Designers and Communication Skills: Why and How to Improve

Earlier this week I posted a group interview with several established and successful designers. One of the questions that was asked to each participant was “What do you feel are the most important skills for a designer to have/develop?” By far the most popular answer was “communication skills.” While this is not technically a design-related skill, I was really pleased to see those responses, because I feel the same way. Communication skills can make or break any design project that you’re working on, so I thought I would cover the topic in more detail.

Why are Communication Skills Important for Designers?

I think by nature many designers are introverted and do not naturally have strong communication skills (of course this is a generalization) . Most of us enjoy working on our own and creating something special, but communicating with clients may not be one of our favorite activities. If this is the case for you, take a look at how your communication skills can affect your performance.

Design is a Client Service

Any type of work that is a service to clients will always require communication between the service provider and the client, and web design is no exception. As a client service, there is plenty of back and forth communication for the client to the designer. There will be very few design projects that will allow you to go work on your own and then present a finished product to a client without much communication in during the process. For a web designer, coding and creativity are a part of the everyday work, and so is communication.

Clients Know Their Business Better Than You Do

The site you’re designing for a client is being created for a specific business and to achieve specific results. As designers, we really don’t know much about most of our clients in comparison to what they know. They know who falls into their target market, and (hopefully) they have an idea of what that target market would like in a website. They know what their visitors will be interested in when they arrive at the site. They know the details of their business that need to be communicated on the website to visitors. Without effective communication, gathering this information will be difficult or impossible. With effective communication you can work with the client to create a website that achieves their goals.

You Depend on Them, They Depend on You


As the designer, you will need certain information from the client to complete the job to the best of your ability. You’ll need their initial input plus their feedback throughout the process. As the client, they depend on you to create an attractive and effective website. Because there is mutual dependence, communication is absolutely necessary to bridge the gap and to create satisfactory results from both parties.

Clients Don’t Know What You’re Talking About

If you use industry jargon or technical language when communicating with clients, they will almost always be confused. Yes, you’ll have some clients with an excellent knowledge and understanding of web design, but most won’t fall into this category. After all, they’re coming to you to do the work for them, so most likely they don’t know that much about the subject.

Being able to effectively communicate in a simple and understandable manner is a skill in itself. If you are able to develop this skill, your clients will be able to have a better grasp on what you are doing and why.

Sometimes Clients Worry

Being able to check in with clients and communicate throughout the process will help them to know that you are making progress and that they’re important to you. Some clients will have a tight schedule that you need to work with, and if they don’t hear much from you they’ll wonder if things are still ok. You can keep them happy by just keeping them up-to-date with the progress and getting their feedback throughout.

Getting Clients is Easier with Good Communication Skills

So far all of the factors that have been mentioned have assumed that you have already landed the client. The truth is, most clients will shop around a little bit and they may talk to a few different designers before making a decision. If you can effectively communicate with potential clients and show them that you’ll do a great job for them, you’ll get more clients as a result.

What Can You Do To Improve Communication With Clients?

Make Yourself Accessible

In order for communication to work both ways, clients must have an easy way to get in touch with you. Provide them with an email address, cell phone number, and whatever other methods of communication you prefer. If you are not accessible, the communication will come too late and you’ll wind up spending more time than should have been necessary.

Avoid Jargon

As I mentioned earlier, most of your clients won’t understand what you’re talking about if you are using technical terminology. Get in the habit of communicating in simple, basic ways that anyone can understand. You’ll also need to know a bit about the client to know how you can best communicate with them. Some clients will have a better understanding than others.

Encourage Feedback Throughout the Process

Welcome the thoughts and opinions of the client as you are working on the design. Communication doesn’t only happen at the beginning and the end of the project. You’ll be able to create a more effective website that the client is pleased with by encouraging their feedback. Ultimately, the client’s opinion is really what matters, so make sure your work is headed in the direction that they want.

Be Careful with Email

Email is a great and convenient method of communication, but the tone of an email can easily be misinterpreted. When sending email to a client, be sure that your message is clear and that the client will not be misled or take the message in the wrong way.

Take Advantage of Face-to-Face Contact When Possible

Many designers do work for clients all around the world. However, some focus on local clients. Whenever possible, arrange a face-to-face meeting with clients at least once or twice during the project (or more, depending on the size and scope). Communication is simply more effective in person, plus it helps to get to know the client better, and it helps them to develop trust in you.

Make Communication a Priority Up Front

The start of the design process is probably the most important time for communication. Without getting a proper idea of what the client wants and expects, you can waste a lot of time heading in the wrong direction. For smaller projects, much of what you need from the client can be obtained at the start of the process, which will make your life easier.

Avoid Assumptions

It’s easy for designers to assume a certain knowledge from clients or to assume certain expectations they have. Try to get out of the habit of making assumptions about your clients and be sure that everything is communicated effectively. Start basic.

Explain Yourself

As designers, we do some things that clients don’t understand. It’s a good habit to explain why you do something a certain way.

What Are Your Thoughts?

How do you feel about the importance of communication and what tips do you have? Feel free to share specific examples from your experience.

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28 Responses

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  • Jacob Cass, March 27, 2008

    A good follow up to your other post with some very valid points. Sometimes things do need to be said to remind yourself of how important they are such as taking email the wrong way.

