08 November 2006
Michael Hardt
Michael Hardt

What a funny subject! Visual communicators don't understand how to communicate with the most basic form of communication: by talking.

Someone once said that visual communicators became visual communicators because they are incapable of communicating otherwise, and in fact, there is some truth in this. Unlike many other professions where you are trained in how to use talking as a tool, designers throughout the world don't understand that talking is a tool at all.

I would like to give you a very short introduction in the skill of using language as a functional tool. I have 30 minutes. The aim of this introduction is to enable you to:

a) satisfy clients;
b) sell ideas successfully;
c) make more money;
d) become more efficient.

It's a lot for such a short time. By the way, setting up the aim before going into any conversation with the client is lesson number one. Set up your aims before you talk (or, switch on your brain before you open your mouth).

Don't waste your time or your client's time by not knowing what to say and why to say it. Once you are well prepared you should know:

a) what type of conversation you are going to have;
b) how much time you have for it;
c) what result you expect to get.

Once you have got what you want, or if you see that you're not going to get it, finish and leave.

It is very difficult and frustrating to regard talking purely as a function. Where is the intellectual and human exchange of fascinating points of view, the thrill of feelings, the satisfaction of having come to know someone else's mind, and - last but not least - escaping the solitude and loneliness of the studio?

Forget it. We are talking business. If you want to talk feelings and friendship, it's the wrong time and the wrong place.

Attention: there are some very professional business talkers who talk business after 5 whiskeys in front of a warm, romantic fire; with them you will have this feeling of finally having met a good friend. Of course we are all emotional. Business is a tough game.

I don't want you to start talking like machines or like the staff of some big international companies. We should try to keep the advantage of being sensitive human beings and visual artists.

I feel sorry for some of the people I have to meet in my profession who have been overtrained in functional talking. People who repeat without thinking what the sales trainers tell them.

It's sometimes funny to see two businessmen talking with each other and you know that person A has just passed the killer-argument-seminar while person B successfully attended the how-to-kill-killer-arguments-crash-course. Like everything in the world, the importance of functional talking can be exaggerated.

But we definitely need some more skills in how to talk. We need to talk with our clients during the design process and even more, talking is a professional necessity and completes our professional abilities.

The design process has many more stages which influence the overall result and not just the design stage. We should be aware of our professional responsibility and use professional ways of communicating for better results throughout the whole design process.

It already starts at the sales prospect stage, which, let's be honest, is usually the result of a recommendation from someone else or a satisfied client rather than the result of systematic prospecting.

The briefing stage follows. To continue, with honesty, how often do you get a sufficient and problem-oriented briefing with all of the parameters you need to come to a good solution? Don't answer. I work in Europe, which is presumably very professional; in 20 years I have had maybe a handful of good briefings.

Stage three is not, as you might assume, creation or the creative process of designing. We all forget to pass the business stage and the organization stage before we start the creation stage.

In the creation stage you don't have to talk. But as soon as you make the presentation, you again need words. How you manage to get along in the modification stage can be very important for the final result.

Finally, you also have to talk within the production stage. This is very often the famous "deadline" talking. The client is nervous and every mistake he makes will be held against you.

At the end of the project, the project often continues. I'm talking about the complaint stage. There are complaints about the quality, the reliability, the timing and the costs.

Don't take complaints as embarrassing faults or as mistakes which must be avoided. Nobody is perfect and mistakes are likely, as we are all human. To deal with complaints is an art.

If you act well in this stage, you can gain a lot of business. Some say that behind every complaint there is a new project.

I recommend that you add another stage: the after-sales stage. It is very successful in relation to the prospecting and helps a lot in building up your business. It's very simple: just call your client from time to time, not when you just have thought of them; follow a clear schedule. Ask him how he is, if his little son is better again after the flu, if he is happy with his new car, and if he is happy with the design and the result it shows on the market. Yes, and if there's anything you can do for him now? Not pushing, but caring for his well-being.

