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I know this is subjective to a degree. I am asking for best practice or experienced input.


TL;DR:
How willing should a designer be to share specific job specifications with a past client after the client has chosen to find another provider?

Should all information regarding the processes of creating materials be open for request or is it wise for the designer to not share production information and specifications?

I'm referring to general job information – color, size, stock, print vendor – I am not referring to files or artwork. Actual files are another matter entirely

And specifically.. the client chose to terminate the business relationship. Not the designer.


Scenario: I've been working with a client for approximately 10–12 years. They were a startup when I was introduced to them. This client was related to another client whom I've known for a couple decades. So, it all started as more of a "favor". There is no formal contract (yeah my mistake to a degree). But there have always been emails back and forth.. price of X is $X.. is that okay?.. yes... etc. So there is a written record of transactions.

I created a logo design, corporate ID package, web site, marketing collaterals, etc. Much of this included custom vector artwork. I've essentially been their sole provider for design, print or web, for more than 10 years. I performed many things at a very reduced rate and never bothered "nickel and diming" them over small things. This is all fine with me.


Over the years they've grown and been successful to the point where I can't effectively accommodate some of their desires in terms of web design in the timeframe they want.

They have a habit of thinking of me as an "employee" willing to drop everything and do what they need the moment they ask. I explained the issue to them – I can perform what they need, but the time necessary for some tasks simply makes me slow due to other commitments. There's been a trade-off the last few years. I take a little more time with their projects and in turn I was charging a bit less.

Recently, I was asked for all web site passwords/login because, as they put it "In case something happened to me." Well, lo and behold they had actually hired some Wordpress-factory to redo their web site and they needed the information to move hosting and alter DNS and, well, cut me out of the loop entirely. This, while it's not something I enjoy, was understood. I would have supplied the information even if I knew they were moving things to another company. Business is business and as posted, I wasn't turning things around as fast as they wanted.


Since that time, I've been asked to supply vector files, which I refused, explaining "all custom artwork remains the property of [me]". This upset the client and they sent a rather abrupt email to me with the standard [misguided] "we paid for design so we paid for the art too!" argument. They even through in.. "we don't have a contract so you can't keep the art."

I politely asked the client to call so I could explain. They said they would however never did. I know that I own the art. I also know without a contract my position on the matter is stronger, not weaker. I'm a freelancer.. using my tools on my time as I see fit. I am not an employee. But again, that seems to be the general mindset towards me here.

Since I never got a call.. I am left to assume that the new company they've hired is cannibalizing previous PDFs I created and taking artwork. Although I have no evidence of that directly, yet.


Today, I get an email request specifications for their business cards... specifically stock and weight.

Clearly they are cutting me out of the print loop as well. Again, their choice I won't argue about it with them. However, I feel it is a bit inappropriate for them to ask me how I performed my tasks. That would include specific specifications for any project.

The client apparently knows the vendor I was using. (Over the years, I probably forgot to tick the "no label" option at some point when I ordered something for them and shipped it directly to them.) However, if I were ever asked for that information directly I would not have supplied it, even when we were on good terms. To supply such information now, seems untenable for me.

I don't want to be "difficult" intentionally, but I also do not want to "give away the store" trying to avoid conflict. I really do not wish to create any animosity or generate an adversarial relationship with the client. But I feel some of the requests are becoming overreaching and supplying the information is essentially asking me for how I run my business.

Where I'm wavering is in that thought. I do not know if I'm being over-sensitive regarding the sharing of information or if my perception that they are asking too much is correct.


So, I'm left wondering... Should all information regarding the processes of creating materials be open for request for a past client? Or is it wise for the designer to not share production information and specifications?

I get, and retain, clients specifically because of how I perform tasks. Sharing that seems too much to me. Should former clients be allowed to "pick my brain" regarding my processes? Or am I being silly?


To be clear.. the client has chosen to go elsewhere for services. I Have not chosen to stop supporting the client. Therefore.. if it is the client's choice to leave..... should I be concerned about providing anything which I am not legally obligated to?

