Zeldman Small Talk On Selling Sells Out

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If you couldn’t go to last night’s first AIGA NY Small Talk event, it might have been because it sold out weeks ago. We should have expected as much; Jeffrey Zeldman always seems to draw a crowd. Liz Danzico was there to size up the situation.

Small Talk Sells

At the center of a rainy meatpacking district tonight in New York City, AIGA’s New York chapter hosted Small Talk No. 1, “Selling Design” with Jeffrey Zeldman, the first in the event series. The talk, held by Bumble and Bumble, kicked off with an introduction by New York board member, Khoi Vinh, listing an accomplished list of Jeffrey’s past activities, and thanking him in general for the work he’s done for people who work on the web.

Despite the storming weather, inside, Jeffrey presented to a sold-out room full of graphic and web designers (a show of hands revealed mostly web designers) on what he’s gathered over the years on how to sell design to clients. No stranger to a design audience, Jeffrey is arguably the forefather of web design, being one of the web’s first designers and bloggers. Among other web things, he’s the founder of Happy Cog, a web design firm, and publishes A List Apart, a magazine for people who make websites.

With charming candor and intimate detail, Jeffrey gave away a handful of the selling secrets–or at least selling tips–that have worked for him both as a web professional and as a graphic designer in the 15 years he served in advertising beforehand.


Most surprising were not the specific secrets Jeffrey revealed, but the masterful way he wove advice with evidence, rendering each of his points achievable by the designers in the audience. Easy-sounding even. And, for this audience, I suspect, if not there for their following of Jeffrey’s work already, were there to hear just that: practical advice on how to sell.

“Learn how to smell trouble.” But of course, we think. We know. Yet, then he proved us wrong by revealing details of particular clients’ actions that we’d never thought of. Big red flags too. Where once, I thought I was expert at sussing out potential client trouble, I now realize I have a lot to learn. Pedestrian details like a client’s paperwork, their ability to engage in banter, and much of an emergency the project is: all clear signals that we need to beware of.

“Learn how to translate.” Jeffrey outlined, here and throughout the presentation, the parallels between a client relationship and a marriage. Just as, in a marriage say, one has to read between the lines, so it is with clients. Clients declaring, “I don’t like blue,” and “The button is too big,” could actually mean anything from boredom to panic, and certainly don’t mean what the client is actually saying.

“Build relationships before you show design.” Selling design is not just about the design, it’s about the trust you establish with clients. Establishing relationships before you even present a comp will bode well when differences arise later on. Wireframes, he pointed out, are a great relationship-builder. As a long-time information architect, I hadn’t ever thought of them that way. Thanks, Jeffrey.

The Jeffrey-isms continued until questions from the audience dominated the floor. “Just demonstrate that you understand the brand, and you have the job,” he told us. Jeffrey clearly understood what that AIGA crowd was after tonight, as evidence by a line halfway out the auditorium once the talk was over. Tonight’s talk was not the description of something that’s ended, lessons learned. Rather, the focus of the talk provided inspiration and practical advice for designers to do better work. The key to better work after all, Jeffrey advised, is better client. Now we have a better idea on how to get there.

Liz Danzico is editor-in-chief of Boxes and Arrows and on the national staff at AIGA.