Lisbon twilight

If I was a client …

Had an interesting experience these last few weeks. I crossed the line. I researched designer’s websites from the point of view of a client that knows nothing apart from what I read. You see we’re in Portugal and we want to identify designers/studios we’d like to meet and might be interested to meet us. Our research is all web based.

It’s been an eye-opener… here’s what I think.

What designers want.

I think most designers want clients to choose to work with them, rather than get three quotes and make a choice based on price.

I think designers want clients to understand why they should work with them and them alone – what ‘special skill’ they possess that others don’t.

And I think the most efficient and effective way to disseminate what makes them better than others is with a website.

What clients want.

I know that clients want to find the ‘perfect’ designer(s) who will take time to understand their business. But I don’t think they find the search easy.

I think finding a designer is a bit like finding a new hairdresser. There is great risk involved. No-one changes suppliers on a whim. It’s a decision best made by personal referral. But if you’re new to the place/country (like we are) research is done by pressing your nose against the glass and peering into a shop window trying to guess the vibe of the place.

Prospective clients study your shop window (aka website) to find your ‘onlyness’ to see if it fits their needs.

What I found.

I found that a majority of designers use exactly the same words to describe their studio and their work. A ‘quick ‘n dirty’ audit of designer’s websites tallied a total of around 20 words/phrases used consistently.

It is a problem. I am unsure how we expect a client to identify what we do different from others if we all share the same vocabulary. (And sometimes the same work.)

Here’s my top three offenders:


The worst by far. What are you trying to say? That you are small? Well 85% of Australian (and it’s not too differently globally) employ less than three designers, so there’s no point of difference there.

Perhaps you are trying to hide that you are a small team by using a different word? Well I don’t think a small studio is a negative: I’ve written before why I think small studios kick well above their weight. Greg and I rethought the Mackay Branson design business model after meeting designers in New York and San Francisco. Over six months we changed from having a fulltime team of 12 to just three: Greg, myself and a design manager.

I described our move as transitioning from a slow-moving ocean liner to a powerful tugboat. We could hire the best team for the job rather than use ‘the next cab off the rank’; the salaried designer available for the job at that time. We could expand and contract as needed. We were flexible.

But I didn’t say we were boutique.
We were agile and lean.
We were proactive and adaptable.


There are some skills clients should be able to assume designers have, and innovation is one. Creativity is another.

In a world where every word should fight for existence, words like innovative are just padding. They don’t add anything to a client’s understanding of how your studio is better than others. It just says that you can do what you are trained to do.

Are you trying to say that you can see a problem differently?
Approach design from a different perspective?
Will ask the right questions to get to the right solution?


It seems every designer is passionate about design. Funny thing is, a quick ‘vox pop’ of clients tells me most don’t want or need passion from their designer. Passion is an emotion that can wax and wane.

Clients want your undivided attention. They want unfettered interest, they want vitality and energy and they want design to add value to their offering. Passion, not so much.

If I was a client…

I would be confused. I think these three cliches are just the tip of the iceberg. I think we make it hard for clients to differentiate one design studio from another because we all use the same words to describe who we are and what we do.

I think we need to spend more time articulating our difference – focussed on what a client wants to hear.

My suggestion is to do an audit of your competitor’s websites. Identify overused words and even if they are brilliant, acknowledge they are taken, and think of others. If you can’t write, hire someone that can.

Websites should be less about ‘us’ and more about ‘them’. What value we can deliver rather than a description of attributes. Focusing on clients will help define your difference.

A word from our sponsor…

Unashamed plug for our courses here. The activity of drilling down to identify your collective and unique skills is paramount to marketing success. Working out how you differ to others is a great studio exercise and so invaluable it’s embedded in a few of our courses.

You could use a Design Business Model Canvas to find your ‘onlyness’, or do it by writing your design value proposition or even as part of the Business of Design Leadership Program – we offer heaps of alternatives. (Even a thesaurus would be a good start.)

Contact Greg or Carol for more information on how your studio can be perceive differently to others.

Carol Mackay

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Carol’s design expertise is in making the complex simple. Her skill is in packaging complicated content into bite-sized chunks of information to be easily understood and digested. 2018 is a big year for Carol. Thirty-three years after founding Mackay Branson design, she transitioned from client-focused projects to use her skills with the Design Business Council, and The Design Business School.

Carol has just written a new program for the The Design Business School. The Design Studio Management Program is aimed at designers, design graduates and existing design studio managers to help them develop skills to fast track their career path. Contact Carol for more information.

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