    I was also surprised (kind of) how everyone said communication was a key factor in designing in the last interview post.

  • David Airey, March 27, 2008

    I should really get myself a business cell phone. I removed my mobile number from my website due to privacy issues (not great when running a business).

    At present, my number is given to those who make initial contact via email. In one way it’s better, because I’m armed with background info before talking, but in another it’s worse, because there’s the whole trust issue.

  • Biodun, March 27, 2008

    Thanks for the post, its really a nice article. Communication with clients can be affected by being explicit in your choice of language. communication should be clear and fully expressed, probably include a write-up in support of a design presented to a client. A document outlining the thought process of the designer which explains why various design elements, it will provide ideas to a client upon their examine.

  • Yes communication is definitely key to a great design and most of all a satisfied client. Working with a project manager it’s even more so, ideas can get lost in translation. I also agree that constant feed back through out ever stage of development is most important, as you don’t want to complete the whole project only to find out it has missed thew mark completely. It would be wise to break the project up into phases that get approved on as you go to stay on track.

  • Vandelay Design, March 27, 2008

    David,
    I’m in the same boat as you. I don’t have my # posted for those reasons as well.

    Jason,
    You’re right. This post really only looked at the relationship between designer and client, but there is a completely separate realm when you’re involving teams or project managers.

  • meachel, March 27, 2008

    Communication is not only important for designers but it is very important part in every profession.I think if a designer is good in communication , it can help him to express well about his product what he has designed.

  • EDGE3SiXTY, March 27, 2008

    Great article…
    Communication is everything in order for designers to be able to ‘visually communicate’ their clients’ needs… Ultimately this is our job.

    I strongly agree with your thoughts on email communication. It is very difficult to interpret the true emotion or meaning behind written words, therefore I personally try to keep in touch with my clients either by phone or in person at least once a week.

  • Vandelay Design, March 27, 2008

    Meachel,
    Good point. It really is important for any career.

  • Charter Flight, March 28, 2008

    Thanks a lot for the post.This is very good review I think.

  • Ovi Dogar, March 28, 2008

    Yeah…I agree with that… Communication skills are very important for a designer, because if you know how to “communicate” with your clients, you will be able to understand their needs and expectations.
    A great design and a good communication will definitely satisfy your clients and increase your sales.

    Ovi Dogar
    AbsoluteCovers.com

  • Scott Fillmer, March 28, 2008

    Communications with clients or even potential clients is not overrated at all, it is something that should be done aggressively. They will appreciate it in the end.

  • Adoptive Parents, March 28, 2008

    I think that in most of the company’s I’ve worked for – the slow and inefecient communication has really hindered the success of the company.

  • Talley Mulligan, March 29, 2008

    Some good points here. I have found, however, that while making communication a priority is without question essential to ensuring that projects remain on track, for many designers (myself included) a hazy sense of how to go about it— or worse, knee-jerk impositions of process for process’ sake, often sends the wrong message. Emphasizing the wrong things— minutia unrelated to business goals or user needs, for instance— encumbers the process unnecessarily and burdens the project management-challenged among us with tracking of details that may be lost on the client. Obviously details need to be tracked, but throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water serves no one and will certainly represent a distraction for designers wearing more than one hat.

    In order to maintain the sense of confidence in your work you’ve been at pains to establish, client interactions should flow in a natural and comfortable manner while covering the bases (communication summaries, approvals, etc) that actually do have an impact on project outcomes. The point being that massaging clients’ expectations is not limited to strict accounting of every imaginable nook and cranny, but also the tone or mood of the interactions over the course of the entire project. Is, for example, each meeting a tedious chore of mucking through specifics for which the client isn’t clear what the relationship of individual agenda items to the site’s purpose is? Or are they meandering waltzes through a labyrinth of ideas that yield little actionable information when you revisit your notes?

    It’s key to communicate and even more so to communicate the right message. And preferably, that message should be calm, collected, and confident.

    For those interested, one resource on the topic that I personally have found instructive is Dan Brown’s Communicating Design (http://www.amazon.com/Communicating-Design-Developing-Documentation-Planning/dp/0321392353).

    Thanks for the post, by the way. Always good to be reminded of the importance of these considerations (it’s an ongoing battle).

    -t

  • Colorado Trucking Jobs, April 25, 2008

    I think that the hard part is developing the trust at first. But once it’s developed – the communication is very fast. goals are understood and standards kept in mind. This makes a powerful company!

  • Effective Communication, February 10, 2009

    Excellent article. At one point it says: “You Depend on Them, They Depend on You”. How will you use your communication skills to create a relationship where both of you win? Because if you strife for a win-win resolution, it’s so much easier to work together. Nobody feels they have compromised because it’s been done on a different level, not a level of wants, but a level of needs. And more work can be done without the feeling of resentment that comes up sometimes.

  • sağlık, April 14, 2010

    I think that in most of the company’s I’ve worked for – the slow and inefecient communication has really hindered the success of the company….

  • Alex Lee, June 15, 2011

    On a similar note, it’s a very useful skill for designers to learn how to write well — it’ll help with the communication skills!

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