Saying No to Clients: An interview with Sagi Haviv
Logo design is often a collaborative process between designer and client, but from time to time in order to provide the best possible service you need to say ‘no’. But how do you do that without damaging the client relationship? In this episode Ian Paget interviews Sagi Haviv to learn the techniques he uses to gain credibility and provide confidence so that when the time comes… they can say no without damaging the client relationship, allowing them to stay in control of the design phase.
Sagi Haviv is a parter and designer at Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, who has designed over 60 identity programs, including the logos for the Library of Congress, Harvard University Press, and the US Open to name just a few.
Resources & Books Mentioned
IP: I want to kick off the discussion by asking you a followup question I have after watching your fantastic TED Talk. In that, you used a great example where your client requested changes to a logo you did. You was able to turn back to them and say no. Now I’m aware that there’s likely much more to this, so I want to ask you how are you able to say no to a client, as you did in this case, without risking damaging the client relationship in any way?
SH: Yeah, that’s tricky. No question about it. I mean, I would say for starters it is easier to come at your client and say no when you have what certainly Ivan and Tom have built over the years before I even got here. It’s much harder if you’re starting on your own, or if you have just you in front of the client. It is difficult. Everybody should give themselves a break a little bit, but I think that it’s worth trying, without losing your client.
For that, I would say the first thing is make it clear to them that the result is just as important to you as it is to them, and that you are committed to the success of this project. Then, there are all kinds of tricks to get them to understand what you’re trying to say. Oftentimes, we go and get examples from other brands, other brands that have been successful in doing something that we are trying to get them to do.
If we’re trying to get them to choose the simplest possible solution, we might show a diagram of other brands, sometimes we like to pick our own, sometimes we like to pick others, that went for a simple solution, and then showing the evolution over the years and how it kept changing until it stopped changing because it was so simple, and showing that the longest period of time was with the simplest iteration, and that at some point, Mercedes in 1933 stopped changing their logo because they arrived at the simplest possible solution.
Then we can make a business argument that they stopped spending money on their logo, and they stopped spending money on changing their logo, whether it’s the millions of iterations that they have on the cars, or whether it’s signage, or whatever it is, that’s less expense. At the time that it gets to the final iteration, it can build equity into the future.
Really try to understand what makes your client tick, and try to speak to their listening. Become the voice of reason. Not many client will care about, if you’re excited about something because of the relationship of positive space to negative space, or because of some kind of a nice contrast between geometric shapes and serif type, your client is probably not going to care. You have to figure out what they care about, and then try to approach it that way.
IP: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Those slides that you mentioned, at what point would you show that? Would you always show that when you’re presenting your work? Or would you only ever pull out that slide and talk through that in the event that the client does come back to you and ask, “Can we make it like this?” Or, “Can we change that?” And so on. Or, “Can we make it more complicated?”
SH: Right, so it’s both. You don’t want to barge into an open door. You don’t want to be too heavy handed and didactic with your client, because that also can come off as patronising or just annoying. We open every presentation with a couple of warnings, because looking at a logo for the first time is very difficult. Our first slide in every presentation says, “It’s never love at first sight.” We ask …
Usually that gets a laugh from the client, and a giggle, and then some of them, 50% of them would say, “Is this an excuse? Am I not going to like what I’m about to see?” Because oftentimes people get to this point kind of nervous. They gave us eight to ten weeks. They didn’t get to see anything during that time, and suddenly … Sometimes there’s time pressure. Sometimes there’s pressure from your boss. You sit there and you’re about to see what we worked out. Suddenly you get this warning, “It’s never love at first sight,” and that can be unnerving.
We explain that this is something that a little bit of an absurd to sit there and look at logos for the first time. Logos work through familiarity. You’re about to see something that you call a logo or maybe can become a logo, but at the moment it’s not familiar at all. How do you judge, from the options that we show you, which one is the best?
Well, you need to put aside personal preferences or subjective tenets. “I like circles. I don’t like squares. I don’t like sharp corners. I prefer yellow. I don’t like blue.” All this is meaningless. First impressions can be misleading. So we give them these warnings, and we say, “Let’s try to put aside personal preferences. Let’s try to put aside subjective feelings. Try to really look at the designs objectively.” That means, we try to see what work, what works best.
We list for them three criteria. What are we looking for from a good logo? We’re looking for something appropriate. Appropriate really means … It doesn’t mean expressive, because we can’t say very much with a good logo. In fact, the less they say, the better. But appropriate really means personality. Does it feel right? Does it have the right attitude, the right character? That means, if it’s in sport, maybe it’s bold and dynamic. Or if it’s fashion, maybe it’s elegant. It’s a personality thing. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is if it’s memorable, distinctive, unusual enough to persist in our mind. We see it once or twice, we can describe it to somebody, or doodle it on a piece of paper. That’s a good test.
