Monday, April 04, 2011

8 Things Clients Say That Make Designers Cringe

Photo courtesy jdurham of

Most people I've worked for are good clients. They don't tend to say these things. But I've run across these statements from time to time from people I refuse to work with. And I realize that I am not alone. Other designers have expressed their reactions to these types of statements on designer blogs and forums.

Why am I posting these statements? I believe it is a good idea to understand just why these statements are problematic for designers, and to suggest better ways to achieve a good designer-client relationship.
  1. "I love their design. Can you make it just like theirs?" The problem with this comment and question is that it comes dangerously close to asking a designer to plagiarize. A client asking for this may not mean to do this, but when the message becomes clear that she wants an exact copy, designers become very uneasy. A better approach would be to explain why the design appeals to you, and ask the designer to consider the style and tone when designing. Then expect a more unique approach rather than a outright copy.
  2. "I'll know it when I see it." In other words, "I don't know what I want from you, just give it to me." When I designer hears this they know they are in trouble. Endless rounds of corrections and redesigns are in the future, with no way to recoup costs. Designers need specifics to work with. We do much better when we have a goal to shoot for. And we make lousy mind-readers. If a client cares about their message, then they need to take the same amount of care when communicating with their designer. A better approach would be to explain the objective, audience, and messaging to the designer, and let the designer come up with a strategy. And a word to designers: Please don't design anything until the client is in agreement with the approach.
  3. "I just need something simple. It shouldn't take much time or expense." To a designer this sounds like, "I am cheap. And I plan to waste your time." Designers know that every project involves time-consuming activities and overhead costs. But to many clients these things are hidden. My best advice is for clients to not assume what is needed. It would be better for them to communicate the budget range, and describe what they want. And let the designer determine how to meet the budget and constraints. If the designer can't do this, they will let you know, and may even help you determine an alternative approach. Designers want to be your partners, not just product-providers.
  4. "Hey, I have a nephew (or any non-professional) who designs." Sometimes this is not a big issue with designers. But when evaluating a designer's work with a non-professional designer's tastes can prove to be problematic. The reason is because design work is not done in a vacuum. There are discussions between the client, parameters, and objectives that a third-party critic isn't privy to, nor considers. Therefore, their commentary is not based on objectives that have constraints, but on personal tastes and assumptions. No one really does this with legal advice or tax advice. It's not a good idea in this situation either. A better approach is to have all the parties agree on the design direction, and be included in the initial meeting with the designer. They should be included in the pre-planning stages, before any design work begins, and let the main client make all the final decisions during the design.
  5. "I've already designed this. I just need you to make it look better (or more professional)." Designers usually don't know what to do with this comment. Do we keep it the way it is given, and clean it up? Or do we use this as a jumping off point? This needs clarification. A client would do well to be clear why they are hiring or using a professional designer in the first place. And be clear about what level of creativity and thinking they are expecting from the designer. The designer doesn't want to waste his or the client's time.
  6. "I'm not paying you because I've gotten someone else to design what you've sketched out." The problem with this is that the designer already put a lot of work into the sketches (and strategy, meetings, and idea generation). And the sketches are the property of the designer, not the client. If the client pays for the work, then they can have at it.
  7. "I've decided not to pay you because I don't like what you did." Well, if I go to a restaurant and eat the whole burger, I can't refuse to pay because I didn't like it. I already ate it! It would be better for the client to pay for the work and discuss the problem with the designer. Designers want to please their clients, and may offer a kill fee amount. That is a reduced fee to end the project without prejudice. Or the designer may choose to do more than what was originally quoted for to make the client happy. Either way, this deserves a conversation rather than a breach of contract.
  8. "Give me some ideas and maybe I'll pay you." Sometimes proposals are made this way. And if the financial prospect of taking on a proposed project is worth the designer's outlay of resources, then so be it. But most of the time, it is a risky business practice. No one likes to spend time and money on something they have no guarantee of any payoff, unless we are gambling. Designers can smell what is called SPEC from a mile away. SPEC is the promise of payment only if the client likes a designer's ideas. This requires designers to work for no pay, while the client "selects". It's not a good idea to have two plumbers fix some items around the house with the promise of pay only if the customer "likes" the job. Work was done. It needs to be compensated.


  1. Man, I hate #1 and 2 with a passion (and OI try not to use "hate" that often).

    My approach for #1 is to figure out what I think works with a particular design I'm asked to be "inspired" be (maybe it's typography, use of a grid, color scheme-- or lack of any of these :-) ) and then proceed to give it my own spin. Of course, I explain my thinking behind the choices. That usually works (so far!)

    thanks for the post!

  2. @r armstrong Ha ha. I know what you mean. They are tough ones. Great approach. It takes more work to go about it this way, but often that's the best approach.


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