Why trust is so important in the designer/client relationship


By Cheryl Kees Clendenon

Does your client secretly fear creativity?

What? Is that a thing? I posit that it is a thing. I know it is a thing.

In the design world we often hear stories of client relationships starting with a bang, seemingly cozy, getting to first base with sweet expectations of a long relationship and an illusion of fidelity. Then something in those early stages goes awry. The process gets hijacked by indecision. There is a hesitancy that was not present when the courtship began. The client backs away for reasons not immediately clear to the designer.

The designer gets ditched at the altar, stunned and confused.

What went wrong? Did the client simply get cold feet? Why did what looked to be a promising relationship not evolve into a soulful happy union? The answer is simpler than it might seem. The initial excitement of a budding relationship often fades when the most essential element of any relationship — trust — is not firmly established.

But what does trust have to do with fearing the creative process?

Please, hear me out.

Sometimes what originally attracts a client to the designer — talent and creativity — can also be why it fizzles if the designer is not placing a high priority on multi-faceted relationship-building early enough in the courting phase. Establishing trust from the very first interaction is the best way to build a foundation that provides security against forces battling for the client’s attention or anxiety over controlling the process and ensures a receptive audience for imaginative creative possibilities.

People dislike uncertainty. And we know most clients entering a big (and expensive) project are going to want to reduce uncertainty in any way possible. In general, we fear the unknown and are more comfortable in the safety of “what we know” and can understand. We all know this is true but even more so when stress or anxiety is introduced. The creative process can cause uncertainty in many clients which then creates fear and resistance to the process. This fear can cause a default to what they know and safety in conformity is triggered, leaving no vestiges of the original creative plan.

The results from a series of Implicit Association Testing on bias illustrates this dichotomy:

 “Even those people who had explicitly ranked creativity as high on their list of positive attributes showed an implicit bias against it relative to practicality under conditions of uncertainty.” — Scientific American 

Creative professionals are risk takers, they ask why, they may challenge strongly held beliefs about what is up and what is down and bring up ideas to challenge the standard way of thinking or approaching a design dilemma.  A good designer is anything but standard.

And we must fight hard for our creativity because as much as we may want to think the creative process is valued, it gets tossed to the side when the big B word (budget) comes into play or when the big E word (expediency) gets tossed about and especially if the fear takes over and there is anxiety.

Now. Let’s go back to considering the client relationship. When your partner gets scared, do you ditch them? No. You try and understand their fears and help them manage the feelings. Right?

Of course. Because you love your partner and want to help them. Likewise, clients who are in love with their design muse and what the imagined outcome will be will also trust the creative process.

So how do you build these solid foundations to create a love match with your client?

You show up.

Every last bit of your kick-butt creative self. With your best Sunday go to meetin’ personality shined up bright and sassy and preferably with a wicked sense of humor.

You lead.

You are the expert in the room. They called you. They want you. And nothing is more attractive than confidence. Confident designers do not get left at the altar.

You create.

This is what you are in this business to do. You are a creative whiz bang and a rainmaker and dang it, they hired you to make it freaking rain glorious inspiration and joy all over their home.

You differentiate.

Don’t hide behind a “but that is what they wanted” shield that lets you off the hook of doing the work to build relationships and establish trust so that you can introduce new and exciting ideas that might create fear


Considering the motivations behind consumer behavior takes work and understanding and is sometimes hard to accept. But savvy business owners understand this is the challenge to sustained growth and maintaining longevity.


Cheryl Kees Clendenon is the owner of In Detail Interiors in Pensacola, Fla., and is HAT’s monthly columnist.


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