34

This has happened to me a few times, in bigger or smaller scale, and I think it happens to many of us.

We as designers have the pleasure/curse of leaving quite a bit of us in every design.

When you have a client who, you feel, undermines your design decisions, how do keep that from affecting what you are doing?


Related question: How can I work with a client that doesn't know what they want?

  • 9
    fire them. quickly. – Vincent Dec 23 '14 at 11:11
  • 5
    re. "leaving quite a bit of us in every design" - I find it helps to compete with myself, like "past me did that design. Present me is better than past me - my new objective is to beat past me's design". – user56reinstatemonica8 Dec 23 '14 at 13:32
  • 7
    Maybe just use "a duck" next time – user11153 Dec 23 '14 at 13:58
41
+150

You have a "thumbprint" client. This person must always change something, and feel like he's left his thumbprint on it, or he doesn't think he's done his job correctly.

I have a coping strategy I got from When Bad Relatives Happen to Good People. It's called "Setting a Budget."

A woman was upset because every time she went to her son's house for a weekend visit, things went wrong, plates were broken, the grandkid had a tantrum, clothing was ripped, etc., and the woman was miserable.

So the counselor asked her how many things usually went wrong in one of those weekend visits. "Oh, at least two dozen," she said. So the counselor told her to reset her expectations and budget for 24 lousy things to happen. After 24 lousy things, then she could be justified in being upset, because 24 lousy things was the norm.

The very next visit the son was astonished at how relaxed the woman was despite the chaos. "Oh, only 12 lousy things have happened, so I'm well under budget," she told him.

To apply that here, figure out the average number of thumbprints (changes) your client usually makes, and set that as your budget. Go in with that expectation.

After that number of changes, then you can justifiably feel frustrated or undermined.

  • 2
    Excellent idea. Most client problems revolve around communication and expectation issues. Get those nailed down and you've probably solved ~80% of your client problems! – bemdesign Dec 23 '14 at 13:07
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    Nice. This also means that, when it goes really well and the client has no complaints, it'll feel like a great success rather than just relief. Makes more sense that way, thinking about it. – user56reinstatemonica8 Dec 23 '14 at 13:28
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    This should not just be a coping strategy, this should be an integral part of your actual budgeting and costings. If client A causes you to lose twice as much hair as B, A should be paying twice as much. Don't force yourself to work for monsters if they're not aptly remunerating you. And this affords you a secondary coping mechanism: getting to go home and roll around in fat stacks. – Oli Dec 24 '14 at 14:05
23

There are actually a couple issues here.

If the client just repeatedly wants changes, as @LaurenIpsum posted, they are a "thumbprint" client. And you simply need to get to a point where you can separate yourself from the work and just do what they ask. I often have to tell myself "this is just what I do, not who I am." So changes aren't personal attacks on my skills or aesthetics.

I actually set things up for these type of clients. "do you like the blue or the red?", "Do you prefer the logo position in this layout or in this one?" Giving these types of client as many possible choices tends to help them feel vested and involved in the process and if you can provide directed choices you may be able to find a middle ground. One where they are making decisions so they feel they've made their mark, but you're also okay with the decisions they've made.

Yes, these clients take more work so I do adjust pricing accordingly. If I know I'm going to have to present an extra mock up every round so they can choose different items, then that extra time is factored. Of course, you may not know they are this type of client until after pricing has been agreed upon. So I keep track of the extra time I spend and will adjust future quotes for the client to make up for any loss. If they never return to me for work, then they got the better end of the deal.

The second matter is the word "insulting". I don't know if they are actually insulting you or just making so many changes you feel insulted (which happens to everyone I think). The customer is always right, but that does not mean they are always nice.

Are they truly insulting? I mean are they intentionally being demoralizing and condescending towards you above and beyond expressing they aren't happy with the work? This is a more serious matter to me. I won't deal with clients who are insulting. Well, let me rephrase -- I won't deal with insulting clients if financially I don't have to. If I come across a client who I feel has the perception that I'm somehow less than human or deserving of verbal attacks, I stop working with that client. I want a happy workplace and for me, life's just too short to be paid so I can be insulted. If they don't like the work, that's one thing. But attacking me personally is unforgivable to me.

If I ever hear the phrase, "My XXXX could have done that for only $x." My response is almost always "Oh, okay. Do you want your xxxx to do this project? Should I cease all work?" -- that tends to put an end to that insult very quickly.

13

When a client bashes my design, I move on with my life and just do whatever they want. They're paying so screw it. All I can do is advise them as a trained professional, try my best to convince them, and then move on. If they're that adamant about what they want than that's what they're going to get from me.

