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Customer-Centric Design

12 Jul

Customer-Centric Design

A recent graphics project brought up the subject of being “customer-centric” when developing visual communication work. This client was very happy with a visual identity that I had helped to develop for them. It had been created fully with their input and what they valued. The client had mentioned that they had recently been interviewing web designers who just didn’t seem to listen to what they were telling them and appeared to be focusing on their own solution, regardless of the client’s needs.

I thought that was an odd approach for a designer to take, but it didn’t really surprise me. It made me think of the objectives of graphic designers when working for a client.

So, what is being “customer-centric?”

According to, the definition of “customer-centric” is:

“A specific approach to doing business that focuses on the customer. Client centric businesses ensure that the customer is at the center of a business’s philosophy, operations or ideas. These businesses believe that their clients are the only reason that they exist and use every means at their disposal to keep the client happy and satisfied.” Client base. Retrieved on July 12, 2017 from:

There is, of course, a problem with this philosophy, depending on how you understand it. One could, when reading this definition, believe that their job is do everything a client asks of them in order to keep them happy, regardless of whether it is considered the right thing to do, is beneficial or harmful to the client, or has potential pitfalls down the road. The term for doing this, is “selling out.”

I’m not suggesting that you sell out and become a “yes-person” for any whim a client has, because eventually those whims may result in failures and regardless of how whimsical clients may be at the beginning of a project, they may not accept blame for their own failures. The attitude at that point will be that they hired a communications expert and the campaign was a disaster. Why didn’t these so-called “experts” say anything? Yes, it is our job to tell clients that their ideas may not work the way they are thinking, when warranted.

The greatest value we can offer a client is to provide professional objective responses to ideas they convey. Simply doing whatever a client asks for might get you the job and payment, but it may not solve the client’s needs, or get you any follow-up work.

The objective for a graphic designer is to produce work that will ultimately benefit your client because it will help your client communicate more effectively with their audience(s).

You may wonder: how does one become “customer-centric?”

For me, it has always been a natural thing. Design is a solution to a problem. You can’t design until you know what the problem is. The whole focus of designing is to communicate on behalf of your client with your client’s audience.

So, when I did my undergraduate degree in Visual Communications, I learned that you always must learn all you can about your client including not only their products, services, audiences, and the particular aspects and priorities that must be communicated, but the overall “style” and “brand” that the client is trying to initiate or reinforce.

Later, when I became involving with marketing, the business needs of communicating a product or service reinforced this same idea.

Similarly, when I did my MBA, the subject of being “customer-centric” was front-and-center. In business, it’s your client that pays your bill and is vital to your success and longevity. So, success, or even survival, depends on how well you attend to your customer’s needs.

“So, what’s the problem?” You may ask. “Doesn’t every graphic designer, then follow that same philosophy of being customer-centric?”

“No. Actually.” And the reasons why this isn’t always the case can be one or more of the following:

The graphic designer (or graphic design company) may just never have embraced this concept. They may seriously believe their clients don’t know anything about what is considered “good design,” and then think it is their job to force their own ideas onto clients.

A new graphic designer may be hungry to create some dazzling portfolio pieces and want to throw everything into their work (trendy styles, cutting-edge ideas, shock-of-the-new) in order to impress other designers, get a portfolio of current design trend pieces, or to win graphic design awards.

A graphic designer may (for lack of a better word) just be lazy. That’s right. Lazy. It takes time, thought and work to come up with a number of options that may work for a client. It may be that the designer just wants to pull out something that’s worked before and get the job done in order to get paid.

On the subject of graphic design awards, I understand that for many, winning awards is important and they may further a designer’s or a company’s future. Clients do take notice of awards, but not always.

Frankly, I’ve won a number of awards in the past, but I don’t spend a lot of time entering competitions now because the awards business is, well, a business. They charge entry fees for all submissions which, in some cases, are quite substantial. As well, winning awards just isn’t a pathway to creating work that serves your client (back to that customer-centric thing). The success of your design work, in terms of what it did to improve your customer’s objectives, isn’t even a field in a design competition submission form. In other words, design that actually works isn’t a consideration when evaluating whether a design solution is “good” or not by the awards organizers. The customer, who should be the most important part of the whole process, is left out. Therefore, I would make my case that you can have award-winning designers who fail at communicating a customer’s message.

And isn’t that really what it’s all about?

My last point is on the misconception that if you listen to your client’s likes, dislikes, needs, views, and observations that it would curtail a designer from doing what they are most talented at.

The fact is: even once you’ve identified all of the requirements and criteria for developing design work, there remains an infinite amount of creative options. Yes, you become limited in some of the solutions that would be acceptable or not, but without some parameters, how will you know if your work is effective? I take that back, many designers would say because their designer friends said it was. Not so. Your client, and their success should be your barometer.

The combination of a graphic designer’s skills and a client’s knowledge about the business, organization, audiences and trends is what will make your work truly “customer-centric.”

Alberta Graphics
Edmonton, Alberta