Designers, how to avoid client disasters!

two businessmen shaking hands

There is a game in this industry: the trade off between graphic designer and client. I have heard this expression in large design agencies many times: “this would be a great job if it wasn’t for clients!” I disagree, I think it’s a great job period.

If you don’t like your clients, get out of the industry!

How can there be anything wrong with clients?

Imagine the experience of having lovingly labored over an exquisite piece of design, only to have the client’s mother suggest a different color because it matches her curtains. The way you deal with these challenges will dictate the success of your business.

A disagreement with a client is an opportunity.

Never, ever get angry

I’m not saying, don’t show your anger in front of anyone. I’m actually saying, don’t be angry! Anger saps your energy and is unproductive. If you feel like getting angry with a client, don’t. Move on to something else, ask a third party for advice, sleep on it and see how you feel the next day.

There are a few classic problems. Clients will typically want the product shot to be as large as possible whereas the graphic designer will usually want more negative space around the image to balance the page and draw the customer in. Clients may also want to include as much product information as possible to persuade the customer of it’s merits, whereas graphic designers will usually seek to de-clutter wherever possible and condense the information to only a few unique selling points.

How do you square the circle between a client’s instinct to hard sell and the designer’s need to simplify the narrative to the end user?

Do you re-design as the client says and hope that the result will prompt a swift change of mind? Or do you explain as best you can the reasons why you think the current design works? Or, probably your best course of action, do you do both? Reconsider the design, listen to the client, introduce some of the suggested amendments whilst keeping the clarity of the original vision. The answer comes with communication.

If the client doesn’t agree with you, don’t take it personally. The client has more experience in the particular market and probably knows best.

The difference of opinions will give you a fascinating insight into the client’s world.

There’s no such thing as bad clients

There are only good clients and ex-clients. If you have a client that is a real pain to work with then that client is going to cost you money. So, you politely and unequivocally tell them to work with someone else.

But I never have any trouble with my clients. I really, really like them! I actually find it amazing that people phone me or email me and offer me money for what I do. The buzz I feel doesn’t diminish as time passes.

If you have trouble in this area I would suggest you start liking your clients. Become interested in their industry. So they sell widgets. Find out about their widgets. Ask them how the widget industry is at this time of year. Ask about their life, their family, their kids. Don’t force it. But ask and talk about them because you want to.

Otherwise, here’s some more specific advice about how to handle clients from my perspective as a freelance graphic designer:

How to avoid pitfalls

  1. I always have in writing exactly the nature of the job, the agreed price and, very importantly, the amount of design stages – so there’s a clear end in sight.
  2. Many designers will say a contract is 100% necessary every time. Personally, when the client is a large enough organization based in London, UK, where I am I would never bother with contracts. If the client is an individual from overseas I will insist on a contract or half the money upfront. This is what experience has taught me.
  3. If someone phones up and says “I wanna build this great site, yeah, like Facebook only better like, with all sorts of stuff”, politely to ask them to put all the available content and intended functionality in an email and that will get rid of 99% of all time-wasters. If someone is asking for a new website or an important piece of marketing to be put together it is essential that they are able to put something about the ideas, the market or the object of the project in writing. And, the wonderful nature of copying and pasting will mean less typos!
  4. Generally clients who just want to natter for ages on the phone aren’t the ones you want.
  5. Try to spend as little time with clients as possible. The more conversation about a brief, the more confusion. If, while working on a brief, you find an area of uncertainly, don’t immediately reach for the phone to bother the client. See if you can discover your own solution to the problem or mention it while you are showing the next design stage. This way the client sees progress before potential problems.
  6. Read the brief, read the brief, read the brief. Take notes if the brief is over the phone. But, if the brief is written down, read it again and again.
  7. Use your network. Email trusted colleagues, post in forums, even phone a friend when the going gets tough and see what they say about the client’s requests. You may find that they’re not as strange as you think.
  8. Never say something is difficult.
  9. If a client asks for extra work or less money because of a promise of more work or money in the future, politely decline. Tell them “my experience of this fast-moving and fickle industry has taught me to take care of the present as tomorrow never knows.”


Generally, I think it’s all about attitude. If you genuinely like your clients, are interested in what they are trying to do and don’t think you’re right all the time then, I think, you will have successful relationships with them. Otherwise, resign yourself to a professional lifetime of discontent!

