Four Strategies for Improved Client-Designer Relationships

Most designers offer their services through short-term projects, which means that the client-designer relationship is often temporary. What are the other types of designer-client relationships and how are they best managed?

The relationship quadrants

Two aspects are important when characterizing client-designer relationships:

1) The scope of the service

2) The role of the designer in the client’s process

The scope of the service can be either a project or an ongoing process. In both cases, the role of the designer can be either assistive or participative. In order to compare the two types of scope and the two alternative roles, we can visualize a matrix with four relationship types (see diagram): a) Project Supplier, b) Outsourced Process Provider, c) Consultant, and d) Strategic Partner.


Each type has different goals, opportunities, risks, and competitive strategies associated with it. Here is a short characterization of the four relationship types:

A) An assistive role in a project: The Project Supplier

  • Driver: Client’s need to get a solution to a single, well defined problem.
  • Duration: Short-term agreements.
  • Designer’s goal: To be awarded the supplier’s contract.
  • Competitive factors: Price or service performance.
  • Critical success factor: Price-quality ratio.
  • Designer should know: Decision-makers and their criteria for providers; customers’ needs; ways to improve your own productivity

A project can be the start of a successful designer-client relationship. However, many clients feel that they have to tender each project, which makes this kind of relationship potentially transitory.

B) An assistive role in an ongoing process: The Outsourced Process Provider

  • Driver: Client’s determination to focus on core business.
  • Duration: Long-term, ongoing service.
  • Designer’s goal: To allow the client to focus on their core business.
  • Competitive factors: Provision of cost-effective services.
  • Critical success factor: Integration into the client’s processes.

Designer should know: The right service scope and the client’s own cost for providing the same service level.
It is naturally good business practice for a client to focus on their core business. Therefore, many companies want to outsource processes that they consider complementary. This provides a design company with the opportunity to build a long-lasting relationship with the client. Clients are very cost-conscious in outsourcing deals, so the designer must be able to provide a high-quality service cost-effectively.

C) A participative role in a project: The Consultant

  • Driver: A strategically important issue that requires a solution.
  • Duration: An ongoing relationship with recurrent projects.
  • Designer’s goal: To create and maintain a trusted relationship.
  • Competitive factors: Strategic thinking; understanding the client-s business.
  • Critical success factor: Ability to improve the client’s competitive position.
  • Designer should know: The client’s strategy.

The difference between a type-A relationship and a Type-C one is that, in the latter, the designer contributes more directly to the competitiveness of the client. The designer can be, for example, taking part in a new product or process design that improves the client’s core business. A designer is a trusted advisor, even though the relationship is formed around projects.

D) A participative role in a process: The Strategic Partner

  • Driver: New business value that can be derived from working together.
  • Duration: Long-term relationships.
  • Designer’s goal: Shared business goals with the client.
  • Competitive factors: Ability to provide unique value to the client.
  • Critical success factor: Partnership-management competence.
  • Designer should know: Strategic fit with the clients is key; risks related to working together.

This relationship type is the most mature and the most demanding. It is similar to a joint venture, where the client and designer share a vision and a strategy. They also share the business risk to a certain extent. David Lewis certainly had a strategic relationship with Bang & Olufsen. The work of Lewis’s company played a crucial role in B&O’s success.

Which relationships to pursue?

All of the four designer-client relationship types have their pros and cons. Some designers are perfectly happy taking on projects that have a limited life span. Some strive to build long-term relationships. Whichever your strategy, it’s advisable not to rely on one single relationship model. By developing a range of models, your company increases its chances of success in a business world where uncertainty has become the norm.