hypergene / media solutions

The Art of Selling Visual Ideas
by Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis
March, 2002

One of the most frustrating aspects of being a designer is having a good design — one that you know is really good — and you can't get the client to buy into it. When this happens, designers blame the client for their stupidity and poor taste. Instead, designers should examine the technique of how the design was sold.

Whether it's a full-scale redesign of a major web site or some brochure-ware for the local workout club, selling a visual idea (a.k.a. "the pitch") is one of the most difficult hurdles for a designer to overcome. This is largely because designers typically place a higher value on aesthetics instead of reason. But when a design is pitched in purely aesthetic terms, it's too vulnerable to uninformed criticism and personal preference. If the client says "I don't like it," you could be sunk.

To successfully sell a visual concept to a client, a designer must use a strategy that turns a subjective argument into an objective one. We've found that the following objective arguments will greatly increase your chances of getting a client to say "yes":

Define the concept.
Prepare for your pitch by writing a design statement — a clear, understandable definition of how your design helps to solve business goals and how it provides a rewarding experience for the customer. Then write an outline of how key design decisions support this statement. Doing this will not only make your pitch more objective, but it also helps you understand the client's perspective. It also presents the design as "a solution to the problem," rather than one of personal taste.

Be ready to answer "Why?"
Before the pitch, prepare an explanation for every aesthetic choice of the design — typeface, color, grid, photograph, illustration, etc. — in rational, not emotional, terms. For example, if you are using the font Verdana in a design, you have to give reasons other than "I just like it." If you use this kind of rationale, then you open the door for a client to use this as well, "I don't like it."

However, it would be hard to argue against Verdana with this type of explanation: "This font was designed by renowned type designer Matthew Carter for Microsoft specifically for optimum screen readability. It has extra space between characters so they don't touch. The bolds are strong enough so that you can always tell the difference between bold and roman, yet the bold characters never fill-in..." You may not need to provide this depth of reasoning for every choice, but if the question arises during a pitch, you will have this as ammunition.

Providing smart supporting information for a design will increase your credibility and authority in the client's eye. It also educates the client, who might otherwise evaluate the design from a purely surface perspective.

Use smart comparisons.
Few designs are entirely original. Before your design pitch, identify successful design solutions similar to yours. Use them to help give your decisions and methods credibility. You might consider choosing examples that the client particularly admires. This will reinforce to the client that their taste has approval, and likewise reflect a positive light on your design.

Try, try again.
If your client doesn't "get it" after the first meeting, don't give up. Listen to the client's criticism of the design, and ask for an opportunity to present a revision. Build a track record of compelling ideas that are substantiated with objective arguments. A history of good thinking can only build a client's confidence and trust in you.

Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis of Hypergene.net, specialize in media product development and presentation design. They write and speak frequently on information & graphic design, creative development and the design process.

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