Selling Jeffrey Zeldman on Selling

Jeffrey Zeldman for AIGA NY Small TalksHere I was thinking how clever I am. I came up with this idea to conduct a brief interview with Mr. Jeffrey Zeldman to build up a little advance buzz for his Small Talks appearance next Tue 17 Oct for AIGA New York.

Since the Small Talks series is a forum for design leaders to discuss subjects close to their hearts (and not necessarily expansive career overviews) in relatively intimate surroundings (only about a hundred seats are available for each event), I figured it would be a good opportunity for Jeffrey to preview some of the things he’d be talking about, sort of whet everyone’s appetites. And, wanting to make this event as much of a success as it can be, I also thought it would be a great way to help sell some tickets, too.

I don’t know what I was thinking, because Jeffrey Zeldman, clearly, needs no additional salesmanship. Before I even had the opportunity to publish the interview I’m running here today, and just one business day after the event’s promotional poster even went out in the mail to AIGA members, the event has sold out. All the seats are filled. I should’ve known better.

Who Goes to These Things?

This is terrific news, of course. Part of what I’ve been trying to do with the New York chapter of AIGA is really push the idea that there is, in fact, a strong commonality between the online and offline design professions, where sometimes there appears not to be.

I’m especially curious to find out who will be showing up for next Tuesday’s talk, if the audience will be primarily print or Web designers or some combination of both. In fact, I’m so curious about this that we’ll be doing a post-event survey for the attendees.

The day after the event (hopefully), we’ll be polling attendees to learn more about you and your thoughts on Jeffrey’s Small Talk. The best part is that one randomly selected poll respondent will receive a prize from AIGA — right now it looks like it’s going to be a free season pass for all four of our Spring 2007 Small Talks series. There may be more prizes, too, but that alone is a pretty good one that would cost set you back as much as US$90.

At any rate, none of this changes the fact that I actually conducted an interview with Jeffrey over email. Whether you were lucky enough to book a ticket for Tuesday or not, it’s still an interesting peek into what he’s got on his mind. So, without further ado…

Three Questions for Jeffrey Zeldman

Khoi Vinh

Can you give a brief preview of what your talk is about?

Jeffrey Zeldman

The name of this talk is “Selling Design.“

All the design talent, experience, and expertise in the world can’t advance your career if your client buys the wrong design… or waters down the right one.

Persuading decision makers to buy good design is essential. But it’s rarely taught in school, and not every design organization has a culture that values it. As a result, you can toil in this field for a long time without knowing how to sell your work.

Fortunately,with a good process, a few tricks, and the same skills and insights you bring to bear on your other relationships, you can learn to identify the kind of client who buys good design, and work with them both before and after the design phase to protect your work and their image.


One of the things I found interesting about this topic when you first described it to me was that it doesn’t sound like something that’s particular to designing for the Web, or particular to Web standards, which are two subjects that you’re well known for. Would it be right to say that the thoughts you’ll present are applicable across the spectrum of graphic design?


Most of it applies across the board to any client services discipline. A bit is specific to Web design, because Web design encourages research and creative work — such as user research, recommendations document creation, and wireframing — in advance of what we traditionally think of as design. And that time (and those preliminary phases of work) can be used to build a relationship weeks before you show the client so much as a color strip.

One of the techniques I’ll be talking about is building a relationship before you show work to the client. Obviously, Web design-specific I.A. tasks like the ones I just mentioned help you do exactly that. But those tasks map roughly to work print designers undertake before showing a client “design,” so the ideas will work for anyone even when the specifics differ.


Thanks in part to the Internet, designers are working remotely more than ever before, often without meeting their clients face to face. And often economics force clients to hire an ‘expensive’ designer just once, and then to turn to in-house teams or cheaper design consultancies for follow-on work. Would you agree that, as a profession, we’re getting worse at building these relationships? Or is there reason to believe that we’re getting savvier about it?


I don’t know what we’re doing as a profession. As a planet, we don’t seem to be doing that well. At my agency we rarely cultivate long-term relationships. This is partly down to economics, as you explain in your question. (It’s not feasible to put my team on a client’s permanent payroll.) But it’s also the nature of the work we do. We solve really big problems and then we move on. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for anyone concerned. I think it’s a good thing.

People bring us in because they have a product with tremendous potential, but nobody understands how it works. Or because they have a wonderful service, but first- and even second- and third-time site visitors have no clue that the service even exists. Or because even though they spent a lot of money on their site five years ago, it’s unusable and says all the wrong things about their brand. There are a lot of reasons people hire us but the common denominator is, they hire us because they need a lot of help.

Once the big problems are solved, it makes sense to have their in-house people or a lower-profile (ahem, cheaper) agency take over. The team that takes over from us will be dedicated to the company on a day-to-day basis. They will know more about all the details of that company than we ever did. They will not be a “B” team compared to us; they will be an “A” team that does a different job from the job we do.

The company that takes over for us will be interested in doing the day-to-day things that must be done. We wouldn’t be interested in doing those things. Not because we’re better or special, but simply because it’s not what we do (and it’s not our bliss).

Everybody wins. The client will continue to get the best care, from people whose focus is on doing maintenance and small changes.

So I don’t see this as an economic tragedy or a sign that, as designers, we’re losing the ability to hang onto our clients. Not at all.

It’s more like this:

In the old days the high profile designer came up with the logo, and “retained” the client by having a bunch of juniors handle the daily work for months on end. Then if something major needed to be done, the high profile designer reappeared in a puff of smoke.

The client was paying for a retainer to the high profile agency but only getting the high profile designer’s attention when the occasion warranted.

Well, it’s the same thing now, except companies are smaller. I don’t need to “hold” a client with juniors (and clients don’t need to pay me for that privilege).

I think things are just evolving to more of a new-Hollywood collaborative model. You bring in a special effects company when you need them, a composer when you need him or her… but you don’t keep a composer on staff.

We have really good relationships with our clients when we’re working for them. And in a year or two some of them will ask us back… when they have another big problem to solve. And that’s the way we like it.

  1. I saw Mr. Zeldman do this talk (or something very similar) at An Event Apart here in Seattle a few weeks back and it was really great. I know I learned a lot and left with lots to think about and some good practical tips as well. Highly recommended.

  2. Looking forward to the talk on Tuesday night. I used to be 50% 50% between screen to print, but now it’s more like 98% screen, 2% print and I’m happy with the ratio. Even if I was doing more print work I’d be interested in events like this.

  3. Brilliant. The client relationship JZ describes is very close to how we work – the initial big problem solving, followed by hand-off to other agencies or in-house teams – its just I’ve never had it explained in such a clear manner. -penny drops-.

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