  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – curious Jul 30 at 18:49
  • @Scott Speaking to the personal aspect of this, it sounds like you're dealing with a small company with growing pains. (Specifically, they need to hire someone with the experience to answer the questions they're asking you, and they have not figured that out, yet.) I would not anticipate that they would be 100% professional all the time, even if your relationship with them improved; I'm not sure that worrying about burning the bridge yourself is as productive as minimizing their impact on you. – jpaugh Jul 31 at 22:31
  • Good point @jpaugh My inclination is that they are not at all being malicious in any request. So, I've tried to be friendly and help where I think it's acceptable. but it's fast approaching a point where I simply need to cut them off if they are no longer a revenue stream. – Scott Jul 31 at 23:28
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I wouldn't give them or any client really anything if its one of your sources.

"Thank you for your inquiry. My sources and vendors are part of the value I bring through my X years of experience. Just as you have your sources for Y and Z (whatever they do) and wouldn't want to be disclosing that. I cannot provide you with this information as it will cause material harm to my business.

If they persist perhaps an anology would help:

After you buy a shirt from Ralph Lauren (or whatever) do you then demand the sales person to tell you where Ralph Lauren sourced the fabric from? Of course not, so please don't make such ridiculous requests from me.

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    The first paragraph quote is great. I may reword it a bit, but it absolutely feels applicable here. – Scott Jul 30 at 19:28
22

I would let it go 100%.

Answer all their questions and put a deadline date after which you are no longer taking requests. I will gladly help with this information, but you need to take over internally asap. They will figure things out sooner than you'd expect.

I had a client like this. Similar story.

Worked for about 8 years on pretty much everything print & web until they got sooo big, listed on the stock exchange and grew from 3-4 people to probably hundreds of people. At that point the volume of work was so large and urgent that i was actually freelancing from their office to keep up with everything. Basicly a well paid, on-call, in-house freelancer.

Things worked for a while at this pace and the pay was good, but as a pure breed freelancer i wasn't happy about hello-ing their accounting every day at the coffee machine, and the thing also was kind of taking over my everything else. There was also remote work, but when the urgent was really urgent, i would be stuck there for 2 weeks full time.

One day, I emailed the bosses and told them i will no longer be working with them starting next month and if they want they can have all the files and i will not have a problem with that. After all there was a full 8 years of very well paid work at the time. It was all that intense work that turned me from an entry level designer to a senior freelancer and because of all this i managed to stay away from the one-off minor jobs freelancers usually get when starting out.

I learned how to deal with management, how to deal with 10 of their employees at the same time, how to talk to investors in the company. Handled multiple urgent jobs at the same time. People coming by helicopter for the meeting. I learned alot of stuff in that 8 year span aside from the actual money being earned. We had contracts, more than one contract actually, but i didn't want any kind of conflict with their legal department and honestly didn't want to delay their workflow which was obviously too large for one single designer.

So i just let it go.

I packed and delivered all the files, emailed passwords, contacts of suppliers and everything that was useful for them to fully take over the work.

They kind of got my position and we separated in good terms, kept in contact for a while, but they quickly had to hire other providers and that was that. No more emails and calls a few weeks after that.

One year later, the bosses left that company and started a new company. Came back to me for the same type of work, but this time I negociated better terms, better rates and got an assistant to help on busy days.

The job is still working today after 4 years with the new company, they've got an IT department with access to all the web stuff, so backup and passwords is their job, they've got a marketing department and they pick their own paper stock, make their own print orders and only occasionally ask me about these things. More people sharing the load, easier to focus on the actual design part.

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    But my issue isn't really about the files. I have a stance on that and have for many, many years. it's about "what weight of stock was that printed on?" or "Who printed XXX for us??" – Scott Jul 30 at 19:49
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    Oh that. No. You give the files and its a good bye. If they are that big, one hired designer should be peanuts. Somebody else needs to take over. – Lucian Jul 30 at 19:51
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    This (+ comments)! Absolutely. And a valuable lesson learned. – Strawberry Jul 31 at 9:12
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    "Who printed XXX for us" ... if you supply the cards, then the answer is "I did". The sub-text is "I have a network of quality suppliers for things I don't produce in house". That said, I can't stand being in that situation - see my answer for an alternative approach! – Beejamin Aug 2 at 0:30
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    I really disagree with this for this instance because Scott didn't drop them. They dropped him and without warning or communication. Let's pretend your customer dropped you without any communication then showed up ... 6 months later asking you for your print specs. Is that okay? How about 3 years later? This answer all rests on there being an initial conversation to give them a timeframe, but the customer didn't do that. – Ryan Aug 2 at 16:09
10

tl:dr; Don't hold back on information that is not specifically yours, but let them do the leg work since they're not your client anymore. If you want to be non-confrontational, I would definitely try to deflect as much as possible so that you don't seem like the bad guy.

