Latitude vs. pongitude
August 27, 2010 4:39 PM   Subscribe

How does a design worker suss out how much creative latitude they've got while working?

I'm a graphic designer. Often I work with or for other designers or people in the business. I'm a good technician and typographer and can also do creative work but I have one area in which I'm clearly tone-deaf that gets me into trouble.

It's this: Someone gives me a piece of work to do. They have drawn up or otherwise specified some parameters in any number of ways (sketches, examples, vague verbal descriptions – it all goes into the pot).

I have erred on both sides of the next step: some times I've taken the guidelines to be a starting point, and been rapped on the knuckles for not executing precisely what was asked for – no more, no less. Other times I've executed the work precisely as specified and been told in no uncertain terms the resulting work was dull and unimaginative.

What do other creative workers do before getting into this mess? Even working with people I know well, I've sometimes mistaken the degree of creative licence I've got. Sometimes I've realized it was actually the other person's issue Рthey didn't explain clearly, or hadn't thought things through themselves Рbut other times I know I've missed cues. What do you ask, how do you frame it, how do you elicit the information you need at this step? Is there a catch phrase or a trade clich̩ that I need to pick up?

I hope this isn't unduly chatfiltery. Tell me about concrete approaches that work for you.
posted by zadcat to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do two mockups, one conservative and one creative. See which they like.
posted by rhizome at 5:13 PM on August 27, 2010

often the clients themselves don't even know what they want until presented with the concepts (either they realize they wanted something very specific or wanted you to be creative). it should go without saying that you aren't only presenting one design to them, but at least a few options (and that would be factored into what you are charging them), so that they can see what options are available and move forward from there.
posted by violetk at 5:18 PM on August 27, 2010

I agree with the two suggestions here. It's definitely a good idea to present more than one mockup. I don't think there is a universal number, but many groups I've worked with did three mockups. In general, I erred on the side of adding my own creativity to most every project I received and preferred to be chided for not following close enough rather than to be told that I didn't bring enough to the project. I never got into a serious disagreement with a client (or not more than a very few in five years of full-time design), but it is important to remember that design is usually a back-and-forth process, so it's okay for there to be some response from the client where they ask for changes.
posted by Slothrop at 5:29 PM on August 27, 2010

"This mockup, is it exactly what you're looking for or just a general idea."
posted by nomadicink at 5:30 PM on August 27, 2010

I have several ways I cope with this:

1) Learn to ask the right questions when given a wireframe/initial direction. Find out the "whys" of things. Is a wireframe structured in a way because it needs to run off an out-of-the-box CMS? Is the client insisting on using the blue splash image from a previous design because he likes the color blue... or is it because of some other element (symmetry, photography, etc.)

Learning what a client really means when they give you feedback is tough. It takes a while to figure out the right questions. And sometimes, yes, leading questions may work out the best:
"We need to evoke an emotional response in this piece. What emotion do you think that should be?"

"We need this piece to be high energy. What are your thoughts about showing images of people in your target audience doing high-energy activities? Or do you want to take a metaphorical or abstract approach?"

"Your product has just relaunched new packaging. What do you think about showing a product photo?"

"What three words most concisely convey the message you want this piece to say?"

"What is the number one call to action?"
2) Dash off very quick thumbnails / comps. I'm talking 15 minutes or so, to get an idea of composition, etc. You can nip a lot of bad ideas in the bud here. Or see what excites the client.

3) Do some competitive analysis with the client and discuss both pros and cons of other designs.

4) Learn the difference between personal preference and more objective goals and when to stick to your guns. Sure, everything about design may be subjective, but knowing that a call to action is needed or a headline be clear and concise is less so.

5) Sit down and do some preliminary sketches / comps with the client. I'm very fast in photoshop and will do on-the-fly edits to get an idea if the client likes what I'm thinking of trying.

In summary, the answer is communication -- both client and designer learning as much as possible about why the other wants certain elements in a design. Get as much feedback as possible in the earlier steps of the project... and not waiting until the design is pixel-perfect.

And finally... never send your design back in a vacuum. Always present it and discuss it. Explain your decisions. Talk through possible solutions to problems.
posted by Wossname at 5:39 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

As a designer, I second the suggestion to provide two proofs: one exactly as described, and one as far off center as you can imagine.

To really answer your question, there is no answer. No matter what you do, you'll still get chided on a regular basis. But it is a fact of life that some clients want you to stick to the script, and some want your creativity. So two initial proofs show your range and ensure most people are happy with something you did.
posted by shopefowler at 6:24 PM on August 27, 2010

There are four kinds of clients:

1) Fussy and Know what they want
2) Laid back and Know what they want
3) Laid back and Don't know what they want
4) Fussy and Don't know what they want

These clients:
1) make you work hard, but everything is fine if you do exactly what they say
2) are the best clients, so you give them extra effort because they are good to work for
3) need a bit of hand-holding, and appreciate suggestions
4) are annoying, gives vague instructions, and blame you personally if you cannot psychically unlock some secret buried deep within their subconscious. These clients are sometimes just assholes. The only thing you can do is try to be patient and endure the process. It's part of the job.
posted by ovvl at 10:18 AM on August 28, 2010

I think, if you're good enough in your field to be working as an independant, you have the luxury of putting you into your work. That's what clients are paying for, or they'd get some hack to do exactly what they asked for.

So, err on the side of creativity, the essential things that YOU add. And if your clients don't like that, calmly fire them as clients.
posted by Quadlex at 4:18 PM on August 29, 2010

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