How I Learned the First Thing my Themed Design Clients Really, Really, REALLY Want from Me
by Adam M. Berger
Berger Creative Associates, Inc.
I was at a relatively early point in my career as a show writer when I learned a valuable lesson from one of my attraction design colleagues. Actually, I’ve learned countless lessons from my talented colleagues over the years, but this one really stuck with me.
The colleague in this case was a creative director named Eric. We were working together on an especially challenging project—part museum/part theme park—and we had both noticed an interesting similarity between this client and a number of other recent clients. Most of them had come to the design firm after having had disappointing experiences—either working with other design companies or with architectural firms (many of which, at that time, were not really equipped to handle themed attraction work). Other clients had struggled to handle the design challenges internally, only to realize they were in over their heads.
We had been chatting in Eric’s office about this observation for a little while, when Eric (who has always had, shall we say, an interesting way with words), experienced a sudden epiphany. “You know what we are?” he exclaimed. Before I could respond, he continued, “You and I are a couple of placebos.”
To say that I was taken by surprise would be an understatement. “What, Eric? Placebos? You’re saying we’re a couple of sugar pills?”
“No no no!” he quickly backtracked. “That’s not the word. I mean…we’re prophylactics!”
“Prophylactics? Really? You’re saying we’re birth control pills? What does that even mean, Eric?”
“No, not prophylactics! I mean…um…what’s that word? We’re like Tylenol capsules!”
“Oh, you mean we’re like some sort of analgesics? Painkillers, in other words?”
“Yes!” said Eric. “We’re a couple of analgesic pills. We’re like two Tylenols. Actually, make that Tylenol PM.”
“Okay,” said I. “But I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Think about it, Adam,” he went on. “Our clients come to us with a big problem. They’ve got a museum or an attraction or an entire theme park that they’re trying to design, and the firms they were working with have let them down and now the money is starting to run out and their schedule is getting tighter and tighter. And that’s when they come to us, hoping we’ll be the ones who can take their pain away so they can get a good night’s sleep.”
I was momentarily speechless—a condition with which I am rarely afflicted. Though it had involved a bit of linguistic stumbling about, Eric had hit upon an incredibly insightful metaphor. He had realized that our first job as designers was to instill in our clients the confidence that they had come to the right people to transform their nightmares back into happy dreams.
As the conversation continued, we soon determined that the job of making our clients feel confident involved showing them that we—all the members of the design team—were confident in our ability to deliver. That we were fully capable of doing everything that needed to be done in a professional manner—staying on schedule and on budget while maintaining the highest possible quality standards, and approaching it all with sufficient imagination and ingenuity.
Needless to say, that self-confidence has to be grounded in reality. That’s where experience comes in. We knew we could do what needed to be done for this client because we’d done it all before. Yes, every project is in some way (or many ways) unique. But oftentimes many of the fundamentals endure, and that was certainly the case with this particular client.
Okay, I know there’s a lot more that can—and should—be said on the matter. But the main lesson I took away from “the Tylenol conversation” is that our first task, as designers, is to be a source of comfort and reassurance to our clients. To give them the confidence they crave that they have placed their precious project in the right hands. To, as Eric said, “take their pain away so that they can get a good night’s sleep.” And that’s a professional philosophy that has served me well ever since. Thanks, Eric—wherever you are!