The artwork from Pink Floyd’s 1975 album, Wish You Were Here.

What you can learn from a client breakup

Having to break up with a client is never ideal. But sometimes, it’s the best possible option for both parties. In 2020, my graduate design team at California College of the Arts’ MDes program learned this the hard way. Parting ways wasn’t something we ever thought we would do, nor was it an easy decision. But it taught us many invaluable lessons that some of our classmates who did stay with their clients may not have learned.

Before I dive into our journey, it would help to give a little bit of context. Within the realm of interaction design master’s programs, CCA’s is unique because it pairs students up with real organizations in order to give them tangible design experience. It’s why many join the program, and it’s why many walk out with a better idea of how to work with real clients.

My team, called Daydream Design, included Hardik Kumar, Shalvi Sharma, Ande Cira, and myself. At the beginning of the year, we were paired with a non-profit storytelling organization whose design brief asked us to help them “develop a complete picture of the stories of immigrant and refugee communities to spark empathy”. The four of us were personally drawn to the client’s mission because of our own ties to immigration, and we were all united by a common passion for storytelling.

In the MDes program, we were always taught that research is a never-ending process and that it should always dictate how we design things. We were also taught that even though our clients would be the ones writing our paychecks, they weren’t the ones we should be designing for.

Instead, the emphasis was placed on the users. They were the ones who would use our products; our apps; our websites; our household items; our designs. Their experiences would truly make or break a design’s popularity. If we weren’t designing for the users, we weren’t designing for anybody. Only interviews and other forms of in-depth research would be the most reliable indicators toward an effective design, not what the client independently thought they might need at first.

When we first met our client, things seemed promising. We broke the ice by talking about our respective backgrounds, and we all seemed excited about what our future together could bring.

But looking back, it was clear early on that our client’s vision about what a team of designers could bring them was very different than what we had in mind. While their design brief had seemed open-ended and had alluded to creating a larger-than-life experience, what they were really after was just a website redesign. In their own words, all they needed was “a pair of hands”. We did our best to illustrate the benefits of a more open-minded, collaborative, and research-based approach, and after some convincing they reluctantly accepted.

However, we were still caught off guard when our request to shadow one of their signature workshops — the ultimate showcase of their storytelling process in action — was rejected on account of them being private events. This would have been somewhat understandable had it not also been accompanied with the suggestion that we could attend if we individually paid out of our own pockets to be there as new customers. (Keep in mind we were there as unpaid student designers offering our services for free.)

Now, you don’t have to be a seasoned designer to know these were potential red flags. But it’s also important to keep in mind that our expectations as students were naïve; it never occurred to us that it was even possible to push back or respectfully decline taking on a client. We assumed that because we had been paired together, we needed to stay together.

So we carried on and began our research phase. We started by exploring what it meant to “develop a complete picture of the stories of immigrant and refugee communities to spark empathy”. Empathy for whom? From whom?

After months of interviews, exercises, and secondary research, we discovered the real problem we needed to solve for: there was a clear cultural disconnect between recent immigrants who had come to America and Americans who had been here for generations. This gap was widened by both sides staying inside their own cultural bubbles as a result of not understanding the other side.

It was clear to us that in order to connect these two groups, both sides needed to be a part of the conversation. Our client had already done a fine job covering the former, but had made no impact so far in connecting with the latter. During our kickoff meeting, they had struggled to describe their audience — one that was clearly made up of immigrants and those who were sympathetic towards them — instead saying that the audience was anyone who felt connected with the stories.

But it was clear to us that a big piece of the puzzle was missing, and this was evident from the lack of exposure these stories were getting. These stories about immigration were simply being told by immigrants to immigrants. They weren’t making a true impact where they needed to.

This is where we saw an opportunity, and after weeks of brainstorming, we arrived at the answer: a podcast.

No, we didn’t invent the modern-day podcast… but good design isn’t always about inventing something new; it’s about finding what solutions might work for a given problem. In this case, we found that a podcast would not only serve as a natural platform for telling stories, but would also make hearing the stories more accessible to different people’s lifestyles. A podcast could also be recorded, edited, and listened to remotely, which made it a great fit for a pandemic.

