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The everyday life of a digital artist: Dealing with difficult clients

Updated on July 24, 2013

There is often a good reason why a client gets angry or disgruntled; as a professional artist offering a service, it is important to address the customer’s concerns in order to maintain a healthy and professional relationship. However, what if their expectations are bigger than their budgets? Finding it difficult to compromise? The client changing their ideas last minute? There are things you can do to avoid problems spiralling out of control.

The initial consultation

Before you deliver a product of any kind whether it be an animation, design, game, website or illustration, have an informal chat with your client first to see if the project is achievable in the given amount of time. Talk to them realistically about their hopes, what they are hoping to spend on the project and whether they would be willing to extend their budget if any extra work needs to be done in unforeseeable circumstances.

It can be dangerous to promise too much too soon; nobody can tell whether a digital media project will run smoothly, no matter how experienced the digital media professional. So save yourself the stress and use this time to discuss the project in depth before agreeing to proceed. If you think extra resource is needed, voice your concerns before it is too late and before the blame is pinned on you.

Prioritise your workload

Sit down with the client and compile a list of things they want the project to do and the priority for each task. Post it notes are great for this purpose because you can write tasks on them and stick them on the wall in order of priority i.e. High priority, Medium priority, Nice to have. You can then cross off or remove each task sheet as and when they are completed. When a task is complete, don’t forget to sign it off with the client. If the client is not entirely happy, you should work towards a solution to give them the peace of mind and to keep them smiling!

If later down the line you discover a problem or you cannot complete a task for one reason or another, make sure you tell the client as soon as possible and explain your actions. Maybe this problem can be resolved by simplifying the task or by outsourcing the difficult task to somebody with more specialised knowledge.

Learn the skills your client needs or find someone else to do it.

The client wants you to make a 2D Flash animation – all is going well until the client throws a bombshell on you; he wants the animation to have interactive features. You find this task difficult because you have limited programming knowledge. What do you do?

Well, if the project deadline isn't too close and your client is in favour, you could take on the challenge and broaden your skillset. Although risky, you could put your new knowledge to good use by expanding your portfolio. On the other hand, you could take the easy route and outsource the work to someone else.

Ultimately, you should be honest with your client and tell them what your true capabilities are. It is much better to admit that you can't do something than to string them down the garden path only to be let down in the end. It could cost you your money and your hard earned reputation.


Be honest and know your limitations

Always tackle top priority items first then use any surplus time to do less important jobs; that way the client can get the most out of their budget.


“An artist’s work is never done”...but it is when you have used all your resources

The consultation phase is the perfect time for clients to discuss their likes and dislikes regarding design – it’s no good the client saying “I don’t mind” or “I don’t know”. If the client says either of these things, you could end up wasting a lot of time to accommodate their spur of the moment ideas and afterthoughts; time that could be spent on more valuable tasks.

It is much better to work together as part of a team; ask the client if they are inspired by an idea or something which they have seen - not to copy another designer’s work but to create a solid foundation for great, new ideas.

As a designer, you could show them some brief sketches or put together a few quick collages, colour swatches – things like that. You can then discuss any feedback and collectively summarise what has been said so both of you know exactly what is to be done (by email or in the form of a written proposal in an ideal world).

Take a step back to reflect

If it is difficult to come to an agreement and you find yourself creating prototype after prototype for little or no money, know where to draw the line and when to start charging for your services. Maybe the client loves your artistic style but is simply indecisive, in which case, don’t take it personally. They are not necessarily undermining your abilities. It’s a case of whether you are mutually happy to work together to get the job done.

If on the other hand, you feel the client is expecting way too much of you, just be honest and ask yourself whether you are the right person for the job. Is the stress really worth what they are paying you anyway? A nightmare project to you could seem like a walk in the park for someone more specialised – probably done in less time too. If you know of someone perfect for the job, recommend them! Maybe they will return the favour one day.

How to deal with a client's indecision

A client wants a new website made for their new online business but cannot decide on a logo or brand image for themselves; all they know is that they want the colour scheme to be red, white and blue (but can’t justify why). In fact they are not entirely sure what they are going to sell at this early stage; either sports equipment or clothing. They would like a designer to start on the project as quickly as possible so that they can begin trading at the first given opportunity.

Give clients what they REALLY want...they just don't know it yet.