Each different stage of talking needs a different approach. If you want to use talking as a tool, you have to be aware of the different types of conversations.

Do not mix up these different types of talking and, more important, do not allow others to get you mixed up.

When, for example, you explain the refined and sophisticated design you have created, don't allow and definitely don't answer questions like, "and how much does this cost?" or "do you think we can get this in time?"

In these cases you simply say "I'll come back to this later." Believe me, it helps.

Let's have a closer look at the following types of talks:

1) the sales prospecting talk;
2) the introduction talk;
3) the briefing talk;
4) the money talk;
5) the design talk;
6) the complaint talk.

I will not go into detail about the different types of conversation partners, which would easily take another thirty minutes. But it's surely important whether you are male or female, whether the person you talk to is male or female, whether you are talking to one person or to a group, whether you are talking to decision-makers or to decision-influencers, what educational background the persons you are talking with have, and so on.

It is also very important how you feel and how well you are. It's a fact that functional talks are games with winners and losers. You are unlikely to win when you are weak. So, take good care of yourself.

In functional talks you have to open three more windows of the talking menu:

+ Listen;
+ Watch;
+ Analyze.

Actually, you have to talk, listen, watch and analyze all at the same time, and with the same intensity.

Now let's go into a little detail.

1. Sales Prospecting Talk
Many colleagues ask me how to get clients. It's a good question and I often ask it myself. It's undoubtedly a question of instinct and a certain talent. I think a design education should include much more of those kinds of things. All I can tell you is that you should not wait for a client like a rabbit for a snake, but choose your clients yourself. I always hear from new clients that they have had bad experiences with amateurs and they are afraid of getting disappointed again, but that they did not actually know that I existed.

To me this sounds like real life. How many lovers have not gotten together because they did not dare tell the other? We are so afraid of getting rejected and hurt.

But again, that is feelings. We are talking business here. Choose a client, find out as much about him or her as you can, and imagine what benefit you can provide. This benefit must be greater than the benefit you get from the client: money and reputation.

Once you know that there is something really good that you have to offer, call the client and be very precise in telling him that you think you have something to offer and that you need half an hour of his precious time. Offer two options for a meeting: "Let's say this month or next month?"

He will say next month.

First or second half?


First half of the week or second?


Thursday or Friday?


Morning or Afternoon?


Earlier or later?


So I'll see you at 2:00 p.m. Thanks for the appointment.

Don't give the client a chance to say "No." He will say No! Did you analyze this conversation?

2. The Introduction Talk
You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Be very brief in saying who you are, what you do, and what benefits clients get from your work.

Try to learn as much as you can from the client. This is the big moment where you get plenty of information if you ask the right questions. Let people talk about themselves. Everyone likes to talk about themselves. Take time to look around in his office. What's his hobby? Everybody shows his hobby somewhere around his desk. Make him talk about his hobby. He will talk for hours and he will like you.

People like to talk to new conversation partners because the old ones normally don't listen, and now, here is a chance to impress.

"What an interesting person," said a man about his conversation partner, who had not said a word during the entire conversation.

Don't tell how successful you are. Successful people are jealous about others' successes. Don't talk too much about yourself.

You all know this one: "Sorry darling, I been talking about myself for hours. Now let's talk about you: How do you like my new dress?"

There is one rule for all types of talks; the one who asks, leads. Or, if you want a hint: ask, don't answer!

What was your aim before you went into this conversation? To get to know someone you would never want to have a drink with if you met him in a pub? To find someone to impress? No.

What you want is to be able to make a next step, to get a briefing, a project and, as we are all honest, to get the other person's money. Yes, it's true, we all love our jobs and we do everything for an interesting and satisfying project. But that is beside the point. The point is money. And if we have fun, that's even better. But, no money, no fun. Businessmen don't understand the fun of making good design anyway. To them it's fun to deal with money.

