He drives a fancy car. He has a stunning white smile. He is always around lots of friends who seem to genuinely enjoy his company. He is successful, smart, and just plain irresistible. People praise him. People name kids after him. But he has a secret. A dark secret buried so deep no one knows about it. A secret so evil and sinister no one even dares to think about it aloud.

He wants his logo bigger, but not that big.

Some people may cause a lot of suffering in a designer’s professional life, and sometimes even in their personal life.

Don’t get me wrong. Every industry has troublesome clients. Hell, even we ourselves can be “uncomfortable” clients more often than we care to admit. We can complain if our Grand Coffee is colder than usual or barista is taking too much time making it.

However, the client-designer relationship is more intricate than that of client – barista. There aren’t many things a barista or you can do wrong, really. Designing, on the other hand…

First of all, a client-designer relationship is special because no one really knows how your finished product should look. It’s open for interpretation by both parties. Not good…

Second, design is a very emotional process. We all try to be professional about it, but at the end of the day, you always struggle to find the balance between a finished task and creative input. Without being creative, would we choose this profession at all? So we often get emotionally attached to our projects.

If you’ve been in the design industry long enough, you may have developed a certain intuitive
approach on how to spot potential troublemakers from a mile away and how to deal with them.

This article is a collection of difficult situations, red flags, and advice on how to de-risk yourself. It comes from our own experience and is based on real situations that happened with designers during their work.

Client Who Says “Let’s Discuss Money After”

Photo by Moose

If it’s your mother, brother, or even a cousin (and I’m really stretching here), then yeah, you can discuss money after. Actually, you can discuss money never, and that would be the best strategy, in my opinion. Family is everything, after all.

But with a client? Money has to be discussed very early. See, usually, the client already has some kind of number in their mind about how much money should be spent, even without realizing it.

And when halfway through the project he suddenly hears a sum that is quite different than his initial expectation… Let’s say you had it coming.

There are a few reasons why designers won’t talk money early:

They are shy

Some designers are shy to discuss money and are waiting for the client to make the first move. I find it unprofessional because the client doesn’t know the cost. He has no expertise to know how long the project can take and, as a result, you suddenly become a villain in this scenario. So carefully estimate the project timeline as best as you can and start discussing it with your client.

They are afraid to frighten a potential client away

It’s better to scare some client that can’t afford your services than to know halfway through the project that he couldn’t afford it in the first place. Bonus: if your client says “I can’t afford it” or “Why is it so costly” early on, those phrases are not a dead end. Those are a gateway for negotiations – an opportunity for you to explain the complexity of the project or to find a middleground. Maybe they can’t afford you for a whole website redesign, but at least you can work on a logo.

Client asked so

This is a huge red flag. Stay away. Only if you have other guarantees, like a signed contract with your fees or his kids in your basement.

 

Client Who Disappears

We live in the age of superheroes. Every now and then I meet people who have this rare gift of vanishing completely when it suits them. Sometimes even whole companies manage to do that. Both big and small, true story.

Photo by Moose

Fortunately, in every superhero movie, there are always strong deterrents that you can use to confront such powers.

Contract

This is the big one. If your client signs the contract, it’s pretty much the best anti-vanishing defense you have. In most cases, you won’t need to press charges, the signed paper disciplines both you and your client. There are easier ways to solidify your relationship with a client, so I’d suggest using contracts only for big projects. Here’s an example of such a contract. Here’s a more elaborate version.

Advance payment

Some designers ask 50% upfront, others 30%. There is no right number, and it can change from client to client. The goal here is to check how serious the client is about the project and if he or she is ready to put money on the table. This is a psychological barrier that separates serious clients from impulsive dreamers. The other 50% you can get before sending source or high-resolution files. Don’t think of it as blackmail, always try finding middle ground with your client. Bonus tip: don’t invoice companies on Friday evenings.

Incremental payments

Apart from asking for upfront payment, you can (in case of large-scale projects should) introduce milestones and invoice during critical stages of your project: first approval, last revision, etc. Or it can be 30% upfront, 30% halfway through, and 40% once the project is finished. Terms of payment can be reflected in your invoices, with the most popular net 30 terms (meaning the client pays you within 30 days). If the milestone payment is not met, stop working on the project.

Wait

Time heals. No one said time brings money though (ok, probably collectors). Beginner designers usually take on risky projects and don’t want to intimidate their first clients with invoices, contracts, or complicated payments. We all went through that. Some of us had more luck, others not so many. If the client ignores you and doesn’t pay, don’t spam him with e-mails. There are more efficient psychological tricks you can try.

  • Don’t be emotional. Don’t panic. In fact, do the opposite, be cold-blooded as ever.
  • Pretend that nothing is happening. Send questions regarding the project. E.g. if you’re doing the logo, ask the client if he like “this” color. Keep the project alive. Sometimes clients switch to other tasks and you’re not (sorry) the center of their world. It’s ok, be professional about it, there’s nothing much you can do without stronger tools.
  • After questions, you can send some work you have already done, and ask the client if he likes it. Don’t blackmail and don’t call to pity. Your goal is to create the picture in your clients head that the project is almost ready and it’s great. All he needs is to give you the last incentive. If he likes it, start talking money. If he ignores you… Write a Reddit post. Move on.

