How clients find designers

This is the second article about our August 2020 ‘What clients want’ survey.

Last week we discussed responses to: How would you best like to be approached by a prospective design supplier? This week a similar, but different question: How did you source your design supplier? There’s a subtle difference — we’re interested to explore the gap between what clients prefer to what really happens.

It’s also interesting because there’s not much existing research into how clients find designers. A google search will uncover a myriad of new business tactics for designers – how to find just the right client to suit your studio. But what happens when the shoe is on the other foot? How do clients source a design supplier?

Anecdotally, we’ve heard many clients struggle to find the right design supplier, but once they do find the perfect match, they do everything they can to maintain the relationship. (It’s much like finding the right hairdresser…)

Clients prefer to find their own designer

70% of clients proactively sourced their current design supplier

This response correlates with our previous article, reporting 75% of clients preferred not to be approached by a designer directly.

  • 24% of clients sourced their current design supplier by reputation. They’d seen their work, and contacted them.
  • Another 22% had worked with their design supplier in a previous position. They retained the relationship when they moved to a current position.
  • 13% met their designer at a networking event, and
  • 11% were referred to their design supplier.

This proves the Steve Blank theory: how can a business best succeed? … by getting out of the building and testing the premise with others. Designers who are more visible: by writing, networking, commenting on social media (not just liking), are more likely to succeed than those who are less proactive.

How does this compare with how UK clients want to meet designers?

This response does correlate with the UK What Clients think survey produced during 2019-20. Their findings were based on face to face interviews with over 500 clients. They found:

  • 89% of clients believe the best way to source new agencies is through recommendations from colleagues – a trusted source.

But that said, not all our results correlated with the UK survey, or our previous research.

Here’s what we found

When asked: How did you source your design supplier(s)? in a multiple choice question, the results were:

  • 24% of clients chose by reputation, I’d see their work so I contacted them
  • 22% of clients chose I worked with them in a previous position
  • 16% of clients chose they were the incumbent agency when I started the job
  • 13% of clients chose I met them at a networking event
  • 11% if clients chose I was referred to them
  • 7% of clients chose not my choice, they’re on a panel of suppliers
  • 7% of clients chose they opportunistically cold called me.

Almost a quarter of the clients who responded were content to work with the incumbent design supplier. When asked how they sourced their design supplier, 16% said the design supplier were already there when I started the job, and another 4% were ‘on a panel’.

And then the good news, 7% of clients sourced their design supplier via opportunistic cold calls. The designer made a timely and relevant approach just at the right time. So it is possible, you just need to be prepared for a 7 out of 100 success rate.

A great designer is hard to find and impossible to forget. I found one and worked with her at three organisations. I would work with her always.   Anonymous client response

So, what does this mean?

I think there are two takeaways.

  • The first is around design being human centred. It’s human to want to choose for yourself rather than be allocated a service provider by someone else. We’re the same – most designer prefer to proactively choose our clients rather than reactively respond to briefs. And we also want to build a relationship with clients so we can be educated around their offer, and use our skills to add value to their product. So, it should come as no surprise that clients like to choose their designer.
  • So that makes it about visibility. Doing what needs to be done to be in our client’s face. Proactively sharing industry information that might be of interest. Commenting on socials, offering fries with the burgers. Going to client-focused networking events and then continuing the conversation. And the networking doesn’t have to be at work. You could meet a prospective client at a school event, a sporting club or at a dinner party.

It also reinforces the point from last week: designers should ask for referrals from existing clients. 11% of all clients said that’s the way they would like to meet a future design partner. And in the UK, 29% of clients said they would happily introduce their design agency to a colleague but have never been asked – it’s pretty safe to assume the same here.

Referrals are such a simple new business device.

Another reminder we just need to get out there.


Want more?

Here’s three more articles about thinking like a client:

  1. A summary of our 2019 UNseminar – we invited three clients to be grilled by designers.
  2. Why choice is important and Why referrals suck.
  3. Designers, clients and social media – managing expectations.

As always, happy to discuss, just email.

Carol Mackay

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The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at
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