How to Read a Client's Mind


When I was a teenager, I wanted to become so many things: A coffee shop owner, a psychologist, a business owner, an artist... I explored writing, photography, sociology, and accounting. In the end, I decided to become all of those things at once: a graphic designer.

Despite design being a popular field, graphic design is reportedly one of the lowest fulfilling careers. I know from experience that it can be safely summed up in one word: Clients.

We have entire sites ranting about clients from hell itself. While that site is always quite reassuring for me because I have never had that bad of experiences, I could not help but wonder why is it so bad?

A company will come to you with an idea, from anywhere of “I have no idea what colors I like” to “please only use this font at this size and kerning.” Combine the vision with their personality, company’s goals, and personal taste (or worse yet, a committee’s approval), you can see why graphic design can be one of the most challenging, frustrating creative careers in the workforce.

And yet, it can be the most fulfilling.

The one thing I pride myself on is being able to read our clients’ minds. When I’m on my game, I can get an entire design approved after one, well-thought through comp. It saves our company money, the project time, and makes the client extremely happy.

But how do I do it?

It’s hard to put into words, but these are a few practices I do to read the client’s ever allusive mind regarding their web design.

Collect a list of websites the client loves and hates, and why.

We are a technologically savvy world now. Everyone has a favorite website. Everyone has stumbled across a page that has made them want to weep with frustration.

You would be surprised by what sites you will get from people when you ask for their favorites. At the very least, you can gather an idea of the style they prefer, the colors they lean towards, and an organizational structure they find pleasing.

Have them use as many buzz words as you can, then refine it.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard the term “clean, simple, and professional,” I’d have many, many nickels.

Most people do not think in terms of images, but words. It’s your job to turn those words into pretty pictures on a screen. So when you sit down for an design meeting, ask them to use all the words they feel are appropriate for their company and their vision. Usually this step will be very easy for them.

Once they have proudly supplied you with all their key words, really dig into the ones that show up the most and try to put it into a more visual place, preferably with examples.

“You said you wanted the site to look classic. Do you mean more contemporary like such and such website, or old fashioned, with serif fonts?”

It will take some education to get them to see things the way you see it, but it brings you both closer to a common understanding of the vision.

Get them to get emotional about the site.

For most clients, this site is very important to them. They are spending a lot of time, money, and thinking towards this thing that is going to represent the company they have poured their lives into. Chances are they will feel emotional about the entire project.

Try to tap into their feelings and feel the same way about the site. See it how they see it. Imagine the frustrations, struggles, and successes they have had to get to this point of hiring you.

Don’t be afraid to ask the ugly questions.

My favorite question is, “When people come to your site, how do you want them to feel? What experience do you want them to have?” If you have stupid or very specific questions, ask them sooner rather than later. Sometimes very specific, challenging questions are the best way to refine an idea in your head.

Listen. Really listen.

Whatever they say, try to read between the lines. Watch their expressions when they describe certain aspects about their vision. I always sketch and take notes while talking to clients, so by the end of the meeting, I have a fresh concept that I feel fits most of their needs.

Put it all in a mental box, then shelve it.

I know that seems contrary to all the tips listed above, but at the end of the day, you are the designer and you need the freedom to creative something amazing. Gather all that knowledge from before, the reference sites, the color choices, the keywords, emotions, experiences, etc, and store it into a compact space in your brain. Then get whatever tools you use to help you design, be it pencils, sharpies, or Photoshop, turn on some music (I try to match the emotion they want to convey), and just go for it.

It’s important that with all these steps to not get caught up on one certain thing. If a certain buzz word is making you feel stuck, turn that word into something else. If the required color choices aren’t what you want them to be, like say, black and orange, find a way to make that striking, like adding a bright blue.

There is always some way to follow and break the rules at the same time to create something completely unique, and hopefully, create exactly what the client had in their mind.

Then again, sometimes clients just don’t have taste or know what they want. In which case, best of luck!

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