how to not be *that* client and how to work with one if you have one

A lot of people like to laugh at stupid things other people’s clients say, for example, there are oft-shared hilarious experiences like this, this popular website and there is this series of posters created by an Irish graphic design studio.

Although I take a bit of a guilty pleasure in smirking to myself about such things, being that I have been known to exhibit teeny tiny signs of misanthropy, I also think that placing all the blame on the clients for these atrocities is often like blaming a badly-behaved dog for its actions – really, you need to be pointing your Finger Of Judgment at the people who have influenced that dog. Or client.

No one is born knowing how to write a brief or give feedback. Thus, us creative types need to hold our clients’ hands along the dark and twisting forest path of Lovely Design Making so that they end up at the Beautiful Gingerbread House of Successful Project Completion and not the Terrifying Skull-Bedecked Baba Yaga* House On Chicken Legs of Design That Really Doesn’t Work For Anyone At All.

Baba Yaga’s hut taken from

So, here are some problems that I have encountered along the way – mostly in just the one nightmarish client – and what I’d recommend doing to overcome them whether you’re the designer or the customer. I may well be teaching many of my grandmothers to suck eggs here – I prostrate myself at the feet of those who Have Been Through This Curious Hell Already.

1) Refusal to give any kind of coherent brief

“I want a logo with a dancing girl on it and I’m sending you a CD of the music the dancing girl would listen to and no you don’t need to know any more than that” “no, that one’s not right” “no, goddamn it, did you actually listen to the CD?”

Designers: does the client even know how to give a brief? Have you helped them do this? In this situation the graphic designer needs to ask a lot of questions, preferably by email, so that they are all written down and can be referred to later. I like to focus on finding out who the product is aimed at – what car would they drive, what hobbies and interests do they have, etc, and what kind of feeling the client wants to convey – happy, professional, sexy, competent, being chased by a bear etc.

I’m sure most designers do all this already; one thing I have found is that the more everyday you can make these questions the better clients’ imaginations will be fired up. Think those interminable Buzzfeed quizzes that everyone is doing on Facebook at the moment – “which Lord of the Rings character would your target customer be and why” will probably yield more useful information than “would you say that your selected demographic was in the ABC1s”.

(here is a funny youtube video to break up the text. I am not a LOTR fan FYI)

image of cover of my how-to guide for creating graphic design briefs

download this

For clients – well, handily, I have spent some time writing this “how to give briefs to graphic designers” guide which you may download for free. Hooray! Go me! In short, be as specific as you can. Think about the project in as much detail as possible, from the size and shape to the colours you do and do not like.

There might be a brand you see reflecting the things you want to espouse – Mercedes Benz or Innocent Drinks, for example. Give as much info as you can about how you want people to feel about the product.

Designers are usually intuitive lateral thinkers but they generally need more to go on than a CD of music that they have no connection with at all. If the music CD is a really big part of the brief then maybe you need to search around for a designer who’s really into bhangra or dancehall reggae or whatever it is that is on that magical shiny disc.

2) Daydreaming/being divorced from reality/having ambitions way beyond their budget

“I’m starting up this little business where I’ve bought a van and it makes coffee and I’m going to take the van to festivals and sell coffee there so I want a logo for the van and then also a set of business cards that look like tarot cards and I want the interior of my chain of coffee shops to look like a burlesque circus and and and…”

Suffice it to say that this client didn’t even have enough money to pay me for the logo I sweated blood** designing for her.

Newsflash: this shit costs money. Gif from

Newsflash: this shit costs money. Gif from

Designers: I have had the misfortune of working with two clients like this. They give you a list as long as your arm of all the wonderful things they want and then when you tell them the price they either accuse you of taking their dreams away or they pretend not to hear and then mysteriously run out of cash just as you’re finalising the logo.

If I had my time again I probably would have turned and run a mile from the client who told me that she had already been through twelve (TWELVE) graphic designers who just couldn’t get what she wanted and also she had £10,000 of debt and was struggling to pay her mortgage. I’m not entirely stupid – I can read warning signs – I’m just an incurable optimist. Now I’ve learned to look for the signs that a client is lying to themselves. Also, I ask for 50% up front with new clients, or payments in stages, and we don’t progress to the next stage until the previous one is paid for.

Clients: if you’re in this position you’re probably a start up – likely you’ve never briefed a designer before and have no idea how much time websites take to design or about the cost of printing. I really do recommend that start-ups approach several designers and tell them what your carefully considered budget is, and then ask them what you can get for that money, perhaps involving different options.

This isn’t what clients normally do, but it will save you asking for quotes for a bunch of things so extravagant that they would make Liberace blush.

Liberace: rumoured not a fan of careful budgeting. Photo by Alan White.

Liberace: rumoured to not be a fan of careful budgeting. Photo by Alan White.

Here’s an example of how this could work – you might be able to get a logo and website designed and some business cards printed for your budget, and for the same price you could get a logo and a thousand beautifully-printed brochures. Do the research, find out what your competition does, what your own customers expect, and decide that way. Be realistic, and be prepared to cough up at least part of the money upfront to the right creative sort.

3) Clients who won’t give feedback other than “I don’t like it”.

Oh dear baby jesus in the manger with the donkeys designers know that this is perhaps the most frustrating thing of all. First of all you must be really careful to ensure that the client knows they can be frank with you without causing offence. It’s good to let them know that you learn just as much about them from the things they *don’t* like as you do from the things they do; that negative feedback is a very important part of the creative process and that they need to be as clear as possible about how they feel.

However, if you’ve said all this and the client is stubborn and refuses to elaborate, again you need to get canny with your questioning. How does it make them feel? What about it would not connect with their customers? What character out of Lord of the Rings would it be (OMG I asked for Gandalf and you’ve given me Sam Gamgee)? If the client gets all extra stubborn and really won’t tell you why then maybe you have to call it a day. Stabbing in the dark is not in our job description.

Clients: mostly just read the above. And if your designer reacts really badly to frank and fair negative feedback then maybe you need to part ways. Us designers have a bad reputation for having creative temperaments: from what I’ve heard it’s not entirely undeserved, but I genuinely believe that most of us just want our clients to be happy.

Thus it’s a good idea way in advance to get a personal recommendation for a designer, read testimonials and talk to people who’ve worked with them, just to make sure you don’t get landed with the Gordon Ramsay of InDesign.



*no disrespect to Baba Yaga the All Powerful whatsoever

** did you know that you can actually sweat blood? I didn’t actually do that though – I am using hyperbole.