Mike Monteiro on “You’re My Favorite Client”

“You’re My Favorite Client” by Mike Monteiro

Designer Mike Monteiro, co-founder of Mule Design and owner of a Twitter account, has just written his second book: “You’re My Favorite Client.” It’s out tomorrow from A Book Apart, but unlike the many other design- and development-centric titles from that publisher, this book’s primary audience isn’t designers, but clients. Monteiro has written a how-to guide for design buyers on how to work with designers, how to get the best work out of designers, and how to have a mutually beneficial relationship with designers. Monteiro answered a few questions about the book for me over email.

This book has a very unorthodox tone—the second line is an expletive! Why did you take this tack?

It’s not an unorthodox tone for me. I write like I talk. And I’ve generally always had better results being myself when I write and when I speak and when I deal with clients. Obviously, I read the room and know how much to pull back. I wouldn’t curse in front of your mom, for instance.

But let’s be honest. Having a designer hand you a book about “how to be a client” is a loaded interaction. It could totally blow up in your face. And that’s why the book is titled what it is. The title is meant to get past that awkward interaction. It’s a happy title. Then I need to get you to read the thing. 87% of design books go unread. (Not yours, Khoi. I promise.) So I needed to engage people from the start. And no one expects a design book to be written by a sailor. If I can get them to read the first paragraph they’ll read the whole book.

Also, be fair. The third line is a compliment. I think it’s obvious from the onset that I’m on the client’s side.

Have you always been “on the client’s side”? That’s not the default mindset of most designers, at least starting out.

At the risk of gross generalization, I think designers typically spend the first ten years of their career hoping nobody finds out they’re an impostor, the next ten years thinking they’re hot shit, and the decade after developing empathy for the people they work for.

The beginning of my career was spent in fear. Just making sure people believed I could do the job. And freaked out they’d discover I actually couldn’t. It’s really hard to be on somebody else’s side when you’re trying to protect your own skin.

To be on the clients’ side you need to be comfortable enough in your own skin to realize you actually know a few things, and comfortable enough to admit the things you don’t know (which will always be the longer list).

I think one of the turning points is to realize that clients were just as nervous as I was. The don’t do this design stuff every day. And they hire us to guide them through it and to make decisions for them. And our role is to help them achieve a goal.

How do you minimize a client’s nervousness, especially if you’re still not completely comfortable in your own skin?

Oh, you can’t. You have to get comfortable with yourself and with your role before you can handle anybody else’s nerves.

Here’s the thing: these people hired you because they believed you could solve their problem. So they believe in you. And it’s your job as a designer to reaffirm that decision every time you’re in front of them. Being comfortable in your own skin is part of the job. Because if you’re not, you’re letting your clients down. Confidence is crucial to the job, and you’re being paid to be confident.

I’ve met a lot of designers for whom that lack of confidence is almost an affectation. And it’s stupid. If I’m a client, why would I write a US$100,000 check to someone who doesn’t act like they deserve it? When I write that check I want to know I’m writing it to someone who looks like they know what they’re doing.

Is that something that you’ve intuited from working with clients for many years, or did you interview some of them as primary research for the book?

Think of it this way. Remember back in the day before smart phones and GPS when, if you got lost and didn’t have a map, you actually had to pull over and ask for directions? Who are you more likely to trust? The person who immediately points down the road and says “Three blocks that way, then make a left” or the one who stares at the sky and says “Ummmmm, let’s see…” That guy may eventually give you the exact same directions, but that initial ummmmm makes you hesitate. And if you’re a designer each ummmmmm that comes out of your mouth can cost you $10k in revenue.

I’ve been doing the primary research for this book for 20 years. I deal with clients every day and I see what works and doesn’t work and I’ve screwed up more times than I’d like to think about. But every lesson in that book is field tested. This book has zero percent theory in it. It was written on a factory floor.

I think what I meant to ask was whether you talked to any of your clients about this book as you were working on it, and if you learned anything new in that process? Or if any of them read the final draft and had surprising feedback.

Yeah. I interviewed a few clients when I was doing research for the book. I asked them what it was like searching for a designer and working with a designer. I asked them what information they wish they’d had. The most surprising thing was the stuff we take most for granted, the day to day. When we talk about the design process we tend to get a little up in the trees about it. We talk goals, outcomes, the importance of collaboration. And that stuff is critical. But the clients I talked to also wanted to know about who visits who, protocol around who to send email to, what a presentation looks like.

It’s like when you’re looking for a hotel on Trip Advisor. All the marketing copy in the world about luxury and comfort can’t beat a photo of the toilet. You wanna know the toilet is up to spec.

And yes, I had those same clients review an early draft of the book. Their feedback wasn’t surprising so much as they suddenly came up with more they wanted to read. I honestly, couldn’t have written this without their input. I wanted to make sure I was writing a book for clients, and not designers. (Not that designers won’t get something out of it. They will.) But it needs to answer questions clients have.

It’s actually surprising that the idea of writing a design book for clients is something new, but it really is. I can imagine similar books for engineers, for product managers, for editors. Is it too much to infer that your point of you view is that maybe we’ve had enough design books written for designers, and we need to start writing about design for new audiences?

Christ no. We need to do the work, not write about it. Which is obviously ironic because here I am pimping a book. But the reason I wrote the first book was because I was annoyed it didn’t exist. There was nothing out there about how to do the job in a professional setting and design schools do a pathetic job of teaching that. If they do it at all. And I was tired of hiring all of these people who’d paid a ton of money to get a design education and they had no idea how to actually set up and maintain a professional practice. Design education is terrible.

I wrote “You’re My Favorite Client” when I found out that designers were giving Design Is a Job to their clients. Which is a terrible idea. They were passing the responsibility on to the people who were paying them. So I wrote the book they could actually hand to clients. The books work together. One for each side of the relationship. Crazy that no one’s written a book for clients.

I’m all for writing about design for new audiences, but if we’re gonna educate anybody about design we should start with designers.

So you mentioned above that designers will still get something out of this book—what exactly?

They’ll know what clients expect from them.

I love designers with all my heart. And everything I do is geared towards getting them to be better at their chosen career. And to understand the power of what we do. Design fucking rocks. We take shit that isn’t working as well as it could be, or that people are having trouble with, and we figure out how to make it better. That’s a pretty awesome job.

And we do this job for hire. The people with the problems hire the people who can solve the problems. And I’m trying to shine a little light on that exchange. So everybody works together better, gets the most out of it, and solves as many problems as they can. Because they’re piling up.

“You’re My Favorite Client” is available starting tomorrow from A Book Apart.