The Impact of Trust on Design Provider and Client Relationships

Communicating design value and evaluation.

Research Undertaken as part of Masters of Design Futures RMIT
June 2016.

Trust between parties has been broadly defined to have 2 main parts; a willingness to be vulnerable, and positive expectations of others[Rousseau et al.]. Being vulnerable is taking a risk of exploitation from another party. Without taking on this risk the desired outcome will never be achieved, which fulfils the second condition of trust formation; interdependence, where the needs of the trustor cannot be fulfilled without the trustee.

Rousseau et al. defined trust as: …a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerabilities based on positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another[1].

Risk is one condition considered essential to the conceptualisations of Trust [Cited by Rousseau et al., (Coleman, 1990; Rotter, 1967; Williamson, 1993), 2]. When considered in designer / client relationships there is risk implicit to both parties. Risk of financial loss, reputational loss, misappropriation of work or breaching commercial in confidence information. Both parties are vulnerable to the other party but both parties must rely on the other for the successful realisation of a shared goal. Once trust is recognised as fundamental in establishing and maintaining successful relationships between client and design provider, the designer can be proactive in managing trust formation during the initial stages of new relationships and understand the dynamic nature of trust long-term.

When Michael Falk et al. looks at the relationships between Client and Design Practitioner he discusses Design Capability (what they can do), Design Process (how they will do it), and Character (what they will do)[3]. Similarly, a 2003 article by Roy J. Lewicki and Edward C. Tomlinson, break down trust into 3 main components: AbilityIntegrity, and Benevolence [4]. To me, when Lewicki et al.’s 3 areas of trust are considered within a Client and Design Practitioner relationship context they seem to have a symmetry with Falk et al.’s breakdown, so I will use the following definitions in this article from both Falk and Lewicki: Ability(Design Capability)Integrity (Design Process), and Character(Benevolence).

The following definitions have been modified from Trust and Trust Building, Lewicki et al. [5] to suit the focus of this article:

Ability is an assessment of the design provider’s knowledge, skill, and competency in fulfilling the role required to reach the desired designed outcome. Ability is likely to be the first dimension of trust formation as it’s possible to research this through indirect channels like awards, industry reputation, platforms like LinkedIn, and portfolio websites.

Integrity which is essential for both parties in designer / client relationships, is the degree to which the trustee adheres to principles that are acceptable to the trustor. How the trustee works to collaborate, consistency of actions, credibility of communication and process.

Character (Benevolence) the trusted individual has shown to be sufficiently concerned about the success of designed outcomes, communication is open, and equitable control allow for a conducive collaborative relationship. It takes longer for Character assessment to influence trust, whereas Ability and Integrity judgements are assessed in the early calculus stage [6] of relationship forming.

Character assessments for trust formation may be considered a higher form of trust[7], as the information required to make these judgements may only surface during longer working relationships, where a person’s deeper beliefs and morals may be revealed.

To consider both Falk’s and Lewicki’s research to scenarios I’m familiar with, I will reflect back on 2 different client relationships and myself, as their design provider, and how trust was formed in the initial stages of working together. These 2 projects were completed within the last 12 months.

I was emailed by a potential client to work on a pitch animation piece for a new concept in kid’s TV entertainment. She had simply used an online search, came across my site organically, liked the work that I have there representing my design approach and craft capabilities, and she contacted me.

Via phone we organised a face-to-face meeting at local pub in Kirribilli (Sydney), where we could discuss the project in a casual environment, exchange work and life histories, and possible ways of working together. From this first meeting the main outcome was that each of us had established sufficient trust and understanding and could move forward working with each other.

What I was able to convey to her in that first meeting was that I understood her ideas and correctly interpret her way of thinking, and that I had the capability to build upon her concepts and take her ideas further. I could also back up the work she had seen online assuring her of my ability and competence to take on her project. The process of this early stage of relationship forming enabled both my client and myself to proceed through the calculus stage [7] of trust formation. Each calculating an Ability, and an Integrity in the other party, and how that person may behave in foreseeable future scenarios.

This initial project worked very well; with a successful end product and the formation of enjoyable collaborative working partnership. When the series was picked up several months later, my client engaged me to work across nearly all communication and experience touch points of the brand and of the series. Since then we’ve developed very high levels of trust with deeper understandings of each other’s character and an ability to work effortlessly and interpreting each other’s way of thinking, effectively removing roadblocks to achieving the best possible work in the shortest amount of time.

I was approached by this client at a time when I had a business partner. I believe, this client came to us for 2 reasons. The first was that their regular digital agency, which is a successful mid-to-large digital agency in Sydney, made the client feel undervalued, with sloppy and slow communication and service, with lacklustre thinking (initial user flows and other initial design artefacts); essentially betraying a trust my client had placed in that agency’s Integrity and Character. The second reason this client came to us was because my business partner was a friend of his and the client knew my business partner had just started a digital design agency. — Reflecting on it now, it seemed to be a method for the client to reach a high level of trust quickly, already knowing my business partner’s character meant he could speed the process of building trust and the creation of a constructive working relationship, easily judging ability and integrity through the first meeting or two.

