Transparency and Design: Four Ways We're Evolving Client Collaboration

By: Ryan Mowery

At Citizen, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve our processes and build more meaningful partnerships with client teams. Inspired by agile methodology, we’ve been championing transparency over the last year. We’re doing this by bringing our clients deeper into our day-to-day work: embedding them in our daily standups, sharing access to our project management boards, and, importantly, inviting them into our studio for weekly working sessions.

I should clarify: we are not live designing in front of our clients. It’s important as ever that we have uninterrupted time and space to comprehensively think through the challenges we’re solving. But we review work in progress frequently—often sharing unfinished work to get their perspectives before we proceed.

Collaboration is in Citizen’s DNA, but working this way has taken our collaboration to the next level. It’s not always smooth or comfortable, but we’ve seen four major benefits since transforming the way we work.

1. We Produce Higher Quality Work

We need each other to make great work. Teams working together create better work than teams working in silos. But many of today’s creative teams are a mix of FTE and contract workers, many of whom work remotely, often from different time zones. By meeting frequently, we keep our teams aligned and focused. And because there’s never more than a few hours between check-ins, we don’t have to worry that we’re missing the latest information or heading in the wrong direction. You just can’t beat that kind of feedback loop.

2. We Benefit from Broader Perspective

With everyone in sync, our our combined team becomes much more receptive to new ideas and experimentation. There isn’t a hierarchy determining who can generate great ideas. When the entire team is at the table, we’re opening the door for each person’s opinion. Designers can be a bit precious about our work; I’m definitely guilty of letting “better” be the enemy of “good,” self-editing without external perspective and spinning my wheels on an idea. But an authentic designer isn’t a rockstar 100% of the time and no one better understands our design objectives than our client partners.

Embracing the fact that great ideas can come from anyone on the project is liberating: it alleviates designers of the pressure to have all the ideas and encourages us to check our egos at the door.

3. We Roll with the Changes

The world is a different place than it was five years ago. Things are moving much faster and less predictably. Certain circumstances can’t be prevented, but staying tuned in to our clients’ day-to-day reality has helped us to anticipate big changes and strategize before it’s too late.

Regularly working side-by-side has given our clients the ability to quickly and easily adjust priorities with radically affecting the project roadmap. Perhaps most importantly, it has given everyone the space to innovate and try new things.

4. We Forge True Partnerships

Design is never truly done. Letting go of the idea that we are completely “finished” with something can feel unsatisfying at first, but becomes a powerful approach in longer, more iterative engagements. By embedding our client into the daily standups, sprint planning, and weekly workshops, we evolve the dynamic of the relationship: we work as full-fledged partners, rather than vendors. Because of this, we are able to ask frank questions and be honest about our needs. We share the power to shape the work. We become advocates of the client’s mission, and the clients become advocates of our design.

We also find ourselves doing less selling and more listening. This style of working paves the way for more productive conversations: with the client on the journey with us, it’s much easier to move forward with a shared vision. It’s candor that goes both ways.

Embracing transparency isn’t easy. It takes a ton of confidence and trust to show a client unfinished work. Letting the client see “how the sausage is made,” so to speak, can feel uncomfortable at first. But that momentary discomfort is nothing compared to what this working style yields: better work and a stronger rapport with our client. Given those benefits, who would want to work any other way?

Illustrations by visual design intern, Brandon Paul.