We’ve all been there before—creative block hits or a miscommunication happens with your client. All of a sudden, you’ve found yourself in an endless cycle of revisions with a ton of files labeled “FINAL-final5-iswearthisisthelastfinal.ai?” So what went wrong? Well, you’re probably not asking the right questions.
I’m a firm believer in doing more work upfront. The more you put into the research and discovery phase of your freelance graphic design jobs, the easier the design process becomes (and the more wins you’ll have). The discovery phase is the heartbeat of a project and where you’ll find those small gems of information that help your project thrive. This isn’t the time to assume anything about your client or impose your trendy creative ideas. This is the time to ask questions and LISTEN!
I ask my clients a lot of questions but I would say these ten are the most important in my process:
Art by Julia Hanke
1. Describe your company from a 30k foot view
The idea here is to understand the big picture. The answer to this question should be a foundation to start with, allowing you to get a basic understanding of your client’s company and their industry. I typically have them list the services and/or products they provide and also ask about their mission and values.
2. Where do you see yourself and your company in 1, 5, 20 years?
You need to understand where your client is headed and what they hope to achieve. I’m in the business of creating timeless brands, not trendy ones. You need to know if your client has plans to expand or dive into a new market down the road. This also allows you to invest in their vision with them and may create more opportunities to creatively partner together or add more value to the project.
Pro Tip: Speaking of projects, you can help yourself immensely by using software like Bonsai, an all-in-one business management tool for freelancers. Using Bonsai will help you manage your tasks during a discovery phase and give you more time to listen to your clients.
3. What is the biggest challenge you face as a company?
As designers, we are here to solve problems—not just make things look pretty. You need to understand how you can help your client through design and the creative process. It’s important to know the client’s strengths and weaknesses. This also helps them start to open up and allows you to bring some potential solutions to the table. Creating that trust is important and lets them know that you’re on their team; which as a contractor, is everything.
4. Describe your company in 5 single adjectives
This where you start to get a sense of the company’s personality. Are they expressive or serious? Cost-effective or luxurious? I often refer back to these adjectives when I start compiling a mood board.
5. What problem are you solving?
This is the core of your client’s business. You need to understand the problem to know how to solve it. You’ll probably hear the answer to this question in all the other questions but it’s important to ask directly so they can take time to think about it. Clients are in the thick of it and subconsciously know what they are doing day-to-day, but can lose sight of what the actual problem is or even why they are trying to solve it.
Art by Ksu Angeltseva
6. What functional and emotional benefits do you offer your customers?
This starts the conversation about what makes the company unique. It also sheds light on their solutions to the problem they are solving. Are they helping customers save time or be less stressed?
7. Why, How, What?
The most important question here is “Why?” Why do they get out of bed in the morning to do what they do? Why even bother? Here is where you’ll start to find the story that customers want to hear. I often refer to this Ted Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action by Simon Sinek.
It’s important to note that through the entire project I’m always asking, “Why?” It helps and encourages clients to think beyond their personal preferences and to start thinking about their customers. It puts words to thoughts and feelings they might have trouble describing. It’s what I like to call, Brand Therapy™.
8. Who is your target audience?
I never just simply ask this question because most of the time, clients think it’s everyone in the universe. We break it down by category. Is their target audience athletes or more specifically runners? Do they have multiple audiences? Maybe it’s a school that needs to appeal to teachers, parents, and donors. We then create customer personas, simply thinking about one individual. We look at their demographics but more importantly, their behaviors, wants, and needs as it pertains to their business.
You’re creating a brand for their target audience not for the marketing director or CEO of the company. Sometimes their personal design preferences may overlap but not always.
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9. What are your customers saying about you? Good and bad.
If it’s a new start-up you can ask what do you hope customers will say?
This is a great way to start developing their brand’s messaging. Let the customer reviews write the copy for you. Understand their strengths and what people are noticing but also learn what they could improve on. I will usually follow this up with, “What do you wish they said?” That way you can start to look at any potential problems and find solutions.
Clients can have a lot of back-and-forth conversations with you about this type of work, and charging them correctly can be finicky. This is the perfect time to use Bonsai, where you can keep a record of how much time you’re spending in these conversations with their handy time tracker.
10. Who are your competitors? What are their strengths? What are your advantages?
Most ideas aren’t new. This will help you identify what makes their business unique and help them get a leg up on the competition. It will also help you understand more about their industry and what the norms are. Branding is a delicate balance of blending in but standing out.
Art by Ksu Angeltseva
You might have noticed that none of these questions are specific to design or visual style. That’s because if I don’t know the why, how, and what then I might as well throw a rock into a dark room and hope I hit the target. When I read through these answers I can start to make connections in my mind on how the brand should look and feel. If you jump the gun and only ask clients what other logos they like and what their favorite color is you’ll end up creating a brand that might get approved but won’t work in the long-run.
That’s not to say I don’t ask about their style preferences—but we will discuss it in terms of what they think is effective or ineffective (not what they like or don’t like) when it comes to their target audience. We will look at other brands together and discuss mood boards but all through the eyes of their target audience. It’s your job as a designer to solve problems and not just make things look pretty.
Always remember—never assume, always listen, and ask WHY!
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