Lets face it, we’ve all had bad client experiences. The initial excitement turns into dread when we get yet another email from the client requesting more frivolous edits. Where did this all go wrong? A seemingly great project at the start sours into a client management nightmare. You’re crossing your fingers that the project will end quickly, so you can (hopefully!) get paid.
Work would be easy if it weren’t for all of the clients!
Here’s the kicker, though. For every story designers have about pain-in-the-ass clients, clients have similar horror stories about lazy designers who don’t know how to listen. So who’s at fault? You’re not going to like the answer.
As the professional being hired as a design expert, it’s your responsibility to control and communicate how the design process works! To be a successful designer, you have to go beyond being just a great designer, you have to be a great communicator. Here are nine tips to help you get there.
1. Don’t Take Bad Clients
Trust your gut. If you get a bad feeling about a client after the first meeting, move on. This may sound easy, but it can be difficult to do when a red flag client wants to pay you good money for your services. The key here is that the money is never worth the wasted hours, headaches, and bad blood created by working with bad clients. In the end, PITA (pain-in-the-ass) clients are always going to cost your more money than they are worth. They may pay you a lot, but you will be miserable, and you won’t have time to do amazing work for your good clients.
2. Clearly Communicate Your Process
Your client should always have a clear understanding of your process and next steps. Setting expectations and then delivering on them—or even exceeding them—is the easiest way to build a trusting relationship. And without trust, you won’t have a happy client-designer relationship.
There are a couple of easy ways to communicate your process.
First, start building trust on day one by reviewing your design process as part of your client onboarding procedures. I use a one sheeter (check it out here) that I give to all new potential clients before our first meeting so they understand how I work and what my process looks like. They know what to expect during our first meeting, and I deliver on that expectation. It may seem like a small step, but it’s actually an important first building block of a potentially long-term business relationship.
Second, once a project starts, I also always use a scope of work with more detailed phases and specifics that are customized to their project. It outlines how long each phase will last and what will be accomplished. The scope of work also lets the client know what deliverables to expect and when they’ll need to be more involved and provide feedback.
Clearly set expectations for your client. Overdeliver on those expectations and, of course, give them ample warning if the scope of work for project needs to change.
(Don’t have a good process? Learn how to create one.)
3. Set Realistic Due Dates
A client should never email you asking if the work is completed yet. If that happens, the client isn’t impatient and overbearing, you are clearly doing something wrong. Either you missed your due date or you’re communicating poorly.
In most cases, you get to set your own due dates. Either your client or a project manager will ask, “When can you have this completed?” so there’s no reason you should ever miss a due date. I always give myself at least 1.5x the amount of time to complete a project as I think it will take. I do this for a few reasons:
- Delivering on a project early always makes a client happy. Delivering late is an automatic trust killer.
- Having extra time allows me to walk away for a day or two and give my solution a fresh look before shipping it.
- Extra time provides flexibility to squeeze in high-paying rush projects if they arise. 🙂
I get it, life happens and even the best plans can fail. Giving yourself 1.5x the amount of time you think you need to complete a project should always allow you to have 90 percent of the project completed a day or two before it’s due. So if something unexpected does come up, you should have ample time to notify the client that the due date needs to change.
Pro Tip: Give general due dates, like ‘the end of the month”, opposed to specific dates. For instance, if I plan on having something completed on Thursday, I say, “I’ll have it to you by the end of the week.” I still schedule to have it completed by Thursday, but I have the flexibility to take another day if needed without the client perceiving its past due.
4. Always Use a Contract
The legal protection and payment terms of a contract are obviously important when a project goes wrong, but it’s also an important communication tool at the onset of a project. Often, a contract’s best application is to communicate expectations so things don’t go wrong. Set a tone at the beginning of the project that you are both professionals and that you expect to treat each other as such.
A contract should outline what I’ll give you (design deliverables) and what you’ll give me (paid compensation) in a certain amount of time. It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that. I use a simple two-page version. Check it out here and feel free to edit it for your use. Formatting my contract with a letterhead and softer fonts has also helped make it looks like just another step in my onboarding process and not an ominous document drafted by a lawyer.
Contracts can answer a lot of questions that a client may have, or even didn’t know to ask, about rights of ownership and cancellation policies. Plus, bringing up topics like cancellation policies in an initial meeting is never a great way to instill trust with a new client, so having all those details in a contract is an easy way to address them.
5. Use a Design Brief
You already have a contract in place outlining all the important hard details like deliverables, due dates, and payment. So wouldn’t it be great to get sign off on the soft details like communication hierarchy, mood, and brand attributes before starting initial concepts? Enter the design brief.
A good design brief covers the important details of a project in an easily digestible way. At a minimum, it should cover the objective and goals of the project, target audience, communication priorities, and brand attributes. I also like to include my client’s initial ideas or inspiration so I always have them on hand. Have your client sign off on the design brief to ensure you’re on the same page before investing lots of time creating initial concepts.
When reviewing your concepts with the client, always have your design brief handy and use it to measure the success of the concepts. The critique of your work should always revolve around how it met the objectives of the brief and not on personal opinions. Referencing the original design brief will focus your conversation on meeting objectives and resonating the with the target market.
Pro Tip: Design briefs can be a pain in the ass to write, but they don’t have to be. As the name suggests, keep it brief! Create a simple template that works for you (here’s mine), and then use that in your kickoff meeting with a client to take your notes. Take 10–15 mins after the meeting to edit it and you’ll have a well written design brief. You can even take it one step further and automate that process to an online form.
