“Find the Twin Sumo” or “No, Your Client is Not an Idiot”

You’ve been there. You’ve felt the knot in your stomach. You’ve tightened your grip on your iPad ever so slightly after hearing your client say “You know, on that header? I want our logo to be bigger. Way bigger.” And you think to yourself Great. I just found me another do-it-yourselfer. He designed a newsletter for his student club twenty-seven years ago and now he’s ready to tackle his corporate website. He just needs me to run Photoshop for him.

The world slows down for just a moment. You stare down at your notes, half pretending you didn’t hear and half expecting your iPad to feed you your line or something. But nothing comes. Time picks up its lumbering pace again. The street noise outside your client’s office window wakes you up and you realize now you have to say something; something that acknowledges your client’s statement. Something that isn’t “You wanna do this thing yourself?”

But, what?

Newton, Sumo Wrestling, and Design Iterations

Newton’s third law of motion states that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Of course the guy was talking about the physical world. You know, like the pull of gravity working against your overwhelming desire to dunk it, or the tension of your belt working against the fierce push of your expanding gut. But, of course, we can always twist his words to apply them to design. And it’s fun.

In the “very complicated act of faith” that is design, there are two main forces at work: the problem and the solution. Their relationship is a lot like the one between your beer belly and your belt: they mirror each other. One is the question, the other the answer. They’re twin sumo wrestlers in different-colored diapers, pushing at each other with tremendous force. They’re the yin and the yang: identical, but opposite.

This is a fact that designers the world over use to their advantage. Want to come up with a great solution? Understand the problem. Want to understand the problem? Come up with a solution. If you figure one out, you immediately understand the other.

The design iteration, then, becomes a nice, sweaty wrestle between problem and solution. A designer will do a bit of research on the problem, and then propose a solution. That proposal invites feedback (aka more information about the problem), which the designer then takes into account for the next solution proposal. Rinse and repeat. Slowly, the designer’s understanding of the problem and the solution grow together, until finally, voila! We’ve got ourselves a finished product.

Clients Have Brains Too

As designers, we’re comfortable with this relationship between problem and solution. In fact, we use it to make a living. We’ve come to accept the iterative synthesis of solutions as the best way to come to understand problems. And we love it.

Well, it turns out our clients are often doing just that when they blurt out an unsolicited design suggestion. They may see a problem with our design, but instead of describing the problem by saying something like “You know, the home page just doesn’t feel ours enough. It still feels a little generic to me. I don’t think it reflects the personality of our company quite yet” they propose a solution and say “I think the logo should be bigger. Way bigger.”

This is because clients have brains too, and they understand that problems and solutions are like bellies and belts, like crooked teeth and braces, like moobs and manziers. So, perhaps involuntarily, they blurted out a proposed solution instead of a description of the problem.

So why are the solutions they propose rarely great? Because they’re not trained designers. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad clients. They may be diagnosing a legitimate problem, but because they did so by prescribing a lousy solution, you think they’re dumb.

Take a step back. Breathe.

Find the Twin Sumo

Now it’s back to you in your client’s office, iPad clenched in agony. You need to say something. What to say, what to say, what to say?

Well, if you understand that your client’s lousy design suggestion is really the mirror image of a problem he’s trying to diagnose, all you have to do is find the twin sumo. Take the proposed solution and turn it into the problem you think it was designed to solve. Then shoot it back at your client. Hmmmm…bigger logo…what could he be talking about?

“So, what you’re saying is that you think the current design doesn’t really feel like it belongs to your company, like it’s really you?”

Whew! You made it. Now, relax. Wipe your brow and get rid of the poker face. The conversation is ready to go somewhere.

Did you nail the problem on the head? Maybe so, or maybe not. But when you translated your client’s proposed solution into a diagnosed problem, you did something priceless. You let your client know that his input does matter, but you did it without compromising the integrity of your work, or your role as the design expert in the room.

Now you can work to refine your understanding of the problem the client is trying to diagnose. And your client? Not an idiot. Not a deadbeat. Just a guy with a brain trying to tell you something’s wrong. So listen up. You just might learn something.

posted by Angel David Lindes on Friday, Oct 14, 2011
tagged with problem solving, bad clients, client relationships