Then the last criteria is simplicity. Needs to be simple, uncomplicated in form, so they can work on every platform, be flexible, can work tiny, can work big, can work in two dimension, can work in pixels, because that flexibility will ensure that it’s seen consistently and the same everywhere, so it can build equity over time.
Once we gave those warnings, and we always like to also give one example of a very, very simple logo that has worked over time, and that’s the National Geographic yellow frame that our company did years ago. We say, “If you’ve seen it for the first time, the way you’re sitting here in this room, about to see logos for the first time, and you didn’t know anything about National Geographic, you would say, ‘What the hell is this? It’s just a yellow rectangle. It’s nothing.'” But in fact, in combination with the name and through consistent use, it has become the perfect vessel for all the associations and the feelings that people have with National Geographic.
Then, we dive into seeing new logos, and all the warnings are out the window. Everybody responds to, “I don’t like this. It’s too sharp.” The warnings can only do so much, but it helps. And then-
IP: It sounds like you’re laying foundations to be able to justify saying no, because X, Y and Z.
SH: Absolutely, Yes, but we might have to say no at some point later on. I think that the other very important part of this process is that you should always insist on meeting the decision makers before you present designs. In other words, in the first part of the project, when we do the interviews and we talk to people, I would say 20% of the time, we would walk into a big corporation, and the marketing people who run the project would say, “Yeah, you’re not going to have access to the CEO. He’s not interested in this. He told us that we can run this project,” or, “He’s too busy. He’s traveling.” That’s the first no that we will have to say is, “No. We will not do this if we don’t have access to the CEO.”
The reason is not because we’re dying to meet him, but because if we meet him for the first time when we go up in front of him to present designs, it’s kind of like a carpet salesman coming to sell you something. There’s no opportunity to have established rapport with him, or a level of trust. “Who are you people that are doing this?” Instead, suddenly it’s I’m a stranger, and I’m coming to show him something for the first time that is just a very simple thing, a meaningless thing on a screen. It all becomes much more difficult. Then, if you’re hoping to push back in any way, forget it.
The idea of the first conversation is not just to get information from him about the vision for the company, about what makes it special and so on, about what he wants the logo to project or feeling, but it’s really even more important for us, is about establishing a relationship, a relationship with him. Then he feels comfortable with us. Then if we need to, we can say no to something that he asks later on.
IP: I love that what you’ve done is really established a lot of credibility and trust from the outset through building a relationship, so that when the time does come, you can say a very firm no. Aside from your reputation, which I know will already give you a lot of credibility, it’s how you are presenting, and how you’re laying the foundations for the design slash client relationship that’s really making a big difference here.
SH: Yes, and sometimes the no is … I’ll give you an example. It just happened yesterday. I said no. We were working with a very, very big television entertainment brand that’s in 180 countries. They are making a big change, and we’re designing a new logo for them. Our presentation is a week from now, and suddenly the president of the network reached out to us and asked to see things yesterday. In other words, we had a call scheduled yesterday, and we got a call the day before saying, “We would like to see where you are.”
I had to say no, because we will never, ever expose any sketches or any work in progress. For one thing, it’s still going through trademark search, but regardless, we’re very disciplined about this. Our approach is to only show designs that we can stand behind, that have gone through a rigorous testing on our end with, in applications, in the context, so that we feel that by the time we get together, the client can literally pick any of the options, and they would work beautifully.
So, she’s based in the UK, and we got on a call, on a Google Hangout, and I had to say, “No.” And I explained all these things, and because we’ve had a meeting initially, when we kicked off the project, we earned her respect and deference, she, not happily, but she understood and she said, “Okay, I will wait,” even though it’s on a very, very tight timeline and there’s a lot of pressure.
So sometimes you might even have to say no, before you’ve shown anything. But the process is very, very important for the success of the project, because again, these logos in the early stages, and the first time you expose them, they’re so fragile, they’re like little babies and they can die on the vine very quickly, because again, they haven’t had the chance to build recognition and familiarity. They are just designs on a piece of paper. They haven’t even earned the right to be called logos. So with that, you have to protect them. And you have to present them in the right setting, in the right circumstance.