6. Ask Why. Then Ask it Again.
As a designer, it is important to position yourself as someone who solves problems through careful design, not just someone who executes the client’s ideas. It’s important to position yourself as an expert and communicate this to your clients on day one. “I’m here to solve problems in a visually appealing and engaging way, not simply change random design elements to your liking.” Then you have to keep this mindset throughout your design process. The best way to do that is to always ask “why?”
“Why?” is the most important tool in your communication tool belt. When a client says, “Let’s make the button bright red,” they are stating their problem as a solution. It’s natural for most people to state their problems as solutions, but they’ve hired you to be the expert. You are the problem solver with expertise in visual communication. By simply asking the question “Why?” you will change that conversation from being about a solution to being about the problem.
Designer: “Why would you like to change the button to red?”
Client: “It should be red so that it stands out for people to see it right away.”
Now you have the real problem—the client is concerned the button isn’t drawing enough attention. As a designer, you know many ways to make a button more visible instead of making it red, which may also have some negative, unintended consequences. You are now poised to solve a client’s problem with the best solution, and not just execute on the client’s proposed solution.
For more complex problems, you may have to ask “why?” multiple times to get to the root of a problem. It may sound immature, but if you communicate it correctly, it can be quite an eye opening process for your client. It can even result in a bigger and better project for yourself. For instance, here’s a conversation I had recently while redesigning a client’s homepage.
Client: “Can we make the main image a carousel of multiple images?”
Me: “Why do you want a carousel of images on your homepage?”
Client: “Because we don’t want a customer to leave the site without seeing what they want.”
Me: “Why don’t you know what a potential customer visiting your site wants to see?”
Client: “Because we can’t read their minds.”
Me: “Have you thought about using analytics to create a more personalized experience based on what your customers want to see and intend to purchase?
Client: “We can do that?”
Me: “I know some great digital marketers who can help. Is that something you’d be interested in?”
Client: “Of course!”
Asking “why” changed my scope of work from simply redesigning the client’s homepage to a six-month contract partnering with a digital marketer. It’s a win-win-win. The client gets a better website that generates more sales. My digital marketing partner gets more work. And I get more work.
Don’t just execute. Solve problems by asking “Why?”
7. Show Designs in the Wild
The worst possible outcome of a project is getting approval on the final design, and then the client realizes they don’t like it in real world applications. To avoid this, present design concepts in the environment that they are going to be viewed by the client and their customers.
What does this mean? Well, if you’re designing a website, don’t email the client static comps as JPGs or PDFS that may open at a smaller size than an actual website. I’ve had a client open a JPG of a long scrolling website and say its too skinny and tall. I spent the next thirty minutes on the phone trying to explain how to zoom in to the correct size. We spent more time on the format of the comp than the actually design. Avoid that type of situation with tools like InVision, where you can quickly turn static comps into prototyped websites and apps.
This is true for print and brand work as well. Show how your designs will look in their intended environment. I recently designed a billboard that looked beautiful on my screen. I photoshopped it onto a photo of a roadside billboard and quickly realized that the call to action and website were way too small to be read by drivers quickly passing by. I was able to adjust the design before ever showing it to the client.
Designing packaging, like a beer label? Print it out and wrap it around a bottle.
Designing a logo? Show how it will look very small on their website and very large on the side of their building to ensure they like it in multiple sizes and applications.
A little extra photoshop work can save you an angry phone call, and a lot of rework, from a client who formerly loved your design.
8. Ensure Clients Give Good Feedback
A major complaint of many designers is that clients give awful feedback. I agree, they often don’t frame their feedback well. But here’s something no one likes to talk about: it’s not the client’s fault! Most clients don’t have much experience giving creative feedback and typically aren’t used to working with designers regularly. Heck, I’ve even worked with great creatives who don’t give good feedback.
So how do you ensure you get the right feedback? Set up the client, and yourself, for success by framing the type of feedback you’d like to receive from them.
Never just email your work to a client and say “let me know what you think.” Always have a meeting to review your work (especially initial concepts). Start the meeting by reiterating the problem you were solving. Then walk through your reasoning for the designs you created and explain how it will solve that problem. This will make for a more productive conversation than just the client offering opinions about whether it looks cool.
If you need your client’s feedback on two options, make sure you focusing them on the differences in the designs and how you think it will affect the final outcome of the project. There are almost always pros and cons to design choices, so clearly explain those to your client before asking them to choose.
9. The Rule of Three “Nos”
If you haven’t caught on yet, I’m a huge proponent of designers being problem solvers, and not just design technicians. So when a client says, “Let’s make this blue,” find out what problem they are really trying to solve. In most cases this works really well, but in some cases they client will ask a second time, “Can we please make this blue?” When asked a second time, use your experience with a similar project—or even better, use data—to back up why their suggestion may not be the best solution.
But what if they ask a third time, “I understand, but can we please just make it blue?” At this point, suggesting an alternative or saying no for a third time is rude. I equate it to being at a dinner party and refusing your host’s offer for dessert a third time. You can politely say “No thank you, I’m full,” two times, but when pushed a third time, it’s rude not to concede, “Okay, just a little piece.”
Even if it’s not in the best interest of the project, concede after a third time and execute their request to the best of your ability. You’ve given your professional opinion twice—that’s fair warning.
Next time you’re about to complain about a client, remember that you are the one responsible for the success or failure of the relationship. Any good relationship starts with good communication.
You are the expert, position yourself as such. Over-communicate to the client what to expect from the creative process, get as many approvals as possible along the way, and then overdeliver on the expectations you have set. Follow these simple steps and you’ll be well on your way to to a happy client and a happy work life.