Skip to main content

How to have a happy and healthy client relationship

By Jan 20, 2015 No Comments

We are creative and we are proud of it. We love what we do. We sacrifice status and corner offices, personal bankers and a good night’s sleep in the name of our passion.

Every day we wage a war against the mediocre, the mundane and the down-right ugly.  We clutch at inspiration and grapple with software. We scamp and sketch and code. We swerve and sway, we learn, we love we lose. We fight the battle with vigour.

Until that is, we have to deal with the slightest of client resistance. Then we turn into whiny girls with sullen expressions behind our tortoise shelled rims. Even experienced designers shy away from criticism.  We feel attacked when anyone suggests that our first design attempt is anything less than brilliant. We get frustrated when the un-doable is expected of us and complain over unnecessary changes.

Eventually though, whether by order or integrity, we pick ourselves up and begin the back-and-forth process. Ideas are exchanged and changes made and more often than not happy hands are shaken upon job completion. But whilst difficult projects turn you into a better designer these experiences take an emotional toll on all parties involved.

So are these highs and lows part and parcel of our industry or is there some way we can avoid the client/designer frustrations?

You see being a designer is more than arranging elements on paper or screen, it is even more than finding meaning in the way that those elements are arranged (I’m talking to you, university graduates!). No, a designer’s job is being able to visually communicate what someone else can (maybe) verbally explain. It is therefore not your right to get frustrated with clients that cannot explain what they want, because that is what they hired you for. And the truth is that it is indeed possible to have a happy and healthy client relationship.

Apply the following 10 principles to your next client to ensure a successful professional project:

  1. Communication: Communicate as often as needed by you and expected by the client. Remember that they just want the product/service that they are paying for. Make sure that the terms for this has been clearly defined before the first deposit is paid. Avoid becoming impatient when they do not understand things like you do. Take the time to explain the process, what you do and how, before you accept the job. Be open and honest about your opinions. Set the correct expectation from the beginning. Promise realistic timelines and stick to them. Get everything in writing. Give a detailed quote and discuss this with your clients so that both parties are fully aware of what is included and what is not.
  2. Be humble: You are a creative. Not a judge. It is not beneath you to make slight changes to please your client. Explain the difference between subjective opinions and appropriate design principles. There are things you don’t like and there are things that are just wrong.
    Eg, you may have any font you like, but you may have only one, as clashing fonts will make the design difficult to read and confuse the message.
    Know your design rules AND accept the fact there is a lot more space in our industry for subjective interpretation.
  3. Set boundaries: If you want to adhere to standard 9 – 5 office hours then do not take calls before or after. But then make sure that you are available during the designated time. Phone clients back as soon as you can after missing a call.
  4. Be confident: Clients can smell fear and will take this as a sign that they need to take control. Do not let them doubt that you know how to do your job better than they do. Note the difference between quite confidence and brash arrogance. Being confident means taking charge of the design process, not dictating the end result. If you cannot justify making something a certain colour, then you cannot complain about the client wanting it a different colour. Writing a rational reassures the client in the meaning behind the design choice. Explain the functionality behind a design element if there are any. If the client understands this and still wants it to be different, then change it.
  5. Back up design recommendations with relevant examples, research and data: Use examples to your benefit and exchange as many visual data as possible before you start designing so that you can have a clear idea of what they have in mind and so that they know what to expect. Encourage them to look at as many examples as possible, but also explain that just because something is in print or online doesn’t mean that it is a good design. Point out that even the ‘big players’ often have websites that are badly designed or outdated. Involve the client in the design process as much as possible so that they feel they are part of the project instead of showing up with a final product.
  6. Explain Technical restrictions and terminology: In terms of print/web/responsiveness, budget etc. Don’t design and mockup a letterpressed business card with gold foiling if you have not discussed the printing costs with the client. Explain that certain elements will shift/change when a website is viewed on mobile. Eliminate the surprise factor by explaining to clients what they can expect to see beforehand.
  7. Accept a deposit: You might not need the cash straight away. You might trust your client to pay wholeheartedly. Still insist on an agreed-upon deposit before commencing with any work. This has 3 things to effect:
    – It establishes yourself as a professional business in the mind of your client. If your client believes that he is paying a professional service provider he will be respectful towards your time, skill and opinion.
    – If the project runs over time, which it often does, there will be less of a grudge from your side. It’s easier to make changes for a client who has fulfilled his side of the contract than to grumble about changes for someone who has not paid a cent.
    – Subconsciously you do better work for someone who has paid you than for non-paying clients, which is better for the relationship in the long run.
  8. Explain the effect that changes will have immediately: Have clients sign off on certain stages along the way to avoid unnecessary changes at the end of a project. Changing a font/text size/colour after you have exported and supplied all the correct files should incur a minimum hourly charge.  This means you have to know your stuff. If you are unsure of budget and time effects that a change might have, ask the client for a day to research the proposed changes and quote accordingly. Do not make vague statements like ‘It shouldn’t take to long’ or ‘I don’t think it will be a problem for the printers’.
  9. Have a contract: Ask the client to read through and respect it. Use and stick to it. They will respect you for it. Revise it with them.
  10. Enjoy what you do: Really. No one likes a negative Nancy.

“Without clients, there is no graphic design and without demanding clients there is no great graphic design.”

So says Adrian Shaughnessy.