Embrace your capitalist core. You're a business, why would it affect you to do what your client wants against your advice? As long as they pay I see no reason why they're poor judgement should affect me. Bash my designs all you want but at the end of the day - "Too bad, pay me." And until they go with another designer or stop paying me I'd continue on that fundamental principal.

Henry Hill: [narrating] Now the guy's got Paulie as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Paulie. Trouble with the bill? He can go to Paulie. Trouble with the cops, deliveries, Tommy, he can call Paulie. But now the guy's gotta come up with Paulie's money every week, no matter what. Business bad? Too bad, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? Too bad, pay me. Place got hit by lightning, huh? Too bad, pay me.

Oh that terrible design you were so adamant about didn't work out? In the words of Henry Hill, "Too bad, pay me."

  • 6
    Except that the name of you (or your firm) is attached to the terrible design the client is adamant about. Even if it's not physically printed on the design, chances are the customer will tell others, and he's not going to admit to making your design worse. – thelr Dec 23 '14 at 15:47
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    @thelr you're looking at it wrong though - if the customer shows your design to others and tells them you did it, that's great even if its not the best design. And your client is happy with it so they're going to talk it up too. However, if you don't do what your client wants they're not going to show it to anybody and be disappointed with the result.... or get a different designer entirely. – Ryan Dec 23 '14 at 15:51
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    Certainly, that may happen. On the other hand, I've seen a website design for a used car dealership start sleek and modern until the customer insisted on replacing the logo in the header with a giant telephone number, and adding blinking graphics everywhere. Sure, he may talk it up, then the people he talks it up to are going to look at it and be disgusted. – thelr Dec 23 '14 at 16:12
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    @thelr again - not looking at it right. Take Jim is a car dealership and his friend is Jane. Jane looks at the site and is disgusted. She doesn't hire you. Jim doesn't show your project so Jane never hears of you. She doesn't hire you. Your end result is the same but in the first case Jim paid you and Jane may like the design, maybe she shares Jim's sensibilities and that's why they're friends. Maybe she doesn't and is disgusted. But if he doesn't show it or go with you then Jane will never hear of you to begin with. – Ryan Dec 23 '14 at 16:21
  • 5
    This approach is usually sound. But this kind of customer has the tendency to notice that there is a problem (e.g. "99% of users leave the page within 5 seconds"), and require you to fix it, while not allowing you to change the root cause (e.g. remove the Flash splashscreen with autoplaying music). And 1) depending on the contract structure, it may be impossible to get paid extra for "fixing" these issues, and 2) sometimes money is not enough compensation for having to do mindless, wrong, soulcrushing work and being berated for it, while being prevented from doing it right. – rumtscho Dec 23 '14 at 21:27
10

There are several factors that can sour what started as a promising project.

  1. Personality. There are people who, out of fear and personal insecurity, compulsively and continuously tear others down. They seem particularly apt to target creatives. Simply recognizing this will cushion the blow when they oh-so-politely try to cut you off at the ankles on some spurious pretext. Feel sorry for them, but never feel made less by them. Avoid in the future.

  2. Ignorance. Clients aren't designers. They sometimes don't understand what you're doing and they're scared of making an expensive mistake, especially if they have to answer to others up the chain of command. Their way of coping with this is to try to lessen the value of your work so you'll offer them a discount. It's up to you to educate them.

  3. False ideas. The client may have design conflated with fine art. Or they were taught that you can't ever use blue. Or that you must use blue. Or they don't realize the ad they want you to emulate depends on a photograph that cost $50,000 plus expenses. Again, education is the remedy.

  4. Taste. The client doesn't necessarily share yours. Many people have a hard time distinguishing opinion from fact (browse any YouTube comment list), and taste is opinion. Accept that and move on.

  5. Your own command of craft. Design is a craft. If you know your craft work is good, ignorant criticism won't faze you. So, they don't like it. So what? Ask really specific, pointed questions until you drag out what they actually need.

  6. Scarcity. Ideas are not precious; there are a thousand more where that one came from. Always be willing to throw away a design that's not working, no matter how much you've put into it. Maybe it will work for a different project or client. Frank Lloyd Wright said his two most important tools were the eraser in the drafting room and the sledgehammer on the building site.

The client who would actually insult you is rare. They will generally back down very quickly if you stand your ground (see #1), because they're cowards at heart.

The client who subjects you to the death of a thousand cuts, with constant changes that gradually erode your original concept into mush? There's a point at which you realize that they didn't hire you as a designer; they just wanted someone to put their own misshapen/aberrant/ugly idea into a layout.

The technical term for this activity is "polishing turds," and once in a while we all get one of these jobs. Paula Scher once remarked that there is a point, when the client just won't listen and won't accept what you're doing for them, that you have to say, "Well, it's your money." Give them what they want and don't work for them again.