Did this help you? If so, please share!

Download my 2 free e-books and 2 free MP3s on running an online business & getting clients

Plus a list of my 12 favorite resources for online business

two free books and two free mp3s and a list of favorite online tools


  1. says

    This article is very helpful and realistic. I work independently, but often collaborate with other graphic designers. One of my colleagues has handed off some clients he found difficult, but I find delightful (and I am grateful for the work!) So, sometimes it’s chemistry and another designer just might be a better fit. And yes, attitude plays a big role in dealing with the clients somewhat else might find demanding.

  2. DotC says

    You can’t be in a good mood all the time and frustrations happen with clients, coworkers, the checkout person at the grocery store, etc. All we can do is try not to get mad but to tell someone not to BE mad and to just LIKE people is ridiculous. It is not always possible but disagreements do not have to be disasters.

    Honestly is helpful and if you have a good relationship with the client, conflicts are minimal.

    Any working relationship IS about chemistry. Anyone who seems to get along with everyone is either lying or on very hard drugs. If you care, you are sometimes going to get mad. You can’t please everyone and sometimes when you are not pleasing them, they can get rude. We are all people with feelings.

  3. says

    Hello Anne, yes I think it’s all about attitude and the ability to put yourself in the client’s shoes. It really amazes me that some people have such problems with clients!

    Hello DotC, I’m not talking about coworkers that you see everyday, I’m talking about clients that you don’t see that often. It is very much possible to not get mad with them if you try. There are (non-medical) techniques for this but I’ll maybe go into that another day! I disagree that you have to get mad if you care. If you care about the other person I don’t think you would!

  4. says

    “Many designers will say a contract is 100% necessary every time. Personally, when the client is a large enough organization based in London, UK, where I am I would never bother with contracts.”

    I’m still tossing up over this one…

    I’ve had a few local businesses that seemed sincere enough but as soon as I presented the contract/quote they “had a change in plans” and don’t require the design at this time.

    I realise that raising arranging for a deposit is sometimes a pain due the approving funds etc in businesses, but I’ve never had anyone tell me that, only that things have changed.

    Sound like they were expecting a freebie, but you never know. It still baffles me that people agree to a budget then when the time comes to start it’s as if they didn’t actually expect to pay.

    What was the plan exactly? Hope that I forget about getting paid?

  5. says

    This is a difficult one, Andrew, and it’s hard to get at the truth when you’re looking round for advice…

    For example, here in the UK, even a written agreement in emails is counted as contractual evidence in a court of law. Some people say in the US this is actually the same as a signed contract; others don’t.

    I’m lucky to have a few clients here that are big companies with household names and I never bother about contracts with them and I never worry about it. They always pay.

    The problem comes with small companies or individuals. I have learnt you do need to cover yourself against these people or sometimes just turn down the work – especially if there’s a reluctance to pay upfront. Even worse, in my experience, are small companies from overseas. I have done work without money upfront for them and have regretted it deeply.

    Sounds to me that you’re better off without the local companies you mention. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve been wasting your time and should be ashamed of themselves (but I bet they’re not!) :)

  6. says

    Bit late but thought I would post as I really liked this article and some of the posts.

    I agree 100% that it’s largely all about your attitude and the relationship between the parties involved.

    I have turned down projects in the past where I just didn’t think I could get on with the other PERSON (clients are people too! :) ) and generally go on my gut instinct as to if its going to work out and we can all work together!

    I also think it’s absolutely essential that you take a real interest in their business – and honestly want to help them achieve their aims. If you essentially don’t care about helping the client I think you’re in the wrong business!

    With regards to a contract, unless it’s a very large project I usually just request a deposit. I also indicate via invoices that payments are a sign of acceptance of our T&Cs and reference any proposal sent etc I also request emails giving -explicit- confirmation during sign off stages of the project.

    • says

      Hello Jason, thanks for your comment. Glad you liked the article. I’m exactly the same as I always like the client and genuinely want their business to succeed – this really helps to forge a successful relationship and ensures repeat business and recommendations. I’m actually in the process of doing a survey of designers who run their own businesses and it seems that very few always use contracts, at least outside the US. The results from this survey are coming soon!