By Kevin Elliott
If I’ve learned one thing in my years in creative work, it’s that most humans cannot visualize.
When describing a project or concept, we “creatives” see it fully formed in our minds (btw, I think all humans are creative in their way. I just don’t know a better term for those of us who can see things in our heads). We can adjust the colors, move elements around, change typefaces, all through imagination.
Our failure is we think others, including our clients, can do the same. In my experience, most can’t, or at least struggle to.
Those Dreaded Words
This misunderstanding causes massive frustration on both sides of the client/creative relationship, especially when we hear the most dreaded words in all of creative life:
“I’ll know it when I see it.”
When we hear those words, we know we are in for endless versions and requests for more, more, more options to consider.
It’s Not Them, It’s You
This isn’t just frustrating creatively. It leads to practical business issues like time and budget overruns.
It also leads to a lot of client blaming. That is unfair. It is not their fault their brain doesn’t work like yours. In fact, your special ability is why they hired you.
This is on you. It is your responsibility, as the one they are paying, to control the situation and help them visualize the project without falling down the rabbit hole of “I’ll know it when I see it.”
It can be done.
Start at the Beginning
We artsy types don’t generally like repeatable processes and hard conversations. We want to create! And in our hurry to make magic, we fail to set expectations with our clients and lay out the process by which you will bring their project to life.
The moment you are hired (sometimes before), you should lay out your delivery and review process. Tell the client exactly what she will see at each point. Put it in writing.
If you don’t do this right away, you are asking for “I’ll know it when I see it.” That’s because, in your client’s mind, she is hiring you to deliver a “thing.” She has the end result in mind and isn’t thinking about how we get there, just when and how much. If you don’t explain the process clearly, it is very easy for her to assume that you will show her draft “things” until she sees the one she wants.
CLEARLY Define the Review Process
I’ll illustrate with a story.
On one of my early video producer projects, our contract said that we would deliver a draft video withing four weeks of the shoot. So far, so good.
The contract also said that the client would provide comments on the draft. We would incorporate and deliver the final video four weeks from the date we delivered the draft.
Do you see the problem?
We provided specific milestones for when we would deliver drafts, but not how long the client had to make comments. We promised we would deliver a final video four weeks from the time we delivered the draft. And that works great, if the client turns the comments around in one week. We’d have three weeks to make the changes and deliver on time.
But what if the client took three of our four weeks to give us comments?
Uh oh. We were on the hook for the four-week timeline.
There was another flaw in that contract. We did not define how many rounds of edits we would do in that four-week period. That meant the client could show ask for multiple rounds of edits. Classic “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Gently Put Reviews in Their Court
We changed future contracts to read that we would deliver a final video four weeks after receive final comments from the client. That way, if she wanted to take six weeks to consider the draft, she could do so without putting us in peril (except maybe of getting paid). If she wanted the video sooner, she could get us comments sooner. We also limited the number of reviews (see below).
By the way, this was not our client’s fault, it was ours. It is on you to guide your client through the process that will ultimately benefit her and deliver a superior product.
This seems common sense. I mean, you can’t review forever, can you?! Don’t bet on it.
Here’s how it goes. You deliver a draft to your client. She reviews it and sends initial comments. You incorporate and send another draft, thinking you are done. Nope. She takes the latest draft and shows it to two more people, who offer comments. She sends you those comments (which may even contradict her first ones), you incorporate and send back, think you are done.
You’ll then get an email: “Hey, Bill was out of town when we all reviewed this. I need to get his comments and I’ll send to you to incorporate.”
And on and on.
Here’s how you handle it: In your early conversations with your client about the project, explain that you will do _____ rounds of edits (It’s up to you. We generally do two) and no more. That does not mean that anyone and everyone your client wants to review, can. It does mean, however, that they all need review and comment before she sends the first draft back to you.
It is on her to gather all comments, consolidate and organize them, and resolve any conflicting comments before the next round of edits begin. This solves the drip, drip, drip, of multiple comments and rounds of edits.
Deliver Bite-Sized Visuals
You cannot expect your client to wait till you deliver a full draft without any visuals. They won’t buy the argument, “Trust me, I have this all my head,” nor should they.
Your have give them something to react to. There are two ways to do this.
I LOVE storyboards. One, they look cool. Two, they are cheap and easy to change. Three, they let your client do a little “I’ll know it when I see it” without costing you too much time and money.
Storyboards can be simple or complex, depending on your ability. We’re lucky at Wewa Films. Our co-founder and lead cinematographer Courtney is also an exception illustrator. Here are a couple examples from a :30 PSA we did on school attendance.
Cool, right? Again, storyboards can be pencil sketches, screen shots, mock ups in Photoshop, whatever. Give your client enough visual to get buy in on your idea before plunging in. You, and your client, will be happier in the end.
Also, here’s the final PSA from those storyboards, if you’re interested.
This is mostly for video projects, of course. However, I could see using video to show the possibilities of graphic design projects and even websites. We’re creative, right?
An example. We are currently working on a documentary about several commercial beekeeping families in a little town called Wewahitchka (aka “Wewa,” we named our company after it).
Before going full-on into production, we shot some “test clips” and strung them together with cool music. It didn’t cost much, and provides enough visual to convey the “mood” of the piece.
We do this for all our projects and it works like a charm. It lets the client see something and respond to it with minimal effort and editing on our part. It also lets her know we are making progress.
You Can Do This
As creatives, we struggle to incorporate rigor into our projects. But you have to if you want to stay in business. And in the end, your client will be happier too.
We all need predictability and a clear path forward. Provide it on every project for your, and your client’s, sake.
P.S. – Here are some related articles.