The metaphor of a client meeting as a dinner party is a framework I’ve been using to think of a routine design studio activity through a new lens and perhaps place greater importance on the role of the host or hostess in setting the tone for these events.
An incessant BusyCal reminder doesn’t so much invite you but rather mercilessly harass you with ominous countdown tones until you resign yourself to attend the agreed-upon time and place. It is not a pleasant way to make introductions, and you would never invite a neighbor to your house in this manner. Perhaps wooing clients a little more at this initial juncture would set a different tone for an anticipated meeting. All those gorgeous invitations we make with layers of vellum and embossing (often wasted on unappreciative friends’ wedding invitations) would certainly set a client up for different expectations of spending time together. Unrealistic? Yes. Evocative? Also yes.
During my internship at Pentagram, I was fortunate to sit in on a meeting where an entire buffet of logos was rolled out for twelve hungry decision-makers. None of them were the eventual recommended marks but decoys to get serif vs. sans serif and other minor details out of the way. The ‘having to please an entire board of people’ scenario was managed through elegant hosting and flawless execution. Colored pens were laid out, similar to having the appropriate salad fork nestled nearby the place setting. The board circled the ones they had an immediate affinity for and wrestled out their demons amongst one another, rather than tearing apart the designs.
How the “design meal” is prepared and presented is obviously one of the most important parts of the entire process. Do you overwhelm them with twenty courses, so they lean on you for expertise, or only offer one entrée and hope they are blown away by your gastronomic prowess? This decision is the responsibility of a good host who knows that how the presentation unfolds is as important as what is presented.
The Seating Chart
If possible, especially at the beginning of larger initiatives, involve yourself in the process of architecting who the decision-making tier will be comprised of. The initial guest list should include these decision makers and exclude the ones who will significantly disrupt well-laid plans. Understanding the different psychologies of client team members and their relationships with one another is also a key component of successful groupings. Then, you can decide how you fit into the equation. Do you seat yourself at the head of the table as if to carve the Thanksgiving turkey, or do you show you’re a team player and sit in the middle?
Similar to accommodating the vegan in the group or the one who’s allergic to dairy, we accommodate the one who doesn’t like purple, or the one who doesn’t want to use the word welcome or other such friendly greetings in a welcome kit. If we prepare a special menu ahead of time, including and embracing these anomalies because we asked the right questions up front, we can exude thoughtfulness and carry the meeting with grace and ease. Clients relax when you seem confident and relaxed as well, similar to hosting a cocktail party. If you’re always worried about the playlist or who is not using coasters, guests won’t relax and trust you to carry them through the experience.
Reality quickly settles in after the guests trickle out, and the piles of dirty dishes glare back at us from the sink. Similarly, the tasks that we wrote down as our “actionable take-aways” stack up and propel us toward the next meeting milestone. I’ve realized it’s the guests who volunteer to help tidy up a little before they go that are the real compatriots, in it with you for the long haul. Those are the kinds of guests (clients) I prefer to have. Then, when it’s their turn to host, they’ll know we’ll bring the same level of respect into their conference rooms.
**All illustrations by the author.
Jeshurun Webb is a graphic designer, illustrator and occasional design educator currently working in Boston and New York. She can be found furiously brainstorming bold visual strategies for clients ranging from large cultural institutions to small non-profits. She has been fortunate to work for Pentagram and Willoughby Design Group among other great studios. She received an MFA in graphic design from RISD in 2010. You can follow her on Twitter @JeshurunDesigns.