What Your Clients Really Want

One of the biggest fantasies of many architects and designers is expecting the client to provide the extensive detail and specificity that will translate into the new home of their dreams. In actuality, what the client really needs and ultimately wants from the architect is guidance and leadership through the design process, which can be particularly daunting and overwhelming to the client.

Achieving a thorough understanding of the design program is imperative. Rather than assign homework to the client via a multipage questionnaire, allocate an hour or two to thoroughly discuss the clients’ lifestyle, their likes and dislikes, and how they live in their home. Take them out for drinks or dinner to put them at ease and delve further into the project. As the expert, you know what you need to know to properly profile your client.

Engage the client in the big picture and leave the minutia for the design table and your experienced design sensibilities. While clients will most often find a comfort zone talking about the small details, it’s important to focus the conversation on broader issues. Gather essential program criteria; keep the meeting short and the client fresh.

It’s up to you to create design momentum to move the project forward. I have found over the years that the sooner you can bring thoughtful design solutions back to the client, you will be rewarded with quick, well-targeted feedback and have fewer redesign issues. The overall experience will be more satisfactory to everyone and bring you closer to project construction.

I think sometimes architects and designers take on the role of information processor, connecting the dots rather than optimizing function or enhancing aesthetics. When clients bring pictures and clippings of what they like, the easy approach is to take things literally. As an alternative, create a general profile and express a greater aesthetic. It’s not about the specific front door or the tub in the picture, but the creation of a unique, individual lifestyle statement.
Don’t ask your clients where they want to keep their everyday dishes, or how they prefer to store their toothbrushes. You know best how to organize a functional kitchen or bath and elements of this nature. While I exaggerate a bit, my point is we architects possess the expertise and professional maturity to resolve these questions. Be the guide, and also be prepared to address conflicting issues. If a material or feature is way beyond project budget, it’s better addressed early in design rather than after construction documents are completed.

I don’t mean to advocate arrogance — far from it. We should not feel like it’s our way or the highway, or that it’s our mission to tell clients how to live. Rather, the process is all about good communication. Empathize with your client. Actively dialogue and seek specific information. Listen carefully to what is said and sharpen your skills at reading between the lines. Provide sage advice and alternative solutions.

This concept is reflected in a Kohler advertisement in which a client steps into an architect’s office and flops a sink faucet on the table and says simply, “Design me a house around this.” The folks at Kohler had a different agenda behind their message, but this really encapsulates what an architect should do. Develop an edge that, with enough information and intuition, enables you to design a house they haven’t yet imagined.

I find in my experience that fewer than 10 percent of my clients have the personality or inclination to direct the design process, much less arrive ready to tell me what they want. The majority of clients are coming to our office for guidance on how to get from A to Z. For those few clients who want to take charge, be patient and remain flexible. Many times these personalities come full circle back to your leadership. If you’re getting more than 10 percent of these clients, there’s something you’re doing to attract them and you need to evaluate your approach.

Good design requires a higher level of complexity than our clients comprehend. It’s as much about the client’s agenda and lifestyle as it is about professional guidance and knowledge. We are our client’s advocate, providing solutions within a vernacular that resonates with them and, hopefully, remains true to our own design tenets. And, as they say, “That’s why they pay us the big bucks.”

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