Chapter ten. Your questions answered

I started my first design blog in 2006, and since that time my readers have left more than 40,000 comments on more than 1,000 blog posts. Inevitably, many of these comments pose questions about how designers work. Good questions, too.

To save you from scouring through my blog archives, and because I’ve learned a lot since first giving answers, I’ve chosen some of the more important and more common reader questions, updating my thoughts here.

Originality trouble

Q: I’ve been accused of ripping off someone’s logo idea. Our designs are very similar, but I wouldn’t harm my reputation by copying anyone. How would you deal with this?

A: With millions of companies in existence, and with the most iconic logos being simple in appearance, it’s practically guaranteed that if you look hard enough, you’ll find a similar design to every other. The same can be said, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, about broader brand identities.

When a trademark lawyer is assessing the strength of a possible case of copyright infringement, what’s of high importance is whether the two logos are used in the same industry or for the same profession. If they’re not, the lawyer will likely tell you there isn’t a case. If they are, well, lawyers don’t come cheap, so do your research into good ones and be prepared to spend.

If any of my clients want to get their trademarks registered, I advise them to talk to a trademark attorney and get an expert assessment of risk. Trademark law is a specialist area, and your clients shouldn’t expect you to be an expert.

U.S.-based designer Mike Davidson has this to say about originality: “Tell yourself at every step in the design process that someone has undoubtedly already thought of this, and then ask yourself what you can do to really set it apart.”

Q: Do you think it’s still possible to find a design that’s original?

A: Originality isn’t a term I tend to use when designing. Part of me thinks I’d be misleading my clients if I say I’ll create an original outcome. Appropriate, distinctive, adaptable—those are the aspects I focus on.

Something might be completely original to you, but we’re all limited in how much information we can take in, so while you believe in the originality of a design, the more popular the product it identifies becomes, and the more it’s seen by others around the world, the greater the likelihood of the design existing elsewhere (or at least something very similar).

Paul Rand paraphrased Ludwig Mies van der Rohe when he said, “Don’t try to be original. Just try to be good.” That’s my appropriately unoriginal piece of advice.

Measuring design’s return on investment

Q: I’d like to supplement my portfolio entries with specific details on the impact of my work. Do clients ever supply you with data to show how your work improved their businesses?

A: It’s almost impossible to measure the impact a design project has on a business because other factors will also be at work—a new advertising campaign, sales push, product launch, a change in business strategy, and so on. I’ve yet to receive any data that’s directly attributable to brand identity design, but I put the question to a couple of other designers.

Alex Haldemann mentioned the complexity of measuring how a brand identity design affects a business: “Metrics are affected by too many factors—such as advertising—to single out the impact of our work. Therefore typically we can only measure individual symptoms, such as how brand loyalty or brand awareness has changed.”

Andrew Sabatier agrees about the difficulty of measuring the value that branding can add: “There are too many variables in the mix because a brand is intrinsic to the success or failure of a business. Brand identity work usually comes as a result of a change in business strategy, which then needs to be communicated clearly to the market. Trying to measure the value of branding in this context is nearly impossible.”

Rights of use

Q: When you and your client have settled on a finished identity, do you protect it with a copyright so that they must buy any future design collateral from you?

A: No. Once I receive full payment for the work that I’ve been hired to do, my client gets ownership of the design. The only right I reserve is the ability to use my work for self-promotion (i.e., in my portfolio). Generally, the projects I work on are about a complete visual identity—from business cards and letterheads to vehicle graphics and billboard design, as opposed to a logo on its own.

If a client approaches you asking for a logo in isolation (i.e., without application on a range of brand touchpoints), you should advise her that in order to get the most value from your working relationship and the design, she should take advantage of the guidance you provide regarding how best to apply the mark across the gamut of corporate literature, stationery, and advertising.

Bringing a new designer or design studio on board to create the stationery will likely cost your client more, since the new designer will need to do his own research to get up to speed on the company—something you’ve already done.

However, if at the beginning of the project your client declined the idea of contracting with you for stationery, chances are that if you executed each step in the design process like the expert that you are, she’ll most likely change her mind and ask you to do it anyway.

