The “Z” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Zip It.

What do good designers and good bartenders have in common?

A good designer or bartender knows when to zip it versus when to put forth. That is to say, part of being professional in any vocation is being gracious — having a sense of timing and appropriateness.


An example (not from) from design practice

In this final installment of my “Design Wisdom” series, I’m going to invert the rules and not conclude with a design example from my past, but rather start with a story. About a year ago I was sitting at the bar of a local restaurant with a former client, now close friend. We were reminiscing about the contractor we had worked with. We had both been amazed with how friendly and gracious he had been throughout the job, even when difficulties surfaced. A short while later as we engaged the bartender in casual conversation, the seed for the “Design Wisdom” series was planted. It struck me that, in many ways, the skills of a really good bartender could illustrate what it takes to be a top tier practitioner in almost any profession.

Nine lessons from the bar

1. Make your clients feel welcome

Clients should feel welcome, secure, and relaxed in your care. You should view them, and encourage them to view you, as collaborators in artful exchange. The overall focus is to make clients feel as if they are interesting, trusted friends – not unwelcome strangers.

2. Provide good service

You may have just unleashed a new design or product that has new clients queued up three deep at your front door, but don’t be fooled. The backbone of your business is service. The art of providing excellent service to each client is your best engine for generating repeat customers. And a repeat customer, particularly a raving fan, is far more valuable to you than someone who disappears, disappointed after their first transaction. Treat your clients well – hopefully they will become regulars or referral sources.

3. Be observant, attentive and fair

Every client, new or old, is entrusting you, as the professional, with creating a good experience for them. Learn to read people and remember them. Take cues from your clients to anticipate what products and services might be of interest to them. Don’t show favoritism to some clients at the expense of others. No one wants to feel second rate.

4. Keep a sense of humor

Everyone has bad days, both you and your clients. To be successful you need to keep a good attitude. Yes, there are some really annoying clients out there, but no matter how badly your day is going, treat every client with respect. Every professional needs a good sense of humor – as a means of self-preservation and to deflect potentially difficult situations.

5. Keep yourself busy and things fresh

There’s always something to be done. When business is slow, it’s time to re-evaluate and refresh. Check your inventory of resources. Add something to attract new clients or add value for existing ones. From the bartender’s adage: “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean” comes one for the designer: “if you have time to wait, you have time to create”.

6. Be helpful and knowledgeable

Obviously, one of the reasons clients come to professionals is to benefit from their knowledge and expertise. While many clients may have some degree of curiosity about your craft, in most cases they haven’t shown up on your doorstep for an education. Demonstrate your knowledge in producing artful results; don’t flaunt it for sake of feeding your ego.

7. Be engaged and have fun

When someone is having fun and is engaged in what they are doing, it shows. And it’s inviting and encouraging for others. There are always aspects of any craft that aren’t fun, but putting yourself wholly into the task and seeking out the pockets of pleasure along the way, make it more pleasant for everyone. Think of it as being able to care with flair.

8. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver

There is something worse than saying “no” right upfront to a client. Its saying “yes” followed by “no”. To promise and then deny, not only speaks of failure to manage expectations of your client, it also communicates that you are neither trustworthy nor competent. Be in tune and upfront about your capabilities.

9. Zip it!

Your clients have come to you to have a service provided, not to hear about the details of your personal life. If they ask for your opinion of last night’s game, that’s fine. But otherwise don’t assume that they want to be entertained by your personal gossip, impressed with your erudition, or burdened with your tales of annoying clients. Sometimes your role is best as a silent movie.

Yet there is a difference

In the art of service, there is one aspect which other professionals have over a bartender. For a designer, it’s still legal to discuss business with a client over a drink – and even declare it as a business expense.

Cheers for a Happy New Year – 2014!

Regardless of what brought a client to your doorstep, what will most likely turn them into a raving fan is how well you conduct your practice with skill and grace.

Remember, Zip it.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter Z, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Zaffe and Zomp, and a photo Zeroing in on a friendly bartender with clients.