Calming Clients’ Fear of Creativity

Communication Arts, January-February 2016
Have you ever had clients who, after the presentation of your initial design concepts, became quiet, nervous or even afraid of what they were looking at?

It’s as if they were surprised that the work sitting before them represented change, the very thing they hired you for. This is the same group who appeared confident during the preliminary discussions, yet now, with viable solutions to consider, the wind has unexpectedly gone out of their sails. 

So what happened? Invariably, as designers, we begin to doubt our work and wonder where we went wrong. Or we blame the clients for being unaccepting or unclear. Upon closer examination, we see something more complicated—a situation we can avoid in the future once we understand it.

Creativity, at its core, means change. With change come two things: fear and uncertainty. Change intimidates us because it stirs up several other fears—of the unknown, of failure, of being different and of losing control. These concerns lead to uncertainty, which in turn leads to second-guessing: Is this the right solution? Is it appropriate? Can people get behind this? Will it last? 

It is inevitable that as designers, we will work with a percentage of clients who are risk averse. As creative people, we tend to be flexible, tolerate ambiguity and recognize that failure is part of the creative process. Change comes naturally to us. If this polarization of mindsets surfaces during a project, it has the potential to jeopardize a healthy working relationship. 

A 2010 IBM poll of CEOs worldwide contained an encouraging message for the design community—it identified creativity as “the single most important leadership trait for success.” However, in the same year, Jennifer S. Mueller, a management professor then at the University of Pennsylvania, released a study in which she revealed an alarming phenomenon. Her research found that “people often reject creative ideas even when espousing creativity as a desired goal.” Mueller told CNN, “We are intolerant of uncertainty in general. The more creative something is, the more novel it is. And the more novel it is, the greater the uncertainty we are likely to have about its feasibility.”

“We can demystify our expertise to make the creative process less intimidating, less enigmatic.”

Part of a designer’s job, then, becomes the ability to mitigate any fear or uncertainty that clients may have about initiating change. Not an easy task, but one that can be achieved. Here are six ways you can comfort your clients. You may have tried some of these before, but they always deserve restating. I know it helps me to review them from time to time. 

Design process: Outline and clarify your design process. Most clients find it reassuring to learn that a designer’s process is not all that dissimilar from their own. We reference the description of our process published on our website to help explain the phases that will be implemented during the course of a project. This enables clients to become familiar with the game plan—and everybody likes a game plan. 

Research: Ask questions about their company, their products and services, their uniqueness in the marketplace, and their competitors. Clients will appreciate that you have done your homework. Research is knowledge, and knowledge helps inform innovative ideas. It also reassures clients that you’ve based your solutions on solid facts.

Aspirations and future plans: Become familiar with your clients’ goals. This will initiate a dialogue about where they currently are as a company and where they would like to be. Areas that need to improve and change will become clear. Do your best to encourage a frank discussion about these potential changes so that they are out in the open. This icebreaker alone will make it easier for clients to consider fresh ideas.

Opinions and concerns: It is paramount that you create an atmosphere of openness and honesty with your clients. They need to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with you, especially when they have misgivings. Clear communication leaves little room for misinterpretation. Misunderstandings produce inappropriate design solutions. 

Creative input: Where appropriate, offer your clients the opportunity to participate in the creative process. Involving them in some capacity will show that you value their contribution. The more they feel that they’re part of the creative process, the more ownership they will have in the final design. 

Listening and adapting: Stay open to insights from clients; they may suggest ideas that you would have never considered, valid ideas. Show that you are engaged by listening closely. Prove that you are flexible by modifying your opinions. Adaptability is a sign of true collaboration.

Scientist William Beck said, “I have thought about the nature of this creative process. … I don’t understand it, and I don’t think anyone else does either.” He may be right. Rather than force change, reassure your clients that they are working with an accomplished design firm, a team that respects the process of reaching a solution as much as the solution itself. If we heed the recommendations above, we can demystify our expertise to make the creative process less intimidating, less enigmatic. Clients may fear creative solutions at first, but with open communication and guidance, we can alleviate their fear of the unknown.