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Designing Better Products Faster Through Client Collaboration

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  • Steve Gillette is an award-winning, multidisciplinary designer and the art director at Historic Agency. Steve specializes in creative leadership, design processes, and getting work shipped on time.

  • Mark Miller is the co-founder of Historic Agency, where he leads product strategy, marketing transformation and brand. He has rebranded nearly 100 organizations. Mark is also the co-author of the Amazon bestseller, “Culture Built My Brand.”

Designing Better Products Faster Through Client Collaboration

When it comes to product design, does collaborating with the client slow down the process?

It can. But it certainly doesn’t have to.

In fact, we’ve seen teams use a collaborative design process with their clients to generate ideas, products and solutions—reaching the finish line faster, often with a better outcome. 

This goes beyond the design team working in a silo and presenting concepts to the client for feedback at various intervals. This is real-time collaboration to arrive at a winning deliverable in a matter of days. 

How Closed-Door Design Slows Down Projects

We decided to test the waters at our agency. So, we started involving clients in the design process. We gave them real-time access so they could log in to see our work in action and provide feedback along the way. 

The result? It reduced the project’s duration and produced a better final deliverable in a fraction of the time. And this success has been replicated time and time again across various types of clients and project scopes. 

Previously, we were spending weeks, and in some cases months, working on a product. We’d manage a lengthy volley of feedback between client check-ins.

The goal is to turn clients into true creative partners who work closely with designers to move faster and build solutions that better suit the brand’s needs.

It’s common for design teams to resist bringing clients too deep into their process. There’s always the fear that client interference will stifle design or create additional work, requiring designers to work on endless iterations and respond to uninformed suggestions. 

As a result, teams tend to limit client interaction, keeping their creative process largely off limits so they can refine their work behind closed doors.

But closed-door design siloes designers and clients, preventing them from bringing together different sets of expertise and insight. That translates into wasted time and resources. 

Focused, Real-Time Feedback for Better Design

A collaborative design process lets clients see behind the curtain and also get their hands dirty. The goal is to turn clients into true creative partners who work closely with designers to move faster and build solutions that better suit the brand’s needs.

This can shave weeks—even months—off project timelines. Design teams receive immediate input. It prevents misunderstandings that lead to unnecessary, costly revisions and creates space to explore different ideas and concepts. 

Meanwhile, the client gets to make contributions to the project while making sure the design stays on track with their brand’s vision and DNA. An open dialogue also builds trust from the outset.

Any design project can be channeled through these three phases of client collaboration: ideation, live design and real-time check ins.

Phase 1: Ideating With Clients

In the ideation phase, our client joins us in a one-day workshop where we go through a series of design sprints to generate as many ideas as we can.

Design sprints are adaptable and scalable. They push us beyond our initial, more intuitive ideas. They force our brains to search for new patterns and connections so we can examine the problem from different angles and find more innovative solutions. 

  1. We start by taking our clients through modified sprints to generate a list of words and phrases that can inspire and inform design. 
  2. Then we dive into a tactical series of ideation exercises where we have the client sketch solutions with us. 

We assure clients no design skill or experience is required. Nothing in this ideation phase will make it into the final deliverable. We just need their specialized expertise and knowledge of the brand. Once clients realize there are no wrong answers, they’re more open to stepping into the process.

Using a tool we developed, we guide our client to sketch concepts that can inspire and provide direction. Then we take our design team and client through a series of timed prompts to get them to draw their ideas with pencil and paper.

Everyone spends the first 10 minutes generating a word bank describing the product. In each of the following rounds, they design under a new constraint. One 10-minute round may have them sketching letterforms to convey the product. In another 20-minute slot, they’ll draw shapes or sketch imagery. 

Then, there’s a series of 60-second sprints during which they express ideas through various building blocks—such as line, angle, grid, frame, pattern, motion and so on. Each sprint challenges them to explore different ways to visually express the product.

Finally, everyone roughs out their best mockup of the final product. This process maximizes the time to generate several design solutions and quickly home in on a winning concept. 

Phase 2: Live Design

Geared with several mockups from the ideation sprint, our design team now aggregates everyone’s final ideas and works together to riff on the best solution.

In this phase, the client is brought in for real-time interaction. This often takes place over Zoom and may involve giving client login credentials to access our team’s design tools.

Many designers bristle at the thought of having others peer over their shoulder while they work, and not every client relationship can sustain this level of visibility. Live design only works under the right conditions.

Coaching and Mentoring

Designers need to adopt a mentoring mindset. Each team member should be willing to explain why certain solutions work better than others (and deconstruct their assumption that client ideas are somehow less-than). 

Does that mean every uninformed suggestion gets incorporated into the final product? Not at all. But it does ask designers to build bridges and dig beyond a client’s words to understand what they mean.

Confidence and Vulnerability

It’s humbling to let clients see raw mistakes and mediocre ideas. But our team has learned to not shy away from showing clients their works in progress. 

Team members are able to not only receive and accept feedback but also actively encourage clients to candidly share their thoughts and opinions. 

Trust and Relational Equity

Without respect and transparency, bringing people behind the curtain will only widen gaps in trust and confidence.

Clients need to feel like valuable team members. In every interaction, treat them with respect by asking questions, listening well and incorporating feedback. We build trust early and often by keeping our commitments, admitting our mistakes and making things right when things go wrong. 

Phase 3: Real-Time Check-Ins

In this phase, we release our design team to refine the final product. 

We also pack check-ins with the client into a single day. We clear our schedules so our team can focus exclusively on fine-tuning this one project, and we ask our client to make sure they’re available to immediately review iterations as we churn them out.

Collaboration with clients generates better ideas, prevents misunderstandings and empowers teams to move faster by getting the immediate feedback they need.

This minimizes the delays between submission and feedback, which in normal design work may span days if not weeks or months. 

Fast-Track Your Process With Client Collaboration

Every designer has stories of projects made difficult by interfering clients who seemed to make endless tweaks, offer uninformed suggestions and require excessive iterations. 

And then there are other clients who seem to drag their feet or disappear entirely right when their feedback is needed most.

It’s tempting to label these issues as client problems. But in reality, they are process problems. 

A fast-tracked process built around collaboration with clients generates better ideas, prevents misunderstandings and empowers teams to move faster by getting the immediate feedback they need.

Start by testing this process on a project for a client with whom you’ve already built a high level of trust and relational equity. 

Each project varies in complexity, scope, priorities and stakeholder preferences, so don’t be afraid to tweak and adapt the process as you go along. Certain projects may take more time. Some clients prefer less collaboration. Maybe you have team members who need more uninterrupted time to mull over concepts on their own. 

As you embrace a collaborative design process with clients as your partners, you’ll see your design team produce a higher standard of work more consistently than they have before.

Authors

  • Steve Gillette is an award-winning, multidisciplinary designer and the art director at Historic Agency. Steve specializes in creative leadership, design processes, and getting work shipped on time.

  • Mark Miller is the co-founder of Historic Agency, where he leads product strategy, marketing transformation and brand. He has rebranded nearly 100 organizations. Mark is also the co-author of the Amazon bestseller, “Culture Built My Brand.”

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