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Your client isn't from hell

Improving your relationships with clients by looking inward


Designers play the role of the victim naturally. Throughout history, good design has always been in the minority, and as a designer you are inclined to protect and defend what you believe to be sacred ground, i.e., whitespace. As any “victim-type” will tell you, designer or otherwise, there is no shortage of adversaries, seething at the gates with torches in hand, ready to burn the kingdom to the ground. The trouble is, for many designers those adversaries are actually their clients.

This entry was originally posted in January 2012. I was younger, more naive, and less informed. The blog became the most popular post I’ve ever written, either a sad commentary on link baiting or an even sadder commentary on my blog. I’ve updated it to reflect my personal experiences since then and what I’ve learned working with clients. 

As I’ve grown older and worked with more people, I’m continually impressed by the professionalism, quality, and dedication of the talented individuals I work with. In my profession, I am both the designer for a handful of clients and the client to a handful of designers. Over time, I’ve come to realize that many of the frustrations that I or any other designer experience are usually not events perpetrated on hapless victims, but are the product of habits and processes on both the client and design side. In “The Power of Habit”, author Charles Duhigg explores this idea in detail. Events are not ends in themselves so much as they are symptoms of habits. The designer possesses a tremendous amount of agency in defining a working relationship, and can do so by changing their language and perspective about clients.

Changing your language

John Boiler, the CEO of the popular ad agency 72andSunny, published a wonderful article in AdAge entitled, “5 Reasons You Should Quit Using the Word Client” in which he expanded on the adversarial relationship many creatives have with their clients. One of the fundamental reasons that the word “client” is such a problematic term is that the word itself is an artifact of economics—it’s dehumunazing at the outset.

Behind every client is an individual. Unless you’re working on a massive project, and even if you are, you are likely dealing with only one or two people day-to-day. No matter how different you are as individuals, you have vastly more in common than not. When you actively look for common ground, you find it everywhere. Of course, the inverse is just as true.

Before I ever take on a new client, I want to understand what is driving them, what they’re after, their vision of themselves. I’m reminded of this scene from The Tree of Life.  Every one of us is on a journey of some sort, and work can be the primary vehicle for that journey, but it’s probably more often the means through which we can progress towards the person we really are. And what a better story that is. We are all wanderers, looking outward toward the horizon, trying to make out the vagaries of what’s next.  Perhaps this is what Carl Sagan referred to when he said, “The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood.”

As a professional, you will spend more time with your “clients” than you will some of your dearest friends. Why not take the opportunity to grow as close to them as possible? To explore how much you have in common. To nurture a personal relationship.

If I asked you to identify 5 descriptors that truly identify you, could you do it? Now what if I asked you to identify 5 descriptors that don’t define you? If you’re like most people, the second task is unspeakably easier. We often define ourselves in negative space, yet it’s that very pursuit to find the characteristics, no matter how small and inconsequential, that make us different (and usually better) that drive us away from meaningful relationships. That can be as true with romantic partners as it can be with clients.

All design is a collaboration and it runs on trust

A designer’s job is to collaborate with the client. The positive outcome of that collaboration relies on trust. Many designers have experiences where the client dictated to a degree of sometimes hilarious specificity exactly what they wanted (“I want my logo to be a red flag with a small dog perched on top”). The simple interpretation is to put the onus on the client to not be so rigid and ridiculous. Yet this is to ignore the root of the problem. A client who feels it necessary to illustrate a highly-specific idea themselves lacks trust in the working relationship. Think about your own life. When have you been the most specific with your instructions? If you’re like me, it’s when you’ve been the most unsure that the person you’re working with understands what you need.

This trust gap can usually be solved through communication. Controlling clients are absolutely committed to their work. Think about that…that’s a wonderful quality. You need to show that you are committed too. That you believe. You also have to have supreme confidence in your abilities, so much so that you’re willing to push back when necessary.  Controlling clients are usually the most dedicated and they’re often very successful. Most are reasonable enough to accept, and even enjoy, contradictory opinions. Hold on to these clients, they’ll take you places.