Leaving a bit of yourself in every design isn't a curse. It makes room for your next set of creative ideas. At the risk of waxing too avuncular, "self" isn't a commodity that gets used up, regardless of what you read in the pop psychology mags; it is a never-ending work in progress, subject only to your own drive and imagination.

6

The choice of language is telling here:

  • clients who bash your design – who are insulting towards your work

Do you expect to design something, unveil it, and have all the stakeholders marvel at your design prowess? Maybe your expectations are not realistic.

Maybe you could look at this as feedback, rather than as bashes and insults. All negative feedback affords an opportunity to improve your work, if you can be open enough to accept the criticism as helpful rather than insulting.

I, too, have felt the sting of "it wasn't good enough" as I slunk back to the drawing board. More often than not, though, after I addressed the concerns that had been raised, I had to retrospectively admit that our overall work improved after we addressed those concerns. Eventually, I learned to be thankful for the second opinions, rather than resentful of them.

Learn to be thankful for the opportunities to hone your work, instead of feeling like you've invested too much of yourself in your design before it's been finalized.

  • 1
    I agree, I do accept every feedback as a chance to really perfect something, and those challenges are usually rewarding. The problem comes when you know there is a better way to do things but the project will just go in a different direction. – Yisela Dec 24 '14 at 1:03
6

I think we've all had clients who want to change things constantly, and like other posters have mentioned we call them "thumbprint clients" because the feel a need to leave their "thumbprint" on every iteration.

Sometimes it's easy to feel like these thumbprint clients are "bashing" your design work, as designers we vest a lot of ourselves in our work and it's easy to feel attacked when people want to change our designs constantly, we can feel like they're questioning our expert knowledge.

I've had plenty of clients like this myself, and I've developed a couple of strategies for coping with them. The first, and most proactive is what I've call "come to call establishing expertise." Most of the people who come to us as clients aren't designers, they haven't studied design, they don't know famous designers or design styles and they don't often understand how designers abstract solutions to the problems they give us. When I first meet with a client, I like to really take some time to sit with them, to talk through the design process and also to talk about what they're wanting. I talk about design theory with them, I ask them if they've ever heard Dieter Rams' Principles of Good Design and I explain how some of these principles apply to what they're asking me to design... by the time I begin working, I've established an idea with the client that what I do is more than just drawing pretty pictures and I've instilled in them the trust that I'm an expert at what I do. Establishing Expertise is the first key to neutralising thumbprint clients.

The second thing I do, and maybe even more important than the first, is I charge for EVERYTHING. When I first started in the creative industry I had a boss who told me the key to life was "line items", the more line items you can add to your invoice the more the client understands the value of what you're doing. At the time I didn't understand, I felt bad charging the client for something I thought had been our fault, but over time I learnt that if you don't show clients the value of your time then they will take it for granted, not because they're bad people but simply because they don't understand. Now when I design anything, I provide a proof at the end of every design iteration and I charge my clients for it, even if it's a nominal fee like $5 for sending them a PDF I make sure it appears as a separate line item. When my clients make revisions to my designs, I enter these revisions as a separate line item with the date they were requested. I once had a client I charged over 20 hours of revisions to on a very basic brochure design and after that job, they never asked me to perform as many revisions.

Above all, remember that if someone employs you, and they keep coming back to you, then they must like your work. If they don't like what you do, they'll stop coming back and that's a good thing, it frees you up to work with people who do like what you do. Make sure you approach every client with confidence and charge them for all the work you do for them.

2

Never take it seriously. Every person, especially a client, is entitled to his or her opinions.

Remember that a lot of people treat art subjectively. Believe it or not, there are also a lot of people who think that art should only be interpreted subjectively. (Of course not; I myself interpret art both objectively AND subjectively, depending on the situation. But because art is my profession, I have to be objective most of the time.).

You have to always ask your client his opinion/views/output regarding your work because you're working on commission. The 1st part of the creative process includes output from client and justifying your work.

Example, explain to your client why you choose this color to his logo or why the proportion of the logo is only this much in the layout.

0

In my case I have to educate my team and expose them to as much good design I can so we are on the same page when it comes to visual style.

I work as the only in-house designer in the company where there is no design culture, so I have to create one.

Another way is to use examples as close to the project at hand as possible. If you design an ad campaign for a gardening website, look at other gardening websites and see what they've done (you probably do this anyway as part of your research) but when you get to present your design to the client show them how you started looking at what others are doing in the industry and tell them how that inspired your designs. My employer is particularly receptive to this as they feel they are not taking such a big risk when advertising.

Present them a few options (my rule of thumb is 3), and if they have a tendency to pick the weaker designs (this was mentioned by user11153) use a duck. To put it short, that is:

A feature added for no other reason than to draw management attention and be removed, thus avoiding unnecessary changes in other aspects of the product.

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