And another thing that sometimes we have to say no to, is presentation remotely. We will never present anything over a web conference. Believe me, we get clients from Silicon Valley or whatever, that say, “Why not? Just show it to me. The logo has to speak for itself. The logo has to work over the internet. Why can’t I see it for the first time over the internet?” Our answer is that, by the time it has to work over the internet, it has been adopted, it represents your brand. At the moment it does not represent your brand. And in order to discuss them properly, there’s nothing that can replace the energy in the room, the humans that come together and sit in a room together. With our expertise and guidance, and their expertise about their field and their company and their industry, those minds coming together in person and making the right decision, is the only way we would do it.
IP: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you would only ever work with clients that you can potentially travel to. You would never work with someone in a different country and do it online? Am I understanding that right?
SH: No, we work with people in different countries all the time. But we just travel.
IP: Okay, but you travel to them?
SH: Yeah. So in fact, a couple of years ago, we worked on Yoshinoya, which is a very big restaurant chain in Japan, they have over 1500 restaurants there and they have a hundred and something restaurants on the West Coast here. And we were engaged by the US team, but then we had to present it to the Chairman in Japan. So I went to Tokyo to present it to him, because again, we said we would only take on the project if we can present to him in person. It turned out that they had five different times engaged five different agencies, and they all failed because the Chairman in Tokyo rejected the design. So we said we will only take it on if we can present it in person.
And once we presented to him in person, he said, “Ten minute break,” got up and left with his entire team, came back ten minutes later and said, through the translator, “I wanted to reject your proposal, but after having seen it, I cannot reject your proposal. So I will approve it, not just for the US, but I would like to implement it all over Japan.”
So, I got on a plane back to New York, and then I got a call from the US team saying, he’s requested that you come back and present it to his Board next week. So I had to go back to Tokyo, just to present to his Board. And the proof is in the pudding. The presentation that we put together and presented in person makes all the difference, to get people over that hump of adopting something new. And this is a brand that has been around for a hundred years.
IP: That leads on really nicely to another question I have for you. It was around ten years ago now, but I read a blog where you designed a logo for Giorgio Armani, on a logo for AX which I think was a magazine. And I understand that at that time, the client simply rejected the logo outright. But you then found out that it was presented only on a white piece of paper. I also understand that you was able to go back and present the same work a second time, but this time it was agreed immediately.
Could you talk through this story and explain through what you did differently the second time to get it approved so quickly?
SH: Sure, and the premise of your question already needs to be corrected a little bit, because you said were you working with Giorgio Armani, well we weren’t really allowed to work with him, and that was the biggest problem. So the guys from Armani Exchange, Tom Jarrold and Matthew Scrivens, who were brilliant guys that ran the entire brand from here in New York, and they recognised that the logo had to change. They had some challenges with it, not just design-wise with the typography, the A and the X where terrible looking, but it fell apart, the mark was very light and fell apart in the context of their ads.
So once they came to us we thought they were really the client. But it turned out after solving the problem that really the person that has 55% of the stock and makes the final decision is really Giorgio Armani, or as they called him, Mister Armani. And you can imagine, he has a visual sense and he wants to have a say. So the first thing we said was, “Well, we should present it to him,” and they said, “No, we want to play it down so that it doesn’t become a big thing, and maybe that will help us get it through.” So they said, “We will take it to him in Milan.”
When they met with him, we were nervous here in New York waiting to hear, and I got actually a text from one of them saying that he rejected it. When they came back to New York, we asked them to come in, and see what happened, and they actually brought that piece of paper with a big X on it, the print-out of the logo with the big X on it. And we said, “Well, why didn’t you show him all the executions?” Because, as I said, we are very disciplined about testing the logo in executions, in the context of communications. So we showed it on a hang tag, on a label inside a t-shirt, on ads, on a website, and so on, to prove that it works better than the mark that they had been using.
They said, “Well he has 30 meetings a day and there’s simply no time to show him all these things.” So we said, “Well you guys have to go back and show him all these executions,” and they said, “No, nobody ever goes back. Once he’s said no, that’s it.” And we really pushed them, and they did it, and once they showed him the executions they came back with a piece of paper with his signature on it next to the logo and I was so happy.
We learned a lot, we learned from all these experiences. But sometimes there’s simply no access to the decision-maker, and then you have to do your best, remotely.
IP: Now, I want to expand on something that you briefly mentioned earlier in the conversation. I understand that as a business, you get your logo designs pre-checked with a trademark lawyer, before presenting anything to the client. Now this isn’t something I currently do, and I imagine that quite a few listeners will be in the same boat as me. So could you talk through your process for working with a trademark lawyer and the reason why you do that at this stage?