There are a couple of things here:


Source files

Other than branding material (various vector versions of their logo), I wouldn't provide any files since as you've mentioned, they're yours. A lot of clients don't know this however, and telling them makes you the bearer of bad news. The way I've handled this in the past is that I'll find an authoritative source online that explains this (maybe some link from AIGA or a law firm) and send it as a response. Then add that you may be willing to provide files for a price, and ask them which material they would be interested in getting a quote for. If they want a quote for the 10 years of material you did for them, I think it would be fair to charge a small fee.


Website passwords

Re: "If something happened to you"... It seems very unlikely to me that a reputable web provider would refuse access to a site if something had happened to the designer, given enough evidence from the client (but I may be misled on this). It seems much more likely that someone who's trying stuff around will break the site and leave you to fix it.

One way to handle this could be to explain that you'll give out the administrator password directly to another reputable supplier (that's also a pretty good way to know for sure you've been kicked out). This way you can be sure that if they mess stuff up, it's not your problem anymore.


Print specifications

I would probably just reply saying that I am too busy to look into the matter at the moment but that they can take a sample to another printer to have them identify the stock/weight.

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    Perhaps to my folly.. I see web site logins/passwords as more the "keys to their office" So I've never been one to retain those when asked. I don't provide any web-working or source files. But they certainly get access to what's on the server if they ask. Everything else.. well... I'm very apprehensive about sharing or vehemently against sharing. – Scott Jul 30 at 19:22
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    @Scott Ditto, typically if I'm handling the provider, I'll just CC the email straight to them (and tell them not to touch a thing). Depending on the platform, I'll create a user with permissions that give them access to edit content but not critical components of the site. – curious Jul 30 at 19:24
10

I'm the “get off my lawn” type. You get nothing by default and I carry pocket sand.

Old design artifacts – in one batch, once, for free.

By old, I mean shipped before. This is a professional courtesy and a test of your professional backup system – if it’s hard to produce these there is a structural defect in how you run your company, very much worth fixing.

Ask them to compile everything they need into a single request. Anything that you have not shipped before (e.g. exports at a higher resolution) comes at additional cost, for which you must quote them first.

Website passwords – in one batch, once, for free.

Exactly the same goes for credentials.

Source design artefacts and intellectual property – at a real price.

This includes sketches and vector files. It's nice to check off your list, but they have not paid for this. Underselling intellectual property comes at great personal cost. The correct answer to “We don't have a contract so you must give us the art!”, is:

  • We don't have a contract, so I retain all intellectual property and copyright. As per the law.

  • I'm willing to make a deal, if and only if we can agree on the price.

A reasonable price is up to 100% of the total amount they have paid you for the design artefacts – don’t go lower than 20%. Intellectual property is very valuable. Don’t undersell it. If you’re thinking of only charging them a symbolic amount like $5,000: do not do this, it’s not enough. I’m naming this counterexample specifically so you do not underestimate the value of your property.

You're not an employee, you don’t get a severance check, but you do retain your intellectual property by default. Don’t throw away your only leverage.

Production consulting – at a real price, very optionally.

This is a professional service not included in your previous estimates. If you’d offer the same service to new clients, consider it. If not, hell no.

All of the above – set a deadline for terminating all services, then communicate this.

This is for your mental health. I’d recommend between one and three months time. Tell them that other clients are demanding more of your time and you need to put all your focus on them (specifically, you need to move all your attention away from this client), so you will not be able to respond to their requests after X days.

Picking your brain – no, no, and no.

