Relationship Before Design

10 July 2016


Last week I spoke at POPAI Retail Experience Conference. The room was full of retailers, designers and many other people involved in creating retail design and experiences. When speaking with some of them, there was one aspect coming up – relationships. They all believed how important the relationship between the client and the designer is for the success of the project. It is that unique bond between two people actually, not whole organisations, that creates the amazing experience.

The underlying theme however was the expectation of finished solution during the pitching process. Most of the time when a design agency is pitching for a project, the client expects to see an almost final design for their space. Putting the time and cost involved in such an exercise aside, there is one more ingredient missing – relationship.

There are a number of information you might be provided to aid your pitching process, e.g. brand book, location, mission statement and budget. But is that really all you need to create a truly unique, perfectly suited to the client and their needs and dreams design?

It’s like someone was asked to choose a dress for tall, blonde and attractive woman without actually seeing her or knowing her. What did you choose? Bodycon red dress? Without knowing her shape, size, personality or occasion, our mind operates on stereotype – a mental model which fits the labels: tall, blonde and attractive. As no person fits into a box, no brand does either.

The pitching process resembles that scenario much too often. Design agencies are not chosen based on the best fit to the client’s personality, needs and aspirations. They are mostly chosen because they have done many similar projects and have provided an almost finished solution in their pitch. Is that the route to innovation?

I seriously doubt it. It is understandable that not everyone looks for innovation and uniqueness; some need simple security. But will a choice based on security provide you with longevity? If you are going to end up with a design similar to that your competitors introduced 2 years ago, how do you think it will affect your long-term success?

Many designers understand that truth and include in their design process an extensive discovery stage at the beginning. This is when they do all sorts of exercise to get to know the brand, its people and customers, understand the unique trends affecting their client’s sector, run additional market and consumer research. But, it only happens when the client is on board. However, many clients don’t understand that the success of the design depends on this initial stage and the level of involvement from the client’s team.

It is not only the relationship that is crucial here but the basic principle of how idea creation works on a brain level. What information your brain is exposed to forms the building blocks for the ideas. It’s like when you make your smoothie in the morning. When you put in banana, strawberries, honey and yoghurt, you end up with a light pink colour and fairly thick consistency. If you were however to put kiwis, wheatgrass, coconut water and celery, the colour will be dark green with very liquid consistency. Ingredients make the idea.

I believe therefore there is a fundamental shift required in the pitching process for design projects. Less focus on what similar projects the design agency has done and less expectations of solutions at the beginning, and more focus on the objectives of what the client wants to achieve out of the design and what type of agency and relationship will help them to achieve it. Is it better for the client to have someone who thinks like them or perhaps someone who questions their every statement? Is it better to choose someone who worked with your competitors or someone with experience in other sectors? Is it better to choose someone who fits your organisation’s culture or someone who would challenge your team every step of the way?