Recently I have come to realize how vital communication is to…. well everything in life. Design is, in and of itself, a form of communication, albeit, visually. Communicating with clients, and how it is done, is what can make or break a project, no matter how creative and skilled you may be as a designer. Relationships are all about communication, and once that system breaks down, so does that relationship. Climbing has its own set of codes and communicative commands to try and simplify the complexity of the belay system.

A while ago, I did a few small projects for a new client and things were going quite well. Then I was given a new project with a slightly different objective, and I was working with a different guy in the company. From the start, things did not go well. I did not ever receive a complete project brief, I did not get my questions answered, and I received contradictory instructions from two different people. It ended up with me creating something that was not what the client wanted because I was so unsure of the parameters of this project. After feeling sick about this for a few days I decided to take this into stride as a learning experience. I reevaluated how I communicated throughout the project, listened to some friendly advice to “have a thicker skin as a freelancer,” and vowed to ask more pointed questions next time. This made me realize that though what the actual project entailed was not very complicated, the lack of communication made it almost impossible.

By contrast, I have had other projects with clients that have gone unbelievably well because communication went smoothly. One client I have – who is always polite, professional, and friendly – bluntly tells me exactly what he thinks about my work, and he doesn’t mince his words. I really appreciate this. There are times that he loves it, and times where he doesn’t think something is working. Since he is clear about what he wants and what he doesn’t like- it is easier for me to design to his expectations.

I have heard of many climbing accidents that have occurred not because of a lack of skills, but simply because of a communication error. Phil Powers, the executive director of the American Alpine Club, just had such an accident, and thankfully is on his way to recovery. This is a guy with many years of experience and many vertical miles of climbing under his belt. He is not incompetent. So how do things like this happen? The belayer and the climber must not have firmly established how the climber was coming down before the start of the climb, and from the top it is much more difficult to clearly express what should happen next. Without both the belayer and the climber being clear on things, its no wonder that things don’t turn out the way they should.

The first time I climbed with Luke, my most frequent climbing partner, we would decide at the base how the leader was coming down before we began to climb. Then every time I led a climb, at the top I would yell down that I was off belay. Luke would ask me again if I was rappelling, I would say yes, and he would respond “You are off, and you are rapping.” I kept thinking to myself- “Does he not hear me?” He seemed to be asking and repeating things over and over. Finally I asked him about it, and he explained that he felt the more it was repeated how the climber was coming down, the less likely that one of us would make a mistake. I see the wisdom in this, and I have since adopted his method of communication when I take a climber off belay. This is a simple method of communication that can actually mean life or death.

As someone who enjoys writing and design, I spend a lot of time trying to decide how best to communicate concepts. Writing gear reviews is all about  clearly and concisely expressing what is good and bad about a product. Designing a logo is a way of visually communicating what a company or organization is all about. This is no simple task. Layout design (my personal favorite) is about elegantly organizing information in a way that a viewer can easily read and understand. Poor layout design does not effectively communicate the content.

As I continually live and learn as a person with many different relationships, I realize that communicating with people is an ever important, an ever present element to life that demands thought and good intention.