 

Client Who Is Your Boss

Employees don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. Everyone had bosses like that. Unrealistic deadlines, unorthodox methods, unobjective decisions… I could continue, but I’ve run out of “un-” words.

Photo by Moose

What is special about a designer’s boss? Subjectivity. Design is one of those fields where if people know the difference between “good” and “bad” they think they know everything. My condolences go to fellow writers and photographers as well.

There are two types of bad bosses: those with no design skills and those with no leadership skills. I have yet to find out who’s gonna cause you more therapy sessions. Worse yet, you can’t spot them before you start working. Here are a few tips on how to deal with them:

  • Find a new job
  • Tell them to … off and then find a new job
  • Write an emotional blog post that will go viral, become Time’s person of a year and then find a new job

This is how bad boss can affect your design career:

  • You’ll get poor design skills finishing projects that make only one person happy
  • You’ll spend a lot of time arguing only to hurt your own self-esteem because the last word is never yours
  • You’ll lose trust in good managers and will become afraid of team-scale projects

A good strategy I can suggest on how to endure this while looking for a new job is to do the bare minimum and not invest in your work emotionally too much. Keep looking for gigs where you can have a creative output, but distance yourself from your main job. I know, it sounds awful, but what can you do?

The only thing left is to talk to your boss directly about it (be prepared to lose your job) or talk to his or her superiors. In big companies, it’s easier to do because there is a mechanism at work and if the organization sees your valuable input they can maybe offer a solution. If it’s a small startup we’re talking about with no vertical structure… Oops.

Client Who Has Their Own Ideas

It’s not a bad thing when the client has ideas. Beats the opposite. The problem arises when they have one too many. Imagine a client having a dream and a designer has to draw everything a client discovers “oh, I see a giant horse! A red one! Wait, no… it’s actually blue. And small…and a cucumber”.

Photo by Moose

Now, there are two types of clients here, and make no mistake – they are very different.

Type #1: First-time client

They have never worked with freelancers before. It’s like they don’t even know what they want, but are eager to start doing something. They see designers as demigod creatures who shape abstract and vague fantasies into 60$ logos. They are almost innocent in a sense and your job is to guide them.

They may want you to guess what they want. They may want some validation of their ideas from you. It can be anything, and it’s ok. Their only real problem here is uncertainty.

Here’s how you solve it:

  • ask for a design specification (a written one)
  • ask specific questions, detalize
  • if you still don’t get it, work hourly and develop the design closely with the client

Type #2: Monkey tamer

These are far worse. Nothing innocent here. Clients like this are certain they know everything there is to know about design except for how to actually design. To them, you’re a software monkey, and your only value is that you can use Illustrator or Sketch.

Potential red flag: “I’ve worked with a lot of designers before and this is how we did things…”

The problem here is that if the design turns out badly you’re the one to blame. If the result is good, by the way, the client usually attributes such an achievement all to himself.

Countermeasures:

  • establish the number of revisions in a contract
  • charge hourly
  • always take upfront payment

 

Client Who Doesn’t Provide Clear Requirements / Goals

“Do me a logo”

Woah… sure.

The mindset of people with such demands is still a subject of an upcoming psychological study, but I’d say go for it and see where it takes you. As in the case of first-time clients, your main problem here is uncertainty. Both financial and creative. Ultimate goals here are advance payment and written design specification. If the client is not very chatty on the email go for a short skype call – you may be surprised.

Client Who Has Strict Policies and/or Weird Demands

Can be anything – don’t use the work in your portfolio, sign two more NDA’s, work exclusively in Adobe software, draw me like one of your French girls…

Photo by Moose

Just remember – every gimmick comes with a price tag attached. Don’t hesitate to charge more if you feel like it costs more. E.g. portfolio usage prohibition can easily cost 2-4 times more the original project cost.

A designer’s portfolio is what helps us to find new clients, and without showcasing our work (especially with big projects) we may lose lots of potential income. Sharing vectors sources allows savvy clients to hire low tier designers to copy our work, which is a lost value because if anything we could at least have taught those designers to do our job properly.

When you work with big companies carefully read contracts they send your way – every sentence can have a huge impact on how you do your work.

Afterword

Before writing this article I sent a few letters to designers asking about their experience with “bad” clients. Almost no one replied, and those few who did tell me they would not want to be mentioned in an article about “bad” clients. It’s almost as if there are no bad clients in this profession. But I understand designers who don’t want to be a part of dubious, far from glorious topics.

My point is this: there are bad clients. However, the designer always bears some responsibility as well. Sometimes we let the things work themselves out, hoping that everything is going to be ok. It’s a gamble. We fool ourselves, and our clients. It’s ok for a client not to be certain about what he wants, but it’s horrible for a designer not to know what he can do.

I think that it’s the designer’s job to manage the client’s expectations because you’ll certainly have much more clients than your client will have designers in his life. Or would you like it to be the reverse?

About the author: Andrew started at Icons8 as a usability specialist, conducting interviews and usability surveys. He desperately wanted to share his findings with our professional community and started writing insightful and funny (sometimes both) stories for our blog.

Title image: Zsolt Baritz

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