How to Get Started in Design

At the very beginning of a design project, before any boxes have been drawn or pixels have been pushed, there’s the nerve-wracking ritual known as ‘the kick-off.” For larger engagements, clients may set aside as many as four or five full days to sit down with a design team and impart as much knowledge as possible, and it’s up to the design team to make that time worthwhile. To me, this has always been one of the most difficult — and least documented — parts of the design process, because it demands a confluence of skills that you can’t pick up in front of a computer screen. To run a successful kick-off, you have to ask probing questions and carefully parse the answers that come back, taking into account corporate culture and stakeholder agendas. You have to be an assiduous gatherer of information while also a gentle tutor in best practices. And on top of it all, you have to be able to guide conversations and keep things lively, while transitioning issues logically and productively. I’ve done it about two dozen times in my career, and every time I sit down to plan one, it’s almost like starting over from scratch. Really, what makes kick-offs truly difficult is that each and every one is different.

  1. And, on larger engagements, one mustn’t forget about acting as a mediator between various departments’ agendas: Advertising versus Marketing versus Editorial versus Art et al. Or, the CEO’s wife’s influence since she has taken Interior Design classes.

    Smaller companies design meetings that begin with “We want it like [Insert name] but different” are easier, aren’t they.

    Larger companies, smaller companies are all the same but… different.

  2. So where are the tips? I understand the concept now, but how about some learned advice from your experience.

    I only ask because I just recently sat down with a department [client] for a “kick-off” and left feeling a little lost. I still had questions about how to start, what their “feelings” were, etc.

    I just hope you plan on following this entry up with some practical insights.

  3. Trust me, it’s a lot worse if you don’t get a kickoff meeting at all. Usually this happens with clients who are both physically remote and extremely ignorant about the web (this is their first website, generally). Both of these conditions have to obtain—with clients in closer physical proximity (i.e., not half the country away) it’s a lot easier to get a meeting set up, and if they’re remote but understand the process somewhat, they’ll go out of their way to interact with you.

    One thing I’ve found over the years is that the interaction between the client and the designer is the single most important thing in any project. If that goes well, the project will go well; if it goes badly (or worse, doesn’t happen at all—I’ve had clients who simply don’t respond to emails), then the project will be a huge struggle.

  4. Sean S: Yeah, right? I was watching the Yankees v. Red Sox last night, and was distracted enough that I only managed to get out this half a blog post. But I’ll follow up with some more tips. In the meantime, if others have more pointers they want to add here — like Sean Fraser’s excellent point — that would be great.

  5. My two tips. Get a completed “Request for Proposal (RfP)”. And, Be Confident.

    The RfP is the single most important document for me. I submit mine to the company (larger or smaller) before the first interview meeting. Mine is four pages long; I’ve found that four pages will keep phising clients away but it will not overwhelm truly potential clients. If the company is large, I send one to each of the stakeholder department directors. It is important what the participant(s) enter onto the RfP; however, it is – Equally – important what they do not enter. A “completed” RfP allows me to understand what the company believes it wants before the “kick-off” as well as it allows me to understand the personality dynamics of the stakeholders within the company. [Further, it will give me an insight into future problems, e.g., the various departments have different ideas of the scope of the project.] And, during the pitch interview or “kick-off” meeting(s), I will complete the RfP for the client(s).

    My second tip. You are the Expert. I’ve found that the “kick-off” process is divided into thirds: design, mediation and education. By being confident – neither arrogant nor pissy – you will be more able to guide this process. A completed RfP will assist with your confidence level because you have done “discovery” research.

    I may be confident during the “kick-off” process but, afterwards, like The Python’s Gumby, ‘My brain hurts’.

  6. Here’s a third tip.

    Between the Request for Proposal (RfP) and the “kick-off” meeting, they will have been a signed contract. Most contracts state what the work performed and scope of the project will be. I’ve found that by adding “What work will not be performed” is crucial.


    All pages will be constructed with (X)HML and CSS.

    All pages will be dynamically-generated with PHP.

    After the contract is signed by each party, the “Not Retained” inclusion no longer allows for “Well, we thought that you would make all pages dymanic!” during the “kick-off” process.

    You show them the contract and say “We can do that but it is not in the current contract. It is not in the current scope of work. We can either renegotiate the current contract or wait to implement this change under a new contract after the current scope of work has been completed.”

  7. It’s like dating. Every date is different, but every date has commonality. And frankly, most of the same things apply. You have to impress, you have to inspire confidence, you have to make the other person want to spend time with you and trust you. You have to not be a jerk or a dork. You have to be interested in them, not just in love with listening to yourself talk. A client engagement is a relationship, sometimes good — sometimes not so good.

  8. The magic word is “why”. Pushing clients back up the planning ladder away from the details does two big things.

    First, clients too often come to me with solutions that they just want me to implement. I don’t want to know the solutions, I want to know the problems that they think they’re solving. That can both guide my actions when I’m in the trenches and help us avoid the minefield of cliches. “Grungy, distressed text.” -> “Why?” -> “Aiming for youth market.” Aha!

    Second, it forces them to think about things that they probably haven’t. Like audience, like brand extension, like their expectations for success, and most importantly, like who makes the final decisions. “Must be a top-level category.” -> “Why?” -> “Cause Laura says so.” Aha!

    I still have a lot to figure out about the “design process”, but I have learned the power of “why”.

  9. Few things are more important than the RFP. I insist on one from every client and I’ve even developed an “RFP Guidelines” white paper to walk inexperienced clients through the process.

    Putting things in writing helps clients to articulate what they want. And my written response (the Proposal) gives me a jump-start on project development.

    Brian, I have plenty of RFP’s on hand, but if you simply google “RFP” and “request for proposal” you will come up with lots of hits.

  10. dжfi, not sure what your comment has to do with the conversation.

    rich, i would say that the RFP is mainly for digital/web work. i’m a print designer, and i’ve never asked clients for an RFP.

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