The hardest client to client

Designers are their own worst clients. But working for yourself isn’t really about the end result, it’s the experience that matters

So here I am, back at the drawing board once again. Coffee rings and scraps of ideas all over the place. I’m going to pin this one down today, oh yes I am. Thing is, it’s a massive job with wandering objectives and no obvious end-point. The client basically wants me to do everything – branding, stationery, website, marketing – with no budget and no brief. Quite what I get out of it is unclear. The crux of the problem (always satisfying when a problem has a nice firm crux, isn’t it?) is that this handsome bastard taskmaster is little old me. The hardest client to client.

In theory, it shouldn’t be different from any other job. Just sit down and think about what’s needed and write a brief, then address the brief in an utterly sensible and methodical fashion. Simple, right? But no. Methodical becomes perfectionism becomes obsession and indecision and doubt. Frustration.

Time and time again, I realise I’m guilty of all my own client-from-hell pet peeves. My self-imposed deadline falls out the window as best intentions mutate and fragment; decisions get swayed by arbitrary passing fads; and yes, yes I do want to see that logo just a little bit bigger please. No, a bit bigger. Bigger.

Some designers relish designing for themselves, and are happy to live with these designs for years. They write themselves tidy little briefs and then just get on with it. At least, that’s what I’ve heard – I’ve never actually met one of these fabled beings. I bet they have lovely skin and impeccable teeth.

When it comes to personal work, I find committing to an idea is just impossible. With client work, I’ll always reach a point where I’m happy with a solution. But not when that client is me. I get itchy feet and flit from one idea, aesthetic or execution to another in the blink of an eye.

Maybe I’m too close to the problem or something. I’m like a hairdresser trying to cut my own hair, unable to reach around to the fiddly bits at the back (damn you, metaphorical double crown) and making a right old mess of it. Maybe that’s the solution: just get someone else to do it, like hairdressers do? There’s no shame in distancing oneself from the problem and letting someone else have a go, is there? Or is that admitting defeat and accepting my own designerly failings? Bloody hell, when did pride throw itself into the mix?

But no. I don’t want some other designer (or hairdresser for that matter) taking away my fun. You see, the real freedom of designing for myself is that it’s never really about the end product, it’s about the joy of the process. What might look like the flailing of an identity crisis is actually gleeful frolicking. It’s an invaluable opportunity to experiment and learn new processes.

It’s like I’m eight again, dedicating a day to building an elaborate Lego edifice. Come tea-time, my beautiful creation will be smashed to pieces, the creative potential of the bricks restored for the next day. So much work and nothing to show for it but experience.

Most of my self-initiated projects lend themselves to short-run, adaptable and disposable branding. Short-run digital stationery (such as that favourite of restless designfolk, means you never have to have two business cards alike ever again. Get yourself a rubber stamp of your logo, and anything you lay your hands on becomes your letterhead. Patrick Bateman would be sickened by all this.
The most educational and absorbing/time-draining project for many designers is the personal website. That Indexhibit portfolio I agonised over five years ago would still do the job perfectly well today, but I can’t help myself. Rarely does a month go by without some massive overhaul of my site, much to the consternation of the three or four people who regularly visit it. By now, these faithful few have probably worked out that I treat my site as an advanced Etch A Sketch: just pick up the web, give it a shake and start anew. Days of work gleefully, frustratingly wiped away in an instant. Back to the drawing board. Again.

If only I could make money from this never-ending creative-destructive behaviour. Build, smash. Build, smash. Actually, that gives me an idea … maybe I should go back to where it all began … maybe I should give LEGO a call. I bet they have lovely drawing boards.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See and @gray


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