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"I'll know it when I see it"

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

If you have not heard this one yet, it is sure to come your way soon. This type of feedback is not only difficult to make use of, it is actually a self-perpetuating cycle of doom. Dramatic I know. The truth is, you are creating something new for your client and liking something often comes from a lot of exposure and brand recognition over time. The idea that we could induce love at first sight with the client and create something appropriate for the customers is just not realistic. Every time we as creatives use this comment as feedback, we do ourselves a dis-service because we can not move forward without better information. Instead, it is our job to save ourselves the frustration and guide the client towards a solution that will help their business. That is what we will cover today.

managing design projects


  • Why do clients say this?

  • How to avoid it and move forward

Why do clients say this?

Design language

Before we dive in to what we should do to fix this, it is important to understand what causes a client to say this dreaded line. The first reason is design language. Your client has hired you because you are the creative expert and they are not. The client's role in the project is to bring expertise about the company's goals, clients and history. As a result, it makes sense that a client might not be sure what is wrong with a design. From their perspective, they can tell that something is not working but do not have the experience to tell you what that is.

Think about how your brain works when you look at another designers work. You can probably tell right away if the kerning is wrong, the proportions are strange or if the design is inappropriate for the industry. These subtle problems are often what your client detects but since they do not have the right language to express this, they feel like it is easier to let you know once you have it right. As we know, this is hard when you don't know what is wrong.

Do we mean the same thing?

As we live our lives, everyone has a different experience. This means that our descriptions of the same thing might look very different. Consequently, when a client asks for a "modern" design they might have a very different perception of what this means. If you have gone through a number of iterations and not moved closer to a design the client was looking for, they might feel compelled to ask for different options and simply pick the one they like the best "when they see them". A successful design process is seldom a numbers game so let's move on to how we can fix this.

How to avoid it and move forward

Set clear goals

It is much easier to give helpful feedback if you know the criteria that you are judging by. By discussing what a successful design should accomplish early on and reminding the client before you show the designs, they can provide detailed feedback in relation to this. For example, if you are creating a poster for a music event, the key information needs to be visible, the call to action clear and the feeling of the event well represented. Now instead of "I know it when I see it" the client can comment on how well the design accomplished these three criteria.

Show your process

You probably have a very well thought our process that takes you from brief to a final design, but do you share this with your client? Often times, clients feel unsure about a design because they have not seen how you arrived at this concept. By drawing back the curtain, you build trust and help the person opposite the table understand where you are coming from. This usually leads to a much more constructive discussion than a simple yes or no answer.

Compare and contrast

It is much easier for you to understand what a client wants when you ask them to pick between two contrasting options. This will reveal any differences you have in what a certain word like "modern" means. When your client picks one option over the other, follow up with questions to make sure you understand why they picked this one. Sometimes it is for a reason you did not expect and this is crucial for creating an appropriate design.

Push back on feedback, ask why?

It is important that your client likes their design, they are the ones who will use it. However, it is your job to ask the client to consider their customers over their own taste and to give advice where you can. If you feel that a design is appropriate or that feedback is not helpful, make sure you ask why they hold a different opinion. Be polite and humble but also show that you care about the outcome being suitable for the company. Any feedback is only helpful if you understand where it comes from so make sure you really reveal the motivations.

Don't jump in to new designs right away

In an attempt to please your client, it is easy to jump in to a set of new designs if you get less than positive feedback on your first concepts. However, only resort to this if you have truly understood why the first ideas did not work and you have tried to fix them before moving forward. Many times changing the colour, photography or even copy can completely change a design to be exactly what the client is looking for.

Good luck with your designs and please ask to join our Facebook community to get your questions answered directly. See you there!


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