The client’s position seems to accurately reflect what Lewicki et al.’s research shows in that ‘Violations of integrity and benevolence are likely to be experienced as more severe and damaging than violations that implicate one’s ability’ [8 Reference:]

This seems to demonstrate 2 things when considering how trust plays its part; First. The loss of trust in the relationship came from poor client service, integrity, and not from ability. The second was the client set out to find an established trusted relationship to enable the project to picked up and move forward quickly.

Knowing the history of the client’s relationship with the previous agency, I proactively took steps for the client to regain trust in the design process, with clear and regular communication; clearly articulated design processes, set dates for key milestones and payment schedules. Every communication (emails, presentations, estimates, invoices, etc) and design artefacts (user flows, wireframes, mockups) created were carefully checked for errors and inconsistencies; very basic stuff and is easily done, but reinforced a high level of care, and demonstrated meticulous and professional approach to our work which in turn reinforced trust. Why I did this was not only to set up a point of difference between us and the previous agency, but to help my client regain trust in the design process regardless of which design firm may be doing work with them. I felt his trust in the process had been lost and it was imperative that my client regained it. Otherwise, the work and our relationship may have suffered.

This project was very successful and a few months later I was brought in to work on a new digital platform for one of their flagship publications.

These 2 cases show how trust forms long term collaborative relationships; important for all organisations that deal in design, and even more vital to independent design providers, like me, as it reduces time and effort spent finding and developing new client relationships.

As a design practitioner it’s important that front-stage touch points, like websites, are designed to enable calculus-driven trust as quickly as possible; content that addresses ability and also integrity. e.g. a relevant body of work; written recommendations from colleagues and clients; award lists; a brands list, demonstrable design processes like user flows and research methods. While these may seem a common mix of content types to show on a design practice website, understanding how this content works in forming trust may require a change of focus, structure, or language. Rather than a studio website be some form of bragging rights, or a grab-bag of cool stuff, but to redirect it to trust formation with potential clients. In the first case study my website was sufficient in creating enough trust in my ability for this client to approach me to undertake an important project for her. It’s certainly worth evaluating what changes could be made to this touch point to increase trust formation and thereby encourage more potential clients.

So far this post has been mainly focussed on clients trusting a design practitioner, and how a designer can assist in that trust formation, but it’s imperative that designers trust their clients. A designer must trust a client to have the budget for the project, and have the IP rights to create the project, trust the client won’t misappropriate ideas, and for the client to have the ability and will, to be a constructive collaborator throughout the process.

If there is insufficient trust, legal contracts may come into play to act as a control mechanism. Some organisations see contracts as trust based on deterrence — which is a form of low level distrust[9 Rousseau et al. p399].Control mechanisms are the antithesis of trust [Cited by Rousseau et al. p399, Sitkin & Roth 1993. 10]; trust is about relinquishing or sharing control. While larger organisations may use legal contracts as a normal way of doing business independent designers may find big legal contracts distressing, and beyond their means of managing or enforcing. Research into contracts as control mechanisms have shown contracts can be detrimental to effective exchange relationships [11]. However, contracts may assist in clarifying the work between parties. Project clarification can be achieved with other documents such as, scope documents, design briefs, or user flows, as examples. While not contracts they offer a non-legal method of agreeing on the scope and requirements of the work at hand, speak the language of design, and help collaboration rather than hinder it. Some design providers like, Mike Monteiro, advocate the use of lawyers and contracts to protect designers [12]. Contracts may be perfect in some contexts. However, contracts may not be ideal for many individual design practitioners, who may prefer constructive design and business tools and processes that enhance trust rather than undermine it, to create a working framework for the relationship.

Without trust as a foundation, the relationship, communication, respect, and the work between design provider and client, will suffer. As Rachel Botsman discusses in her TED talk [13], trust and reputation, will be the currency of the new economy. As our industry fragments into smaller components, with several research articles pointing to a future of an independent and on-demand design workforce [14], to thrive in this new ‘precarity’ [15] I believe we each have to be acutely aware of how we foster trust and how we embody trustworthiness as individual design practitioners, rather than relying on the trust bestowed on a larger design organisation.

Botsman, in her TED Talk, refers to examples such as AirBnb, and Task Rabbit, and how these platforms enable strangers to establish a trust relationship through mechanisms like reputation rankings. AirBnb is a platform that allows people to lease accommodation space. Another product, Task Rabbit enables people to engage others for small odd jobs like assembling Ikea furniture, or garden maintenance. Both these products, like many others, use reputation rankings, which are now a very familiar tool in establishing trust online; it could be trust of a seller on eBay, or an app’s quality on the AppStore. What is relatively new though is the very high levels of trust that people are establishing online. Trust enough to allow total strangers into the most personal spaces that we have, our homes. This higher level of trust formation could be evidence of a society evolving to developing trust with less information. Perhaps reputational algorithms are becoming far more adept at weeding out scammers and correctly weighting trustworthy individuals [16].