Communication breakdown

Q: Is there always a risk that when a designer interprets a brief it doesn’t actually fulfill the clients’ wishes?

A: All projects have risks, but interpretation generally only goes wrong if the brief isn’t thorough. When it comes to the end result, the most interesting interpretations are generally proportional to the size of the risk (bigger risk, better result). A lot of that comes down to clients and how open they are to pushing boundaries and really standing out.

Q: What’s your advice on how to handle a client relationship that begins to break down?

A: Look first at yourself. You’re not necessarily in the wrong, but don’t blame others before thinking about what you could’ve done better. If you can’t meet your client face-to-face, then pick up the phone. Put yourself in your client’s position. Ask what’s needed in order to move forward.

Sealing the deal

Q: Do you have any tips for convincing clients to work with you? I get a lot of inquiries, but very few potential clients go on to hire me.

A: It’s always worth reinforcing to clients that the design process is an investment and not simply a cost. Tell them that building brand recognition and brand association are right up there with a company’s biggest and most valued assets.

In addition, your website should be an invaluable source of help when it comes to clinching a client agreement, so it’s important to present yourself in a professional manner. Showing client testimonials can help. You want people to know what others think about the service you provide, so when you finish every client project, be sure to ask for your client’s thoughts. But when asking, I’ve learned not to use the word “testimonial” because it’s like trying to put positive thoughts in your clients’ mouths. Instead, I ask my clients what they thought of the working relationship—what was good and bad about the process. If you do the same, not only will you get something positive to add to your website, but you’ll also learn how to improve upon what you do.

I sometimes go one step further and ask for a photo of my client to display alongside the testimonial. It’s another way to add validity to the words on show.

A few sketches for Tokyo-based client Berthier


Overseas clients

Q: I’ve found that a few companies were reluctant to hire me as their designer because I’m in a different country. Does the distance really affect the process?

A: Most of my clients are overseas. This is mainly because of my strong global search engine rankings, but also, gratefully, due to word of mouth—for instance, I’ll work with one client in Canada, and she’ll tell a business friend of hers about me, leading to another overseas client.

There’s no reason why having a physical location in a different country from a client should adversely affect a design project. Communicating via telephone, video chat, email, and instant messaging provides ample opportunity for the working relationship to run smoothly.

How many concepts?

Q: How many design concepts should you present to clients?

A: For brand identity work, the professional average seems to be three. From personal experience, sometimes one is all it takes, but more often than not, I’ll give my clients a choice of two or three. Think about it. If you were having another designer create your brand identity, would you be okay with accepting the one design he gives you, or would you be happier to get a choice?

You’re much more likely to reach a smooth agreement when you involve your clients as much as possible, but be wary of presenting too many concepts, because it’s a lot easier to choose one from two than it is to choose one from 10—even if all 10 ideas are good.

I see a lot of designers using questionnaires in which they’ll ask their potential clients, “How many concepts do you need?” The question will be followed by a choice of one, two, three, or four. That’s bad practice. How can your client determine how many ideas are needed before the right one is created? You, as the designer, can’t even answer this question until you have begun designing.

If clients ask how many ideas they’ll receive, it’s much better to say, “between one and four,” than to have them choose four, charge them more money, and then force yourself into the possibility of having to present a weak idea. This isn’t a dog and pony show. You’re working through a stringent process to ascertain the strongest results. The number of possibilities can only be determined during the course of the project. Not before.

Friends and family

Q: What are your thoughts about doing design work for close friends and family? Do you change your prices? I’m always conflicted about this because I know they expect to pay less than normal, and I don’t want to be the bad guy by refusing. They usually don’t know the time it takes to complete design work, so in their minds they believe it can be done on the cheap.

A: I’m reluctant to do any paid work with friends or family because there’s always a danger that exchanging money between people close to you can ruin your relationship.

But, of course, it can also be difficult to say, “No.” Because of which, I prefer calling it a favor.

