Unreasonable Responses to Reasonable Requests

By Mike Turner | February 12, 2016

Why would a professional designer take a suggestion from a client who works in an entirely different field? It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Sometimes clients have good ideas and it is a designer’s responsibility to listen with an open mind.

Two examples of bad responses to client requests suggest the advantages of a respectful give-and-take between businesses and their marketing partners. The stories highlight two extremes on the spectrum of how creative companies deal with suggestions from their clients.

One example comes from the case files right here at Red Letter Marketing. In our first discovery meeting with a new client, one of the things we discovered was how badly the company had been treated by its previous web design vendor. As a new website had taken shape over a period of several months, the client had posed reasonable questions concerning some of the creative decisions made by designers at the web firm. Among them: Are you folks sure (our new client had asked) that the headline font you’re using (the H1 font, in HTML-speak) is the best choice?

The response from the design firm was to send the client a link to Google Fonts, with a suggestion that he find one he likes. In a bizarre exaggeration of accommodation to client wishes, the design firm had simply sloughed off its role as experienced guide through the subjective decision-making process of font choice. When we heard this story, we realized that our client had been so ill-advised that we couldn’t wait to show him what a real marketing partnership is like.

At the other extreme is the creative individual who will brook no suggestions at all from the company funding the project. My favorite example of this behavior occurs in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, in which architect Howard Roark responds to changes made to his building design by, um…well, by blowing up the building.

Howard Roark might have had a legitimate beef. Maybe the design changes were bad ideas. But—dude. Dynamite? It’s a bit showy. Rand mimicked her character’s behavior when she learned that Roark’s speech to the jury had been trimmed in the screenplay of the movie starring Gary Cooper. In a fit of pique that lasted the rest of her life, she refused to sell the movie rights to Atlas Shrugged.

The vast majority of web designers avoid the use of explosives to make their point. And yet, a dismissive attitude to client requests is all too familiar. Ironically, the most unyielding creative people often attract a particular type of loyalty from clients who are reassured by their certainty.

Creative decisions are founded partly in reason and partly in a mysterious “gut feel” that arises from the interplay between a designer’s innate taste and the mix of current design trends. Designers call on their gut every day and each time they do, it gets stronger. So it’s more likely that a working designer will make, say, an appropriate font choice than would an accountant who may be looking at the bewildering variety of font choices for the first time.

But a designer who listens carefully to a client request is increasing the odds of creating something worthwhile. It doesn’t mean she must necessarily take the suggestion. But the willingness to consider its possible validity is a sign of openness that will serve both her and the client well. Legendary ad man Bill Bernbach made a shtick out of carrying around a card conveying the thought “Maybe he’s right.” While the card itself may have been a bit of show-biz, the sentiment strikes me as one that still rings true.