It would solve the client’s problem by making people’s stories seem universal. Instead of illuminating differences such as culture, language, and location, the emphasis would be placed on commonalities we all share as people: hopes, fears, wants, and feelings. Almost like a game of telephone, people’s stories would be passed around and told by people of different backgrounds in order to show how omnipresent they were. The podcast would tie into an accompanying website which would allow listeners to submit their own stories.

But the client’s reaction to our pitch — before it was even over — was a flat no. No constructive feedback, no observations, no creative riffing. Just a disappointed shaking of the head. My team (virtually) looked at one another. What were we supposed to do in this situation?

After what felt like a solid minute, one of us managed to begin illustrating how our idea aligned with their organization’s values. After all, their own website stated they believed people needed to be heard, and that sharing stories could lead to personal and social change. Surely they could see those same values in our podcast.

It took some serious convincing, but they eventually warmed up to the idea. Much to our surprise, they even volunteered their own staff to help record it.

In an ordinary time, we would have gotten right to work. But in April of 2020, a lot of things were up in the air, including our own master’s program. While CCA was figuring out how to take things entirely online, we were each dealing with our own levels of burnout and everything else that came with living in a pandemic. Our program ended up being extended one semester, which meant that we would need to pause our work with our client for a few months.

It’s important to acknowledge that our own communication with our client did begin to slip here. Our team made the mistake of assuming that because we had been given the green light in late April, it meant the client would still be on board with everything we were doing in mid-July.

This was a considerable error on our part, and it was largely due to our flawed mindset that we should be as polished as possible whenever communicating with our client. If we had no major developments to speak about, we thought there was no reason to keep them in the loop. These were mistakes on our part, and we learned from them.

When we finally met again with our client, my team was already on the home stretch of developing a pilot episode and an accompanying website prototype. We only needed participants to test it out with, which was where we hoped our client would come in with their already expansive network of past workshop attendees.

But if the initial pitch was a rainy day, this meeting was hail. The client patiently waited until we were done presenting all of our materials — a recap of the podcast’s goal, an animated walkthrough of the user flow and journey, and visual mockups of the website and all of its accompanying forms — to voice their complete and utter disappointment in our work.

Not our lack of emails, mind you, and not the shift in our academic calendar… but the idea of the podcast itself, which hadn’t actually changed since they had excitedly greenlit it themselves. “This does not represent us and what we’re about at all,” they began. “It’s off-brand and isn’t something we can use in any capacity.”

Confusion couldn’t begin to describe what the four of us were experiencing. Once again, we had come across a hard roadblock, only this time it went directly against everything the client had previously told us themselves. Had the four of us collectively imagined that first pitch meeting?

Thinking we could win them back again, we each began to highlight all the ways that our podcast’s goal aligned with their organization’s values. This time, it didn’t work. The client stated that they understood what the benefits would be, but that they were happy with how progressive and left-leaning their existing audience was, and that they weren’t interested in changing it.

We were shocked not only at the client’s complete reversal, but also at the irony of them not wanting to bridge the gap between recent immigrants and longtime Americans; not wanting to make the real change that their own design brief had asked us to do.

The client expressed that their time had been wasted, and that we should continue developing this on our own if we saw fit. As a final blow, they informed us that over the summer, they had internally begun developing a podcast of their own to showcase stories.

So here we were, ten months into working with our client and two months away from graduation, faced with a sudden reversal and rejection along with the news that they had in essence taken our idea for a podcast and ran with it on their own.

It was a fork in the road. Would we accept the fact that they were no longer interested in our direction, yet stand by our work and respectfully part ways? Or would we try to appease the client’s brand-new concerns, just to be able to keep working with them?

At first, I tried the latter. I did my best to reassure them that there might be ways to shoehorn the podcast into their current lineup, and that we could pivot accordingly. This was met with a rather indifferent “okay” from the client.

I did this because I was still in the mindset that we worked for the client, not with the client. I had forgotten what I had been taught, which was that the relationship between designer and client should be a collaborative one.

