each other is through a series of frank conversations with supporting artifacts as necessary.
  • Through these conversations and reviewing and commenting on a draft proposal, clients often develop a better idea of what they need, which might be significantly different from the initial project definition.
  • An iterative proposal process mirrors the actual project work much more accurately than a formal RFP response.
  • Responding to RFPs is time-consuming and difficult for firms without a dedicated sales team. In our case, the people talking to prospective clients are the same people doing the work. We think this is a good thing for everyone involved.

So, that’s it. Even—and perhaps especially—when great things are at stake, deciding to work together should just be the first of many clear, productive exchanges between designers and their clients.

“I don’t know.”

About Mule Design Studio

Mule creates delightful interfaces, strong identities, and clear voices for useful systems and nice people.
Also, We are funnier than all other designers.


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