"If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."
It takes little effort, thought, or time to request an expert to fix your problem. However, it takes effort, thought, and time to really understand what the problem is. And when the problem isn't clear, the possibilities for solutions are endless and directionless.
For instance, I've been in a situation where a client didn't want to use their brand colors. I was confused, so I asked what was their reasoning. They just didn't know. They knew what they didn't want. And you can guess, it took a lot of revisions to get to what they thought they wanted. And it still didn't make sense.
Over the years I've noticed that many people have a mistaken belief that computers and design software can solve design problems. As the thinking goes, users just have to learn the software, and design problems are a breeze to produce. Just add creativity. However, that's further from the truth. It doesn't matter if you have design software, a Mac, a PC, a pencil, or a pen. Design problems are solved by design thinking. And good design thinking needs solid direction.
Here are 5 tips I've used throughout my career which helped me avoid expanding scope due to client indecisiveness:
1. Research by probing a little deeper.
Once a client makes a request, it is a good idea to compile your own creative brief. However, when the client isn't clear about what they want, you will need to probe further.
- Ask questions that help you understand the natural limitations. (See the next tip.)
- Find out what success means to the client. What does the client really want to accomplish?
- Think about where gaps may exist. For example, does the client really need a copywriter to help them hone the message before we do any design work. Or, perhaps we need to spend more time developing the concept. Or maybe I'm lacking details about the deliverables.
2. Establish limitations.
If you ask enough good questions, you will start to understand some of the natural limitations.
- For example, consider the impact the demographics of the audience, the client's brand guide, or the messaging itself can have on the design.
- Think about legal requirements the client might have.
- Anticipate the pitfalls certain design approaches can have with the intended audience.
- And lastly, consider the medium being used to convey the message. If you are designing a print piece, a website, or a social media ad the medium limits what you can effectively design.
3. Set expectations appropriately.
Whether you work as a freelancer or in an in-house department you need to establish the scope of work, timeline, and costs involved. Be as clear as possible — especially with a client who is indecisive. Wherever any of these is not clear, or the client wants to leave the options open, explain to the client what you are building into the scope.
- You may have to increase the costs involved. For example, you anticipate extra rounds of revisions, purchasing stock imagery, or hiring an outside vendor to help meet deadlines.
- You may have to expand the timeline because larger scope requires larger time.
- Or you may have to have more meetings.
Whatever it is, it's up to you to anticipate the problems that arise when scope is unclear.
4. Follow the process intently.
- Build in time for a lot of ideation. This includes brainstorming with the client to not only be clearer about the concept and goals, but to find out where the gaps are. Do quick sketches to force a direction.
- Create rough designs to chose from based on a chosen direction. I advise that you don't move on until you have some direction at the sketching stage. At this stage, make two designs that the client can understand. In other words, these are hi-fidelity or look like they are finished designs at this stage. But give them two, so they can chose one to refine. At this stage you may also have to adjust your creative brief.
- Refine once the direction is clear. Again, if the client doesn't like either, find out what the problem is before moving on. Do more sketches if you have to. Once it's clear, refine the chosen design.
- Develop a polished design for final review.
- Finalize and deliver.
5. Don't sweat it.
This design process will seem messy. Client's, who come to you not knowing what they are looking for, are often developing their ideas as they go along. But stay the course and stay calm. Adjust scope if you need to. But be upfront about it when you do.