If you catch someone picking your door, you call the police. If someone tries to pick your brain, alarm bells should be going off as you consider giving them a quote for consulting services. Small chance they’ll take you up on the offer because their starting position was trying to gain your knowledge through seduction and/or social pressure. Never share anything non-trivial this way.

If you’re going to let someone pick your brain, at least have them buy you dinner first.

4

Personal experience, take it as this, and sorry for the english.


Once I had to testify in a process as a person indirectly involved.

I worked as a freelance designer for an adviser's office with a small advertising agency. I had a direct relationship with the clients, excellent with all of them. My job was to design, provide and present designs directly to the client, after passing the approval of the agency. All this was under strict service contracts.

The marketing director of one of these clients requested maternity leave, and had to be replaced. The new marketing director, without much experience in the business world, struggled day after day for her work continuity after the replacement. This was manifested with a lot of insecurity, quite a lack of criteria in absolutely everything and, in general, poor professionalism.

A few weeks after starting working, she began to try to get involved in matters outside her jurisprudence, such as calling the print to ask what budgets we had requested from the agency for the company's projects.

The agency sent a statement warning to the company because she was meddling in lands that didn't correspond to her, in fact her company was paying for all these services we performed.

All this was getting worse, to the point of requiring the printing company to deliver her CDs with our files. Something totally illegal.

The agency had no choice but to take legal action against the person, on behalf of the company for which she worked.

As directly involved I had to go to testify. The company lawyer asked me:

  • Is the contracted agency obliged to deliver all the components referring to the designs to the company that requests it?–

My answer:

  • YES in everything related to creative process, NOT in regard to production, this is a part of our profession and we are paid to make the 100% of this job.

The judge nodded and said: to a trick question, a concrete answer.

4

There are a lot of good answers here. I would add a couple of other points for consideration that might be useful for future relationships (I've been a self-employed developer/designer for ~20 years).

It's perfectly valid (I think), to call a print-shop and say "Hey, what stock did you print our cards on last time?". Asking you for things like that only makes sense if you are the supplier of the business cards as a product: They pay you $X per card, you design, order from the printer at $0.5X per card, and deliver to the client. That is, you re-sell print services. Same goes for things like hosting, domain names, etc.

TL:DR; Don't be a re-seller!

I strongly recommend not re-selling services if you can possibly avoid it - especially commodity ones. My ToS includes words to the effect "I will happily administer your services and liaise with suppliers at my standard rate, but you will be the (printer's/hosting provider's/registry's) customer".

This set up has a few advantages:

  • The client pays directly for these things, you'll never be out of pocket if they don't pay for whatever reason.
  • They can ask the provider directly for all those job details.
  • If you 'get hit by a bus' your client should have all their account details. This has been a huge reassurance for a lot of potential clients, and I have gotten some big projects I wouldn't otherwise on this point.

To me, those more than offset the markup you can apply to business cards and hosting charges. To make that markup worthwhile you would need more customers than you can comfortably handle as a single operator (unless you want to be a "print-shop" or "hosting company"). And don't forget, you still charge for your time, you just need to forgo a little (hypothetical) passive income.

For things with logins/passwords, by all means set up the accounts for them, but have a secure way of providing the credentials at the same time, and let them know they are responsible for the secure storage of them. I use a shared 1Password vault, and that works well. Wherever the service allows, set up a master account for them and then add your own user account - don't use the same login as them if you can avoid it.

For your current (ex) client

Don't hold back that information because it's a disadvantage to provide it, unless you're trying to win back their business (which you're not anyway, by the sounds). It's not like they're going to take your print specs and suddenly be in competition for the same customers as you.

However, if the time taken up by these queries is significant, then they need to pay you for it. In these cases, you want to agree on a transition plan which states all the things you will supply, over what time frame, and for how much. "Teaching them how to do what you did" is a job, and you shouldn't be expected to do it for free.

This is always tricky in an old, undocumented, ad-hoc relationship. Always make a contract, especially when you don't think you'll need one!

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    I can only agree with this. Welcome to GDSE! – curious Aug 2 at 0:34
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    I would agree as well :) Strongly agree with the "don't be a reseller" I'm not.. but for this client..well it was more lax than normal. My fault. – Scott Aug 2 at 1:27

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