SH: Yes. So that’s very important. I would say, around seven years ago we changed the way we do it. We used to just design things, maybe look in design books and maybe on Google, see that there’s nothing obvious that is similar and then we would present it, and then the client would choose a mark and then go into trademark search. It just started making no sense to do it this way. We ask clients to trust us and give us 8, 10, 12 weeks to work on these things, and then they can’t wait for the presentation, we get together, we present things, and if you don’t know that these things are at least available, or at least survived some kind of a preliminary knockout search, that there’s nothing obvious that it infringes on, then this whole exercise is meaningless.
Getting together, God forbid falling in love with something and then realising that you can’t really own it, because somebody else owns it in the same trademark category. That would be a waste of time. And then what happens, is just the designers here, to explain, once they’ve fell in love with one option, all your other options are dead. You will not be able to revive them, because he already has something that he likes more. Or she likes more. And then you’re in trouble. You have to go back to the drawing board and squeeze every bit of creative juice that you might have left to top the options that you already presented.
So what we now insist on doing is we get a budget from the client to conduct preliminary trademark search, which we bill as an expense, and when we come up with something, we send it to the attorney and we define the market and the trademark categories that we’re interested in. And they will do a quick search in the US, or in the EU, or right now, for this entertainment brand I mentioned, it’s quite a few markets. Same thing when we did the US Open last year, we searched it in quite a few markets. And then when we get a clean bill of health, we put it into the presentation.
The client is still responsible for doing a final trademark clearance once they’ve picked a mark. But at least it gives them some comfort that they’re not wasting their time.
IP: I’m curious, was there some kind of experience that you had prior to making this change that caused you to actually do this, for example did you actually finish a project and then it get to the point where it needed trademarking but it couldn’t be, is that why you changed it, or just because you felt it made sense to do that?
SH: So thank God, it hasn’t happened. I must say that most of our designs usually clear, but we’re looking for something very, very simple and there’s great designers all over the world that are thinking about these things, and this is just nothing we can do about the fact that as the time passes more and more simple shapes are owned and claimed and the available shapes are less and less. I sometimes joke with Tom that when he did the octagon for Chase Bank, he could do something like that, not even worry about a trademark search. But now, when we come up with something this simple, we really have to do our due diligence.
With something this simple, we really have to do our due diligence before showing it to the client. There’s also one other aspect, as you touched on before. We have opinions. We come in, we like to argue for this option or that option. We like to push the client in a direction. If we cannot be confident that that option is available, then it will be very hard for us to do our job in guiding the client to the best possible outcome.
IP: That really makes sense. I feel it’s something I really need to look into for my own designs, so I really appreciate your response here. I want to ask you briefly about your background. As I understand that you joined Tom and Ivan as an intern back in 2003, but you then became a partner only two years later. I’m curious to learn, how did you originally get noticed to get the opportunity in the first place?
SH: Yeah, that was tough. It was tough to get in. I think, for me, I don’t take no for an answer, but I really had to push myself in. I was just finishing Cooper Union, and Steff Geissbuhler, who was a partner of Tom and Ivan’s at the time, came to teach one class as a guest lecturer. I took his class, and I had designs on him to I’ll make him hire me, because by that time, I was a big admirer of the firm, and it became a dream of mine.
Then he walked into the first class, and he said, “Before we start, I just want to let everybody know we’re not hiring anybody. In fact, we’re firing people at the moment, so please don’t come to me and ask for a job.” That was devastating.
I put it on hold, and then … It’s funny. At the end of that year, in a commencement speech, the artist Laurie Anderson gave the commencement speech, and she ended her speech with a piece of advice. She said, “Don’t wait to be asked,” which is something that stuck in my mind. Don’t wait for somebody to open the door for you or even hold the door open for you. You have to knock and knock and insist.
So I did that. I became a nuisance to Steff. I wrote him email after email every couple days. Literally, short of begging, I did everything. Eventually, he said, “Okay, you can come in for three days a week, but we can’t really pay you.” I did it. I think that getting a foot in the door is an opportunity to then prove to people who you are, and that you can be of value somehow.
When I started, they just were working on an exhibition, a kind of a retrospective exhibition of the firm’s work at the Cooper Union. They were looking for a way to present the logos, the trademarks. I just, for fun at home, I started animating the marks. I studied After Effects at Cooper, and I was just doing it because I thought it was fun, and then after I animated maybe 15 of them, I brought it to the office, and I showed it to Tom and Steff and Ivan. They got turned on. they were like, “Oh yeah. Why don’t you continue doing it on the office time?” I continued to do that, and ended up with about 80 something trademarks in that sequence. They ended up using it for the exhibition. So then they noticed me.
