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Managing your Clients

Updated on February 25, 2010

Working as a visual designer has its rewards. At a very high level, you are essentially being paid to draw pretty pictures and think of clever things. How much better can it get than that? Most non-designers tend to think that visual designers have it easy, and that they get to have fun all day rocking out to good music, wearing shorts and sandals while sipping energy drinks or herbal tea in front of their pretty Apple computers. Yes, it is fun. But just because you are a good graphic designer doesn’t necessarily mean that you will automatically be successful.

There is another side to this business, the less-romantic side which is rarely talked or thought about by eager young designers who dream of making a career in the creative arts. If you want to be successful, you are going to need people to pay you for your work. We call those necessary people “clients”. These clients can be highly frustrating at times when the demands of their emergency deadlines come pouring on, and it usually happens at the most inconvenient of times. The best way to manage these clients and their demands is to manage them – don’t let them control or impede your workflow.

Below are some basic tips to help you manage your clients and survive their often-challenging demands. They are applicable to both freelance designers, or designers working in mega-corporations. It doesn’t matter who your client is – in reality, they are all the same.

1). It’s okay to say no. As strange as it may seem to the young designers just starting out in this business, there are times when it’s appropriate to decline (or push back) on a design request from a client. The biggest reason is that you don’t want to be come a “yes” person – it took me a while to learn this, as I was always very eager to help anyone early in my career even if it meant sleepless nights and working on mind-numbingly boring work. I would accept the work with a smile, and I was quickly known as the guy to go to for ultra-quick quality work. That was fine – for a while. Over time, I discovered that living up to this reputation is damaging to the body, and one can quickly learn that it is not a long-term way to live life. Now 15 years into my career, I have slowed down my daily workflow on purpose – not because I’m getting old (no, really!), but because I don’t want to burn out and die an early death from a busy life of making little icons and widgets for other people under ridiculous deadlines.

The other reason for saying “no”: quality of work. Again, after 15 years in the business, I’ve learned that I am much happier with the quality of my work if I can take a little extra time to put the finishing touches on something before throwing it over the wall.

One last note about declining or pushing back on the demands of your clients: if you are in a situation where this is not possible, it’s time to re-evaluate your current client list. Don’t burn out and develop health problems due to someone else’s ridiculous demands.

2). Give them what they want – even it’s a horrible idea. This is probably the most difficult part about working with non-designer clients. They usually have a vision in their minds of what they want you to build, and most of the time, it’s explicitly clear. A designer who gives them anything less than this will only frustrate them, and it makes for a bad situation for both parties. Even if they demand to see animated gif’s of pink hippos bouncing across the screen while eating ice cream, give it to them. But how does a good designer stay sane in situations like this? Easy: give them what you want as well. Show them a concept with their pink hippos – but give them a design that you think is a better solution. Tell them why you think it’s better. Get input from others to back you up if needed, and be prepared to debate your reasoning. Usually, it’s best to create something a LOT better, while keeping in mind ways that you can compromise with the client as you debate the two concepts.  If you can compromise on the design, giving them what they want with elements that you want, both of you can walk away happy.

3). Give them plenty of options. Nothing is worse as a designer to pour your heart and soul into one design and have it shot down by the client in seconds. We’ve all been there – it hurts. But the pain can be eased by providing alternative concepts for them to choose from and being able to walk away from the design review with some of your dignity intact.

4). Status updates. This is something I didn’t learn until I reached a point in my career when I started sub-contracting out some of my design work. Basically, my thinking is that if I am paying somebody to produce something, I want to know about any issues they are having or progress they have made. Even if they are slow and don’t produce the work to my desired speed, I am always satisfied knowing that they are cranking on it and that they have all the information they need to do the best they can do. Most of the time I don’t really care what they produce – I just feel better knowing what is going on and that all is well.

Providing these status-updates – even if they are short and Twitter-like in nature – are invaluable for client/designer relations. Apologies to all the design managers who I have worked for early in my career who may have been wondering about what the heck I was up to in my little cubicle in the corner…

In summary, the relationship between the client and designer is not always as single-sided as it seems. The client must manage the designer to produce something satisfactory, but it is also the responsibility of the designer to manage the client. As a designer, you have the right to take pride in your work and your workflow, and to not let anybody or anything interfere with that. A happy designer is a good designer.


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