If the client continues to chop and change his or her mind, arrange a meeting to discuss.

From a designer’s perspective, a project of this nature is risky business. The project brief is vague and the client is unsure what service to offer potential customers. Instead of leaping into a project like this, you might want to emphasise to the client just how risky the final outcome could be without proper planning. It could cost them a lot of money and reflect badly on the company’s long term image, not to mention yours! After all, a project you work on is everything that you represent in the digital media community. Like it or not, you will be judged on it.

The client may consider putting the project on hold or agree to spend more time on their business model; getting the project right first time is far more economical for the client.

Things would be a lot simpler if you made a contract before the project begins. It offers peace of mind for both parties. The customer has peace of mind, knowing you will complete the project to your best ability. You will have peace of mind, knowing you will be paid for your valuable time, plus extra for last minute alterations. Fair is fair.

The legally binding document

Some people have a fear of contracts, especially if they are working on an art and design project with a friend, relative or acquaintance. Although a friend’s trust is binding to a certain extent, professional boundaries can be abused – expecting large discounts for being a friend is a common issue. Whether you decide to do the work for free is up to you but it’s a good idea to lay down the terms and conditions from the start; this is not only reassuring for you but also the client.

If the client has a budget of £1000 for instance, this should be mentioned in the contract along with the deadline date, your hourly/day rate and when you expect to be paid after the work is done. You should also provide clear instructions to the client if they wish to extend the budget and how much notice should be given – it’s no good them offering you a large sum of money on the 11th hour before the deadline if you are already swamped with other jobs.

If you are working in a team of people, it is important to clarify each person’s role within the project and who you are going to take instructions from. If you don’t do this, you could find yourself in a difficult position later where you are given instructions from two or more people; each with conflicting ideas. It is important to be aware of their roles and how your deadlines affect theirs and vice versa. How will you communicate with them and share your work in progress?

Hold regular meetings with your clients

Meet with the client as often as possible – show them the project as it develops so that they know exactly what you are doing, how you are doing it and allowing them the opportunity to offer feedback as the project progresses. This should minimise the risk of nasty shocks and miscommunication problems further down the line.

If your client lives far away, take advantage of video conferencing services such as Skype – it’s the next best thing to meeting a person in the flesh. You can even share your ideas and prototypes with the software’s useful screen sharing utility.

Emails are also great communication methods – if you are given written or typed­ instructions and there is a dispute later down the line, you have hard evidence to prove you were simply doing what you were told.

So in summary...

  • Work with your client, not against them
  • Have a consultation with the client before accepting a project
  • Communicate frequently – using technology to aid you where possible i.e. Email, Skype and telephone facilities. Face to face is best though!
  • Share the same vision and motive
  • Produce regular prototypes for your client to feedback
  • Create a contract to safeguard yourself from misconduct - it could save the day
  • Know your limitations – don’t put your reputation on the line for the sake of financial gain. It is not fair to the client or yourself.


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    • geek_princess profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from West Sussex

      KDeus, you are so right! Art and design is a tough cookie to crack and subject to much criticism. Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. One person will love it, another will absolutely detest it. The problem is, when ones livelihood relies on the sale of said art, time is money; something few of us have right now in this economical climate.

      Naturally, our clients want us to produce work to a high standard for them (and who can blame them for this) but project planning and successful communication is an art form in itself and can make or break a project, not to mention ones professional reputation!

      It is times like this I would love to be a mind reader :) it would save so much hassle!

      All the best

    • KDeus profile image

      Keely Deuschle 

      6 years ago from Florida

      Very thorough article. When I worked in the IT industry, we often experienced scope creep on our projects as other departments kept adding to the requirements. We ended up creating very detailed requirements with a set of deliverables and it was agreed that something additional would be added as a future revision.

      As an artist, however, many don't realize the time that goes into your art and often times, their demands leaves your art no longer your art. We have to know when to say enough is enough! Your tips are very helpful! Thanks for sharing!

    • geek_princess profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from West Sussex

      Thanks for your feedback phdast7 - I am relieved that my information was of some use. Most of us face hiccups throughout our careers...until they actually happen to us; we tend to pay little attention to the warning signs.

      If anybody can think of anything that I missed, or if you have experiences different to mine, please get in touch! I would really like to hear from you

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Very thorough and clear....step by step you showed us how to avoid the pitfalls. Really nice Hub.


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