So, finish the conversation by formulating your aim in a diplomatic way. Don't say, "Thanks for all the rubbish you told me, but what I want is your money!" Say, "Thank you very much for the conversation. If you ever have a suitable briefing I would be very pleased to hear from you again."

Give the client the impression that you don't really need him and his money but that you are an expert in solving his visual communication problems. Remember, you have something to offer!

The client believes that he is in a strong situation, having the power of money. But in fact, he needs what you offer. Otherwise he would not invest his money in a project or even talk to you. It's part of his functional game to put down your value or even your self-confidence to get a lower price.

And, how easy is it to impress designers!

Young designers often come up to me and say that they don't have references and that they have no experience. Excuse me for comparing business with normal life again: I recommend to every man who wants to make love with a girl to NOT try to impress her by recounting the number of girls he has had before and by showing her the portraits of the best looking past lovers.

You get the job when you have built up the confidence that you can solve the problem; experience and a nice portfolio is neither the only nor the best way.

3. The Briefing Talk
What's the aim when you go into a briefing talk? To get as much information as possible. And, in a competitive situation, to get more information than your competitors. So ask, ask, ask and listen carefully. The way you ask and the better structured your questions are, the bigger your chance is to build up your confidence.

Don't talk about the ideas you have that can solve the client's problems. You don't even understand the problems, unless you take a few days to analyze and consider.

Keep the customer hungry until he chooses from the menu.

I recommend making short reports or memos of every contact and conversation you have with the client. For example, send a thank you note for the chance to meet the client, a written summary of the briefing, etc. Keeping written records "proves" your professionalism.

4. The Money Talk
Money talk should not start earlier than at the end of the briefing.

"How much do you charge?" Do you know the answer in 90% of all cases?

The answer is ", er,...???"

But it should be, "How much do you intend to spend?" Ask, don't answer!

Take this simple case: a client offers a project. You dream about something like $1,000 US.

You are clever enough not to answer the question of how much you charge but ask the client in return. In many cases the answer is higher than you hoped, so let's say $1,250 US.

Don't jump up, shouting "Yeah, great, man! I'd have done it for $1,000 US."

Smile affably and say, dead cool, "You are joking, aren't you? Double that."

Tough businessmen answer in this moment "OK, so we don't come together."

Get up, shake hands and say "It was nice meeting you."

Go firmly to the door, prepared to leave. Either the client really has no money - then why bother wasting time working for peanuts - or he has the money but wants to bargain. Get what you can get in this moment. Don't try to be a nice, polite and gracious person. It's not the moment.

This business talk ends with $2,000 US and your client still has the feeling of having saved a lot of money. And, you will find out that it was still too little.

5. The Design Talk
By now, you should know your client well enough to know how to make the presentation.

Put yourself into the position of your client. He has certain expectations which you will not fulfill. He is nervous, insecure and the only criteria he has is his own little bit of taste. In 95% of all presentations I hear, "I like it," or, "I don't like it."

If he doesn't like it, it does not help to say "The worm must taste good to the fish, not to the fisherman."

But if you have said this BEFORE the client has seen the design, he might think before opening his mouth. In order to avoid taste as the only criteria you have to build up trust and understanding. The best way is by making the process visible.

Many clients today are a little strange because they believe that they can make design themselves by using a Mac or a PC. That's partly the fault of our colleagues who kept the design process as a secret and made the client believe that it's all in the skill of drawing. Now that they can "draw with Corel," they consider themselves designers.

I tell my clients exactly what I am doing and why I am doing it, before they see the design. And I tell them this in writing. I always begin every presentation by repeating the brief to remind the client of what he asked me to do.

No briefing has the criteria of pleasing the taste of the boss's spouse or secretary.

The next step I take is to explain to the client what I have considered, what criteria have been considered important and how I structured the design process. I build up the image of the design in his imagination. I'm always fascinated when this works. Sometimes the client draws the result on his writing pad before I even show it to him.