This might not be so easy in your situation, so instead treat your relations as you would a normal client, and don’t neglect the terms and conditions you usually work under. You might feel compelled to offer a discount, but ask yourself if a lower rate is worth a potentially damaged relationship. If you do offer a discount, be sure to show it on your invoice. This will reaffirm to your friend or family member that she’s getting a great deal.

Revision rounds

Q: How many revision rounds do you allow your clients?

A: When I started in self-employment, I’d always tell clients at the beginning of the project that they could expect x number of concepts and x number of revision rounds, and that anything else would cost extra. Now that I have more experience, I can see that’s a flawed method.

What happens if you tell a client you’ll create two concepts with two rounds of revisions on a chosen option, but after those rounds, you know the result is poor? Do you go ahead and supply a poor design because your client hasn’t paid you more money? Definitely not. By specifying a number at the outset, all you’re doing is limiting the results. We can’t produce iconic designs at every attempt, just like an Olympic runner won’t finish first in every race. You can only determine the number of necessary designs during the course of the project.

Setting a schedule

Q: I’m always asked how long it will take to create a brand identity, but can never seem to give an accurate answer. What do you tell clients?

A: It’s tough because projects always differ. There are so many variables, such as how closely involved your client wants to be, how quickly they come back to you with feedback, and how many revisions it takes before both of you are satisfied with the result. You might also arrive at an iconic design within a few hours of sketching, whereas at other times it could take a week of exploration.

During initial discussions, I tell clients that my average time frames range from three weeks to three months. But I’ve also worked on quicker projects as well as ones that last longer. It’s not until you’ve created a detailed design brief that you can be more specific with your client.

The short version is, give your client a range of times, and tell him you can be more specific once you’ve learned more about his design needs.

Researching the competition

Q: How much research do you conduct into your client’s competitors?

A: A lot. I mentioned previously in this book that if your client is to win (i.e., gain an edge within his market), then there must be a loser.

I can’t put the amount of research into an actual figure or timescale because—and I hope you’ve not grown tired of me telling you—each project is different, and every client will have a different amount of competition within the particular niche.

Worst client project

Q: What has been the worst experience you’ve had with a client, and what did you learn from it?

A: I generally don’t classify any experience as the worst, because even when things don’t work out as I hope, I learn what not to do for the next project. That said, I look back at a number of projects and wonder how I could’ve improved communication between my clients and me. There were a couple of times when I had received the client’s 50-percent down payment, we’d worked through a number of ideas, but then came a prolonged silence with no response from the client.

To this day, I still have projects that were never finished, and the onus was left on the clients to contact me when they were ready to pick things up again. We’re talking about gaps of a few years from the last point of communication, and projects in which most of the work was completed. The clients either lost interest or motivation, or their priorities were simply diverted elsewhere.

And therein also lies the importance of receiving a down payment, because otherwise your client might disappear and leave you even further out of pocket.

Who owns what?

Q: I spent five years working on identity projects within a design agency, and have now decided to set up business on my own. My past employer won’t let me use my work in my portfolio. Can he stop me from doing so?

A: It’s fairly standard for employment contracts to stipulate that any work you create during the term of employment belongs to your employer.

When agencies subcontract their work to self-employed designers, they’ll normally want the agreement to remain confidential, and you won’t be able to use your designs for future self-promotion. That’s why I tell agencies from the outset that should we work together, I retain the right to use all design ideas in my portfolio. It can be frustrating when you come up with something great, but are then unable to share it with your peers and potential clients.

Handling the workload

Q: As a one-person studio, how do you decide how many clients you take on at any one time?

A: There’ll inevitably be periods during the design process when you’re awaiting client feedback, so if you can it makes sense to accept more than one project at a time. This way, you can ensure there aren’t any gaps in your working schedule and that you’re not left waiting for what could be days at a time before you continue.

Be wary, however, of taking on too much work. I never accept any more than two or three clients at once. This number might differ for you depending upon the scope of each individual project, and whether you work alone or as part of a studio or agency.

And don’t think you need to accept every client that comes your way. Just as a company or organization chooses a designer, you should also choose your clients.

If you have a question that’s not answered here, use the search feature on my website where there’s a fair chance you’ll find relevant info.