Then suddenly … I don’t even know how it happened. Somebody submitted it to the Tokyo Type Directors Club, and it won there. So suddenly they sent me there to get the award. I brazenly met with the people at the Ginza Graphic Gallery in Tokyo, and told them that they should bring our exhibition there. Again, the door was open because the name. Chermayeff & Geismar, Inc, at the time, was very well known in Japan. So suddenly there’s a call, and they said, “Yeah. Let’s bring your exhibition to Japan.” I got kudos for that.
From here to there, I got noticed. So a lot of it is luck and and I’m very grateful. Eventually when the company split up, I got an opportunity to really join with Ivan and Tom, and become partner with them.
IP: Well, I think that’s an incredible story. I think a lot of it isn’t luck. It’s more of the compound effect. You worked really hard, and every opportunity, you took. That just started a domino effect. I mean, your story is an inspiration to me, and I’m sure a lot of listeners will be the same as me.
I have one last question for you. I understand that your company has a new book called Identity: Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. Can you tell us a little bit about that book and what it means to you?
SH: Yeah. This book … First of all, Hamish and Jesse really have been incredible. It came together beautifully. They wanted to do a book. We felt that enough time passed since a previous book, Identify, which was more of a copy heavy publication, where we kind of told stories about logos and how they came to be.
In this case, with Identity, we felt like there’s such a volume of work, that maybe we can really treat them like artwork, and not even say too much. Obviously each one of these designs is a solution to a problem. We’re not artists, and we don’t do whatever we want. But we feel that we give enough attention to the visual properties and the magic of the form, that maybe we could get away with just presenting them in a very clean way on a page.
That’s exactly what Hamish and Jesse did. I have to say, when we got our advanced copy here, we were so delighted with the way it came out. Even the production value, they went on press. They made sure that every drop of ink is impeccable. It really is.
It’s kind of bittersweet, because Ivan was very much involved in the book and reviewing their proposals and their designs, and working through the design of this very, very thick book. It’s over 300 pages. But Ivan never got to hold his book in his hand. Ivan is the one that was always, always thought about the next book. Every time we put out a new logo, or even when we present options to a client, it’s always the test. Would we be proud to put this design in our next book? If the answer is no or maybe, we would not present it to the client, because Ivan always said, “They will pick that one, and then we’ll be stuck with something that’s not great, and we’ll have our name on it.” So for him this book would’ve been an event. That’s the sad part.
But it really is very, very beautiful. It has an essay in the front by Alexandra Lange who, she’s a writer. She writes for the New Yorker and other publications. I have to say, we didn’t give her much direction. We met with her. We presented her a few projects as if we are presenting it to a client, and walked her through our process. What she came back with, the essay, is actually named, It’s Never Love at First Sight.
She goes through the whole approach of how to present, and touches on what you asked about about saying no. But also, she really captured this idea of the one. That although we show options, and although we explore hundreds of possible designs in sketch form, somehow there is always a feeling of inevitability with the final selection, that this is the one that was meant to be all along. When that happens, we feel that we’re totally successful, is that it’s kind of like you married the client with their destined logo that they were meant to have.
IP: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think the book looks absolutely stunning, what I’ve seen of it. One thing that I’ve always liked to do is have benchmark works, work that I can look to and think, “I want to do work just as good as that.” For me, that’s definitely going to be one of those books, so I think it’s a good tribute to Ivan and all of the work that you guys have done over the years. It looks like an amazing book, and I think all listeners should definitely check it out and get a copy of that.
SH: Thank you, Ian. There was one last thing. About the cover of the book and a theme that was really very much on our mind with this whole publication, is the cover is a bunch of silhouettes. On every page, there’s a tiny silhouette on the bottom left hand corner of the mark in black. At the end of the book, the index, the listings features all these tiny silhouettes. If you go through the pages quickly, you can see all these silhouettes, one after the other in the corner.
There’s a reason for that. We design in silhouette, right? We don’t even touch colour until we’ve found a distinctive own-able silhouette that also feels appropriate. It has a lot to do with process, even though we’re not sitting there describing the process, but maybe the most important thing is there in the form of it, and also on the cover.
IP: The book sounds quite incredible. I think anyone that’s listening to this will definitely want to check that out for themselves. Sagi, it’s been a real honour to be able to speak with you today. As you know, I’m a big fan, so thank you so much for your time. Thank you again for being an absolutely fantastic guest.
SH: Sure thing, Ian.
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