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How to speak about design to establish trust

Updated July 28, 2015
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How to Talk about Design to Establish Trust

Tim Brown

Tim Brown is the owner of Hook Agency, an SEO and Web Design company focused primarily on driving traffic and leads for small businesses, roofers and construction companies.

How to Talk about Design to Establish Trust


“I thought you might like the flourishes in the header, it has that bohemian, natural feeling you were talking about when we first met up to discuss the project.” = FIRE ME. “Thought you might like,” “Going for that feeling,” and “I was inspired to take a fun direction,” all scream of whimsical dainty little artist types who could literally die from the harsh realities of designing for real economic pressures. The real economic reality is that families food and shelter depends on the success of a business, and a key component of how a business does is how that business presents itself to the world through design.

I’m not saying you can’t feel a feeling and apply it to your work in design, but design isn’t art. It is meant to solve real world problems. So instead of focusing on your feelings while presenting to the client, focus on design principles, web design best practices, and the persona’s and scenario’s you established during your discovery phase. Focus the conversation around:

  • Design Principles
  • Web Design best practices
  • Persona’s and scenario’s

Why do design principles even matter?

I’ve had a couple situations lately, where someone seems to be questioning why a font choice even matters. They rolled their eyes when I mentioned a study that called Baskerville the most trusted font. It got me thinking. How am I presenting this wrong? Because I know in my heart of hearts that design matters. <- FIRE ME, but I can’t seem to always make it dead obvious to people I’m presenting work to.

I want to show them two ads side by side, one with high quality fonts that were chosen with serious intention and one with quickly chosen free fonts, and ask them which of them makes the product they represent seem more expensive, or which one makes the product seem more quality. Because good design does indeed represent products and services in a better light, and makes them seem more high quality. You know that, and I know that, but:

But how do we make the value of design dead obvious?

1. Resolve to help them find solutions to pain points. – Your website looks like shit on mobile, let’s fix that. Your logo has gradients and shadows in it to the point it’s hard to use on shirts and in other simple ways. Let’s address those and work from there how design can help solve problems you’re aware of now. Maybe it expands from there; as a designer, you’re a problem solver and the more you can identify and come up with creative and solid solutions for, the more design solutions you get to get paid for.

2. Dive into their world and become aware of what they value. – For web design you might realize the client cares more about looking cool than contact form submissions. You might realize they value their relationship with their family deeply, that a certain type of customer is their favorite. Once we realize what they care about deeply… pause pause pause …we can help them communicate those values through the design.  By diving in, visiting their shop, asking a lot of questions, and being present we can then better let them know how good design will help them do that.

3. Focus on the things they do understand like ‘Trust factors’, ‘color psychology’ and ‘telling the story.’ – ‘We have to tell the story of your business better,’ is going to resonate with some people better than my fascination with the font Baskerville. Even though I deeply care about typography, it’s just not always as accessible of a topic, or as interesting to clients. What they do understand is how adding a Better Business Bureau badge next to the contact form will help increase the likelihood of people contacting them, and how blue is associated with trust and how green get’s associated with natural, fresh, or innovative. This really depends on the particular client, as some clients can go deep without a lot of prep.

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Let’s circle back for a bit and make sure you’re working with the right kind of client:

The client defines the value and the designer discovers it. Ask the client what their business or organization does and why is it important to their target audience. If they don’t give you a quick comprehensible answer they are not ready to work with a designer or an agency. If they do answer the question you should next ask them what success looks like and what their goals are. DO NOT lead them toward what you think success might be. Let them define it.

When you get their feedback, dig deeper. A good way to do this is by asking who their target audience is and what their target audience needs are. If they can’t answer this they are not ready for the value a designer or an agency will provide. The client needs to have experience communicating with their target audience in order to set proper goals. If there’s no goal, how will you know whether or not a project is successful? Here are some red flags to look out for in the beginning stages of communicating with a potential client. I asked a fellow designer, Brenna French to share some thoughts on this issue:

“You sit down at a coffee shop excited to talk to a potential client about the project and the first thing they say is, I want to build a website how much would that be? This is a red flag because this means their mindset is already focused on getting a deal and not on the value you can provide for their business or their target audience.

