Difficult clients, or difficult designers?

by Intersectionist

Note: this article assumes that you don’t always have the opportunity to choose your own clients, and find yourself building relationships with clients who don’t understand what designers do or why it matters.

In my observation, complaining about clients is one of the most popular designer conversations. There is no shortage of horror stories, and it seems like everyone has them. I’ve told my share. There’s even a very popular—and funny—website devoted to (dissing) them.

And there are truly bad clients, who don’t care what you think, who don’t care about their audience, and have unusually bad taste. Hear me on that, because you might not like what I’m going to say.

Truly bad clients do exist, but I think they are far more rare than we think.

It’s just way too easy to blame a bad client relationship on a bad client, when we’re the other half of the situation. I think we designers often fail to demonstrate sincere concern for a client’s audience and goals, and fail to graciously, persuasively articulate the rationale behind our design choices. Clients should trust designers to do their jobs—we’re experts in design, which is why they hired us in the first place. But in relationships with clients who are misinformed or uninformed (not hostile), I think we need to do a better job defending our decisions in a winsome, persuasive way. And I think we do ourselves a disservice when we think that our choices are merely “good taste.”

Clients tend to think we’re just bring a different (and sometimes better) set of preferences to the table, and our value is reduced to taste. If we buy into the notion that all we have to offer is superior taste, we have a pretty weak argument for why clients should listen to us. It’s their taste versus ours. From their point of view, why should your (supposedly subjective) taste be trusted over theirs? If it comes down to taste, they win; they’re the ones with the money. If clients think we’re just insisting on our preferences, no wonder some of them think designers are arrogant. And a host of self-congratulating, out-of-context design contests and client-bashing websites doesn’t help.

So in order to gain greater trust and influence, we’ve got to demonstrate why our choices are more than subjective taste. Everything we do as designers has a reason (at least it should!). Every font makes more or less sense given the message of a piece, the constraints, desired audience reaction, and cultural context. Every image helps or hurts your message—with its style, composition, subject, cultural perception, etc. Even color choices aren’t arbitrary; you choose this or that color because you want to communicate energy, or conservatism, or youthfulness, or the brand’s traditions, and so on. They’re the factors you already take into consideration when you design something. And those factors can be persuasively articulated and defended.

We’ve got to show that we really care about them. We’ve got to show that we know what we’re talking about. We can’t assume clients understand the design process or rationale.

Even simply taking the time to think through those reasons and explain them to your client will demonstrate that it is not merely a matter of personal preference. You can show that you’re working hard to use all your tools and knowledge to effectively communicate their message. As a client, wouldn’t you want to listen to someone like that?

Like any relationship, client relationships take time, thoughtfulness, and hard work. They don’t always start out healthy. But most relationships—given empathetic investment and a commitment to demonstrating sincere concern for the client’s ultimate success (not just short-term demands)—can change. “Bad clients” can turn into great clients. I’ve seen it happen many times. We have to be willing to work through the rough patches, rather than resorting to gossip and complaining.

Trust me; I often obsess over great design. I work really hard to make sure I get the details right. I push back when necessary to make sure my designs are as good as they can be. I think truly good design is critically important. And I know truly bad clients really do exist. But as someone who has spent the past ten years in the design world, I think we need to reexamine whether we’ve really done all we can to understand our clients’ points of view and earn their trust with gracious, persuasive explanations.

Good client relationships are about the big picture and the long-haul. We work through the problems. We work to see it from their point of view. If we care about people, and not just our portfolio, then client relationships are no exception.