For designers and their clients a single product doesn’t yet exist that can help establish a high trust relationship. The relationship designers have with clients is not a simple transaction behaviour, it’s a collaboration and exchange relationship which takes time and evolves. For designers and clients needing to establish trust, LinkedIn can offer some basic methods of trust building through its use of recommendations, endorsements, team projects, and various other listings that can provide a breadth of work history, showing how an individual may fit into the wider industry. The networked structure of products like LinkedIn, are more likely to have genuine recommendations. Whereas traditional portfolio sites may also help the client to build some level of assurance and respect for the designer — however, without known or public recommendations, people have become skeptical, if not cynical, about what people say about themselves on private sites. In her TED talk, Botsman, touches on an aggregation of reputations to form an overall reputation platform, but managing the relevance in various contexts would quickly become a challenge[17]. Someone who has an amazing reputation for assembling Ikea furniture on Task Rabbit, may be lousy at hosting people through AirBnb. Or an excellent rated eBay seller may be useless as a motion graphics designer. Another challenge for aggregating reputation are the differences in personality people exhibit across platforms, for instance; my Tumblr conversations and posts are very different to my Twitter, which are far different from my Medium personality. The start ups that Botsman refers to; Connect.Me and Legit and TrustCloud, may find the answer to this problem of defining and measuring an individual’s worth and value by monitoring behaviours across contexts [18].

Perhaps the solution is a combination of methods that gives Future Design Clients enough assurance and a level of trust to take the next steps in engaging the designer. For some situations the ‘people like us’ instinctive method of trust may be sufficient to tip the favour for one designer over another.

“Trust is a peculiar resource; it is built rather than depleted by use.” — Unknown.

That preceding quote is the first line of a well cited paper, “Trust and Trust Building, Beyond Intractability”, from Lewicki, Roy J. and Edward C. Tomlinson [19]. Until I undertook this subject for this post I did not appreciate trust’s peculiarity, its immensity of breadth and depth, complexity, and levels of meanings that trust plays every day, in every communication with all the clients I have and will ever have. Understanding trust better will influence the way I form new client relationships. Guide me to better manage long term client relationships. Importantly, it will also help inform design solutions for clients. It has also confirmed many of my existing design processes with clients are well on track to successfully retain these vital trusted relationships.

[1, 2] Denise M. Rousseau, Sim B. Sitkin, Ronald S. Burt, Colin Camerer. “Not So Different After All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust”. 1998, Vol. 23, No. 3.
page 395

[3] Michael R. Falk, Kwanghui Lim and Don O’Sullivan. “Relationship Formation in the Market for Design Services”. 2015.
page 2

[4, 5] Lewicki, Roy J. and Edward C. Tomlinson. “Trust and Trust Building.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. December 2003.

[6] Denise M. Rousseau, Sim B. Sitkin, Ronald S. Burt, Colin Camerer. “Not So Different After All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust”. 1998, Vol. 23, No. 3.
page 398

[7, 8] Lewicki, Roy J. and Edward C. Tomlinson. “Trust and Trust Building.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. December 2003

[9, 10] Denise M. Rousseau, Sim B. Sitkin, Ronald S. Burt, Colin Camerer. “Not So Different After All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust”. 1998, Vol. 23, No. 3.
page 399

[11] Stewart Macaulay. “Non-Contractual Relations in Business: A Preliminary Study”. American Sociological Review, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Feb., 1963), pp. 55-67.
page 64

[12] Mike Monteiro. “Design Is A Job”. 2012
Chapter 5 “Working with Contracts.

[13] Rachel Botsman. Video: “The Currency of the New Economy is Trust”. TEDGlobal. June 2012.

[14] Neil & Jen Baker Brown. “The Future of Creativity: Work is Forever Changed”. How Design: February 25, 2016

[15] Marcello Tarì and Ilaria Vanni. “On the Life and Deeds of San Precario, Patron Saint of Precarious Workers and Lives”.

[16] Hao Liao, An Zeng, Rui Xiao, Zhuo-Ming Ren, Duan-Bing Chen,
Yi-Cheng Zhang. “Ranking Reputation and Quality in Online Rating Systems”. May 2014, Volume 9, Issue 5. Introduction

[17] Rachel Botsman. Video: “The Currency of the New Economy is Trust”. TEDGlobal. June 2012.
From around 11:35

[18] Rachel Botsman. Video: “The Currency of the New Economy is Trust”. TEDGlobal. June 2012.
From around 13:45

[19] Lewicki, Roy J. and Edward C. Tomlinson. “Trust and Trust Building.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. December 2003.