But after the meeting, we sought guidance from our professors and carefully reconsidered. We decided it wouldn’t be beneficial for either the client or ourselves to turn the podcast into something that no one really wanted and that worse, wouldn’t create any real change. So we wrote them an email citing our concerns, thanking them for the opportunity and their time, and respectfully parting ways.

It’s important to walk away from experiences like this with newfound insights. This can only be done with time, reflection, and honesty — three things that are key to learning anything substantial. The list that my team came up with is something that may also help other designers in their work:

  1. Recognize early on what sort of relationship the client desires. Are they willing to trust your research and walk with your ideas? Do they see the value you personally bring as a designer? Or are they really only interested in a pair of hands to help them obtain the product they already have in their mind? Remember that you’re not the client’s employee or intern. You’re a collaborator.
  2. Recognize internal conflict and pushback. If the client isn’t willing to let you into their process, you may have trouble gaining insight about how they do things. This may have negative consequences later, when they don’t see eye-to-eye with your designs.
  3. Meet the key decision makers. If the work you plan to do involves the larger organization or company as a whole, it’s important to try and have everyone at the table who needs to be. Doing this will ensure that everyone is on the same page, and that things are not lost in translation later.
  4. If you recognize conflict, address it. Sweeping things under the rug in order to keep the client happy will only backfire later. If you notice reluctance or mixed messages, ask about them so that both you and the client can be clear on each other’s views.
  5. After every meeting, summarize everything in writing. People are busy, and their minds are even busier. Sometimes people can make mistakes or forget what they said. Getting everything in writing will only prevent confusion down the road. Similarly, ask the client early on to give you their values, their intended audience, and their objective in writing so that you can refer to them later.
  6. Focus on communicating frequently, not flawlessly. Every client has their own preferences, but as a general rule, it’s better to keep clients in the loop about your work on a fairly frequent basis. Waiting until your entire team is aligned on every last thing and has only milestones to announce will just cause delays and misalignments with the client. Stay in frequent contact to stay on the same page.
  7. Rely on your research. If your findings indicate that the client’s intended solution won’t solve the underlying problem, trust these insights and communicate their importance to the client. If they are not entirely on board, the relationship may not be a good fit.
  8. You don’t have to keep every client. Not every relationship is a good match, and different parties may be looking for different things. Rely on the integrity of your work, and only continue things if you feel it would be beneficial for the problem you’re looking to solve. If the client sees the value of your work, you’re likely in good shape. If not, respectfully part ways while thanking the client for the opportunity and their time.
  9. Sooner is better than later. If you recognize signs early on that you and the client simply aren’t compatible and that you’re unable to work through your differences, consider parting ways sooner rather than later. This will save significant time, energy, and money for both parties.
  10. Be willing to acknowledge your own mistakes if you made them. Every work relationship is a learning opportunity, and no two clients are exactly alike. Keeping a growth mindset about the way you handle things is important for understanding how you might be able to do better next time.

Experiencing a client breakup while in graduate school wasn’t something that anyone on my team had planned for. But I’m grateful it happened, because the lessons it taught us instead were much more valuable than any client’s seal of approval. It left us better prepared for the types of challenges we would later face out in the real world, and that was worth the price of tuition alone.

We have no ill will towards our former client, and we recognize they were simply looking for something different than what we were willing to offer. In the end, it just wasn’t a good match.

Working with clients won’t always go as planned. It’s important to be prepared for opinions to change, needs to shift, and yes, even pandemics to strike. But knowing how to deal with conflict when it presents itself is a crucial skill to have, and knowing how to part ways if the need arises is a big part of that.

After parting ways with our client, we ended up expanding the podcast’s scope to anyone from different backgrounds, not just recent immigrants and longtime Americans. You can listen to the pilot episode here.

Special thanks to our professors (Marc O’Brien, Sarah Harrison, Nathan Shedroff, Susan Worthman, Sharon Green, Minnie Bredouw, and Kristian Simsarian) for their continuous guidance and support.

If you liked this article and you’d like to see more of my work, head over to my website.

Writer, designer, artist, storyteller. More at shervinator.com

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