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23rd November
2008
written by Tony
Ah, clients. Perhaps this is the perpetual sigh of the designer. Certainly in my industry there is a rather unique relationship with the client, one that most other design, and even service related industries, are not saddled with. We design tradeshow booths. Like most people, when I started I had no idea what this even meant, or even that it is a 35 billion (!!) dollar industry (that's 35 billion American, buddy). So some of how we interact with potential clients was new to me. Most of it, actually.

Getting started

When a new client comes to our firm with a potential job there is a tacit acknowledgment that we are one of several firms being called upon (sometimes 11 or more) to take our best shot at the design. Assuming we are at the design phase, that is. First we generally have to wade through the RFQ/RFP process (request for Qualifications or Proposal). Essentially, we normally have around five business days to create a book that addresses all their questions and concerns, is branded, unique and will visually and conceptually knock their socks off. This process can cost as much as $500-600 per book (per handcrafted, custom designed plexiglass encased book). So to say communication counts could be a substantial understatement. The interesting part of this story is that the clients are generally pretty non-communicative at this point. I know, right?!

Are we there yet? No. I will turn this car around, I swear to God.

Once the client has sufficiently vetted us (and several other firms) we then move in to the design phase. Here we actually get some face time with the client and can really nail down what they want in the booth, visually and functionally. The actual communication. Once we're satisfied that the client has explained themselves well enough, we start to create some forms. We show some prelims. We get feedback. Wonderful, right? Have I mentioned that we're not getting paid for this? That if another firm low-balls us, all of this time and effort is pro bono? No, I haven't said that? Well, welcome to the tradeshow industry. So, interestingly, when a new client "selects" us, they can still walk away, having incurred countless thousands of dollars of expense for several firms and not pay a penny. Why is this the particular MO of the tradeshow industry? Honestly, I have no idea, but my best guess is this: we did it to ourselves. We (the firms) started offering design for "free" as an incentive to also use us to fabricate the client's booth once they choose our design. A nice little catch that is slowly strangling smaller firms as more and more companies simply bid out design work to scare their current exhibit house into compliance, test the waters or just to be shitty.

Now we're designing!

So we've waded through most of the crap, we've got some designs the client seems to like and everyone is getting along. Except they haven't signed a contract yet. Interestingly in this industry the majority of the process is generally completed before the client ever commits to actually do business with us. As a former photographer and having worked in a standard ad agency, this seems like a really, really bad idea. Would I ever shoot a wedding or portrait (1) with other photographers at the shoot and (2) knowing that if the client didn't like what I did, or decided that I was too expensive that they could walk away and not pay a dime? Of course not. Now I know agencies will show some proofs of a concept that a client can weigh in on, but generally this is done after something has been signed. If a client likes the work you've done for others, they hire you to do work for them. Makes sense to me.

So where am I going with this?

Essentially I've taken this as a lesson in entrepreneurship. Under this system, small firms can exist, but not for long. If they don't grow, they die off. There is simply no way for a small firm to foot the bill of a failed design process time after time. And as the debts mount from failed attempts, the effort they put in to each proceeding design decreases, and there you have your viscious cycle. This economy has taught me several things, the most relevent currently being that you must adapt or die. My industry has to change the cycle of abuse that we are letting clients drag us through. Either that or small businesses need to be prepared to either be bought out, or stop designing and become fabricators.

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