Well, it was sweet while it lasted … A gung-ho designer and enthusiastic client may work well together during the "honeymoon" stage of a project, but things can often turn rocky – fast. So, with a nod to New Year's resolutions and fresh starts, I thought I'd provide some practical tips and suggestions to help keep your relationships with clients healthy and enjoyable all year long. Remember: Great design is the result of a great client-designer relationship.
A key ingredient to any successful relationship is trust. As a consultant, I have to trust that my client will provide me with all the information I need to do my job, and respect my professional advice and allow me the space to flex my creative muscle. In turn, it's my responsibility as the designer to completely understand what my client is requesting before jumping to conclusions. And even if their desires and choices run counter to mine, I have to respect their decisions.
Design is an interactive process. I'm sure you've heard of designers who sweep into a home, usher the homeowners out of the room, and plan a palette based on their own notions of what is needed. In contrast, most color designers I know and admire draw the client into the decisions, asking them a slew of questions about their aesthetics, personalities, likes and dislikes, use of a space, and much more. The best work I've done evolves from close collaboration with my client.
Collaboration is at its best when there is clear communication. Sounds simple and obvious, but it's really the most important, and often most difficult, aspect of the relationship. The more the client is able to share their design goals, the easier it will be for you to turn those needs into a working palette. Encourage your client to come to every meeting prepared – with magazine clippings, photographs, a favorite sweater, a fabric swath – anything and everything that clearly and tangibly conveys their color and design aesthetic. In turn, you as a designer need to ask pertinent questions about the space: the architectural features your client wants emphasized or de-emphasized, the current and/or future function of the space, the desired mood, the optimal lighting, the state of the furniture and accessories (incorporate or replace), and so on.
Ask respectful, tasteful questions, but be relentless, if necessary. Do your best to really get the client thinking. The harder they think, the better they are at being able to express what they have in mind. For example, if the client plans to replace Berber carpet with oak flooring, it could make a huge difference in palette selection. Or if they plan to change out their incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents, it will completely alter the look of colors. It's the designer's job to know these facts from the start, and it's the client's job to disclose them.
Our responsibility as designers is to ensure we educate our clients about using the correct terminology to articulate preferences and reactions. If a color is too "bright," are they referring to its saturation level, value or hue as it relates to another color? Getting on the same page with a common language will make the process run much more smoothly.
Contrary to the message perpetuated by TV shows of lickety-split results in under an hour, designing takes time. The earlier your client brings you onto a project, the more opportunity you'll have to create a cohesive design that integrates smoothly into all other elements. Unfortunately, I've found that color is often considered an afterthought. I've had clients call me as the painter is taping off, waiting for paint selections so they can get started. This leaves me with no room for ordering sample sheets or examining brush-outs, an integral part of the process. Ensuring adequate time to make the best-educated decisions is key to great design.
Why does one color combination work better than another? As designers, we should be able to back up why a particular solution is preferable. Clients will question you from time to time; it's usually to ensure they're really getting the best possible end result for their money. As professionals, we must be ready and willing to provide evidence to support our decisions and recommendations.