You have to build up more than confidence in the solution. The client must become excited and feel like part of the creative team. "It's not my idea, it's our idea."

If the client, after all that, still doesn't like what you have done, listen carefully to his criticism. Sometimes "No" really means "Yes, but." Sometimes "Yes, but" simply means "No." Listen. Don't be offended. Don't feel rejected. But don't be too eager to do what the client wants. Don't forget, we had him up to $2,000 US. He wants real value for his money.

Let me give you an example of how I once sold a corporate design for a small client. I knew from the briefing that he had very strange ideas. I made a series of 10 different approaches - I normally present only one - but this time I had a different strategy.

The client liked one version very much. "Very beautiful."

Without even looking at it I said: "That's the worst of them all."

He was destabilized.

"What about this one?"

"Second worst."

To make a long story short, at the end he wanted to have number ten.

I said "No."

"But why do you do all this?" he said, nearly lamenting.

"In order to train your taste," I said.

Two weeks later, I presented the one and only design I wanted him to have. He did not dare reject it.

6. The Complaint Talk
I love complaints. Most of them happen early in the morning.

You just enter the studio when your secretary comes up to you, pale and slightly shaking: "There is something wrong with project A for client B."

Before I collect all the facts, I call the client. Complaint talks are very important. Just listen to the client. Half of the complaints have got nothing to do with you, but with the fact that the poor chap has had one of those horrible arguments with his wife the evening before. Or his boss had a bad night.

Listen for 20 minutes to the screaming and shouting at the other end and when you get the impression that he has said what he needs to say, be very short, precise and gracious: "Sir, I'll take care of it."

Don't say, "I'm sorry for the mistake," or, defend yourself, or, even worse, tell the client that he is wrong. Check the complaint and make a report. Immediately. If it was someone else's fault, recommend reducing the bill. If it was only a bad night, the client will turn down this recommendation, having calmed down after 20 minutes of screaming. If it was a real mistake, he is very pleased that he is working together with you, such an efficient and loyal partner.

If it turns out to be a mistake provoked by the client, I send him a bill for "having called the fire brigade in false alarm." This is a good way to keep him from wasting my time again.

If it turns out to be our mistake, I apologize and ask for the bills to repair the mistake. Do this with a very heroic voice, "Sir, it turned out to be our mistake. I apologize. There is no excuse. Something like this should not happen. Please send me all related bills. They will be paid without argument."

I hate spending money on mistakes. But I always like the client's reaction. Clients love partners who admit their own mistakes. No arguments. No saying, "Yes, I made the mistake, but it was your fault."

But sometimes it's hard to distinguish others' mistakes from your own.

God, give me the patience to bear what I have to bear, the power to change what must be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Let's get back to the subject: how to talk to a client.

Working in marketing, I've had the pleasure of taking several sales-training courses, and I have to say, it helps. I gave you an extract of what I think is essential. It's psychology, and concentrating on what's important at the moment.

Good old Zen, the Buddhist, once was asked why he was so efficient and at the same time so quiet and strong. He said, "When I sit, I sit. When I stand up, I stand up. When I walk, I walk. When I arrive, I arrive."

"But Master, that's exactly what we do."

"No," he replied. "When You sit, you get up, when you get up, you walk, and when you walk, you arrive."

I confess, sometimes I make all the mistakes I just told you not to do.

I talk about design when I should talk about money.

I talk about feelings when I should talk about business.

I answer instead of asking.

I talk about myself, when I should listen to the other.

That's when I lose.

I want you to win, and I hope I did not waste your precious time.

Thanks for listening.

About this article
This article, submitted by German designer Michael Hardt,  is based on a presentation he made at the 1997 Icograda Congress in Punta del Este, Uruguay. It has previously appeared in "Fresh," the Bulletin of Design South Africa, and in Australia on the AGDA website. It is featured here with his permission. Michael Hardt is a past Vice President of Icograda. © 1997, Michael Hardt.