There’s an analogy I like to use when explaining client work to my students. I call it the “Wedding Pie Analogy”. Imagine for a moment that you’re a baker and you get asked by a bride-to-be to make a wedding cake. She tells you that the theme colours for the wedding are going to be fuchsia and violet. Your reaction to this is that typical wedding cakes are boring and a fuchsia and violet wedding cake is ugly and impossible. You get the idea to make rhubarb pie (let’s say pies are very fashionable at NYC weddings this year).
While experimenting with this concept you happen upon the best rhubarb pie recipe you’ve ever tasted. This pie is so good that in the meantime you enter it in a Martha Stewart Living contest and win the grand prize: a cover story with the headline “World’s Best Pie”. Your recipe becomes a viral sensation and you appear on the Today Show to talk about your master work. Now, when it comes time to present your wedding cake to the bride and you show her the rhubarb pie you’ve made her, how will she react? How much will it matter to her that the world’s best pie has been made for her wedding? Is she wrong? Is she merely a boring client?
This analogy is obviously extreme and says nothing about proper briefing procedures but sheds light on a common problem I see in design school. Students are constantly asked to push the limits and think outside the box – and so they should – but misplaced focus on this lets many other priorities get neglected – like following instructions. I often tell my students that design school is a false environment. Never again will they be in a position where they regularly compete with 30 other peers all working on the same project aiming for the wildest interpretation of the instructions. That more often they will be dealing directly with an individual (client or employer) that is asking for something very specific. That they will be expected to just make what they were asked to make… and very often the requests will seem mundane, uncreative and sometimes just crazy.
Let’s look at the above diagram. Typically, when dealing with a resistant client (or one you’ve deemed uncreative) the approach is to try and expand the circle on the right. If a client doesn’t like your incredible ideas it may seem necessary to force them to accept more options to approve but this is a dangerous approach. You run the risk of offending the client, wasting their time and coming off as an uncooperative prima donna. I’m going to take it one step further and say that it’s an indicator that you simply don’t have enough ideas.
So how do you ensure you can make a portfolio-worthy, memorable design solution for even the most straight-forward design projects? The correct approach is to expand the circle on the left. The more great design ideas you have the more it will increase the amount of solutions you can offer to the client/employer’s particular challenge.
How do you do this? You increase your arsenal of ideas over your design career by solving a (hopefully) naturally occurring variety different challenges. Of course, this takes time but you can accelerate your development in this area by trying different approaches, practicing techniques you haven’t mastered and in general, pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. You have to maintain your hunger for new design. Become a tireless fan of new design. Browse portfolios, read blogs and magazines, meet other designers. You have to make things. Make things for yourself, your friends, family, anyone or anything. Go pick something you love and rip-off the idea. Don’t sell it but learn how it was made.
Let’s go back to the “Wedding Pie Analogy”. When the client tell you fuchsia and violet you recall a variety of techniques you’ve seen in magazines this year, you remember a time you included pieces of multi-colored fondant and the bride loved it and you’ve got some great custom cake shapes you’ve developed over the last few months. Most importantly, all of these ideas are within the realm of what you’ve been asked to do. They’re all fantastic ideas for wedding cakes.
Martin Gomez is a professor of Graphic Design at Algonquin College as well as the principal and creative director of Fancy Boys. He also likes to be invited to things. You can connect with him on twitter here.