This goes both ways in the relationship by the way, you never want to position the project or conversation around money. If you talk about money right away this shows the client that you are money hungry or desperate for work. Remember you are a professional and you are serious about your work and the value you can provide. Positioning the conversation around value sets the tone for the whole relationship in a positive way.

Say you get past that money conversation and everything is going well so far so you start talking about the project. The client starts to explain that they are wanting a one page website design and they also want the main colors to be blue and orange because to them those are beautiful colors, oh yeah they also want a picture of themselves in the main header. This is a red flag because they have too many ideas of what they are visually wanting the end product to look like.

As a design professional I don’t want to execute with the client’s wants in mind. I design the best possible solution for the clients target audience so the client will reach their business goals. From my experience, a client that has a specific visual direction is difficult to work with. Position the conversation around value. By the end of the conversation you both are excited to get started. You set clear expectations and attracted the client by positioning the conversation around value.”

– Brenna French

Ask these questions of new possible clients: Is the client sure of their target audience?

Is the client aware of their target audience’s needs?

Are they able to answer right away, what is it that you do and why is important to your target audience?

Do they start talking about their budget right away? (If they do it might be a red flag – try to change the conversation to talk about value that you’ll provide, not an arbitrary number you come with on the fly without fully understanding the project.)

Do they give off the impression that they understand you’re the expert, that they understand that are only responsible for Content – and Business Goals?

Do they have alot of ideas already about how the website should look? – A possible red flag.

That last one is challenging, and occasionally working for small businesses it’s important to kindly educate your clients on what is your responsibility and what is yours. But needless to say, if they come out of the gate giving strong layout suggestions and explaining their specific vision for look and feel you’re being pigeon-holed into the position of technician implementing someone else’s design, not the dynamic problem-solving designer.

Ways to talk and words to use

Talk confidently, and make sure to include examples of previous work where you solved a specific goal-oriented problem. Now is the time to ask what their primary objective is, and to set up a metric for the design you’re working on currently. 100 e-mail list subscriptions, 15 contact form submissions by legitimate prospects, 20 sales the first three months of launch. Make specific goals have a date attached to them. Gathering this information after the design should be part of what you’re being paid to do, and part of what you’re selling.

Do user testing on the old site when they come in, if it’s worth testing. Talk about testing critical things. Words and phrases to use: research, effective, goals, trust-worthy, tell your story, appeal to your core demographic. Always do research on their industry before getting into the site design. Their competitors, and brand positioning. By doing this you better understand what they are up against and you position yourself as the expert with unique understanding of their dilemma. This is another reason to hold off giving a price for the work until you fully understand the problem at hand.

Share research. You don’t always have to have it on hand when you are discussing a particular issue. But you should do your due diligence, if they want a pop up newsletter subscription box than you should be able to go find the research on which way of doing that is most effective (right away, timed, or exit intent,) or general tips on making a pop-up effective. I find it especially effective to share these bits of research right before you show the design at all. Come up with three pieces of research to support points that might be contentious or that push their comfort level on the design. Share them briefly before going over the design.

When you get into showing the design, avoid the real estate tour; ‘here’s the logo,’ ‘here’s the nav,’ etc. Go straight for the heart of why the design serves their goals. Talk about flow and conversions, and especially focus on how the design presents their story in a unique and compelling way to appeal to their core demographic. Never ask for feedback, ask if they have any questions. In this way you can further ingrain yourself in their mind as the expert. I think of it as a bit of swagger. Humble swagger, but you have to have some swagger in this industry.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this blog post or any others please link to it on your site, send out a tweet, or let me know how I can help you, I appreciate when I’m able to be of service.


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Tim Brown

Tim Brown is the owner of Hook Agency, an SEO and Web Design company focused primarily on driving traffic and leads for small businesses, roofers and construction companies.

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