The easiest way out of any confrontation is to accept what’s been given, exit, and later complain to a safe audience. Collaboration with confrontation is difficult, but it’s absolutely necessary to produce the best work. In my experience, I’ve found that a trusting relationship with a demanding client is far and away the most rewarding, yet they can be difficult to build. There have certainly been instances where I have shied away from confrontation. I’ve always done my worst work in those conditions.

Your clients are a reflection of you

This is perhaps the most karmic truth of all. Your clients, especially those with whom you enjoy long term relationships, are the ones most like yourself. Like runs with like. In every organization I’ve worked with, I’ve noticed a striking homogeneity in the values and perspectives between the client and the vendor (admittedly, I may be subject to a confirmation bias). One on hand, this is natural, you want to partner with individuals and organizations with similar beliefs. On the other hand, it’s spooky. And on either hand, it’s personally challenging, especially when there are problems.

One of the great diagnostics for a designer is the quality of their clients. As a designer grows in their ability, their clients inevitably become more sophisticated and better partners, with more understanding and appreciation of the creative process.

There is of course, a karmic aspect to consider. I’m a firm believer that we attract in our lives the energy that we project. My mom would often say that the universe will continue to present the same pattern in your life, over and over again, until a lesson is learned. Turns out this perspective is as old as time, having been endorsed for thousands of years by Rumi, Wayne Dyer, Oprah, and many others.

The practical piece of information, at least for me personally, is that when there is conflict or tension with a client, look inward. How are my own patterns manifesting themselves in the working relationship and more importantly, what can I do about it?  

Never forget, you choose your clients

You have agency with which you can select who you work with. In my experience, I’ve only worked with individuals and businesses that I personally believe in and relate to. Even if you work for an agency or company, it’s likely your agency’s clients are a reflection of the agency to a certain degree. Regardless of the situation, you have more of a choice than you might think.

I’ve been blessed to have clients that are wonderfully collaborative and inspiring partners, who contribute positive, constructive feedback on my work every day, but I also made a choice to be selective. To be able to make the choice in the first place, you either need to be sufficiently great at your craft to choose who you work with or you need to be in a position where you can afford to make less money. Over the course of my career, I’ve done a little bit of both.

If you have clients that you don’t like, who don’t share your values, why are you working with them? I imagine it’s because circumstances dictate that you have to. While it’s easier to complain about the client, it’s more productive to consider how you can change the circumstances. Living life with enough leverage and freedom to work in the style that suits you is infinitely more rewarding than any of the pleasures that big money can provide. Put yourself in a situation where you have more of both and you’ll be better off for it, even if you’re poorer.

There is a sweetspot where (most) clients are amazing

Most of the designers I work with say they want to work in fun environments on cool projects. Cool projects usually require a bit of money, but not a lot. Mostly, they require risk, time, and vision. Having worked on both tiny projects and big ones, I can attest to the fact that as the budget goes up the possibilities go with it; it truly is exciting. People are usually more talented all around and there is more on the line. And with that comes a real palpable sense of shared stress. Big money rides on the back of big expectations and those manifest themselves in ways that work on you in difficult, grating ways. Big projects can be pressure cookers.

Without a budget behind them, small projects are hamstrung in their own ways. Most cool design work requires a reasonable amount of cash, and without it the narrow options available can limit the work.

I do believe there is a sweetspot though where you can work on cool, meaningful projects in an environment that doesn’t leave you 15 pounds lighter and picking at your skin. While it’s hard to evaluate this flow in economic terms, it does exist. If you live in an urban area, you likely see small businesses with whipsmart branding and a small footprint, brands like Publik Coffee, Grovemade , and Rebbl. More often than not, these business owners and stakeholders are a blast to work with. They can combine the amazing energy of any alpha entrepreneur with the appreciation for slow-cooked, thoughtful design. The companies are not privately held and run by salespeople. It’s a dream to connect with organizations like this.

You are the problem and the solution

Far from the victim, you are the agent of change. Better work and better relationships are possible in almost any situation, but the faith in that possibility must precede criticism, complaint, and withdrawal. As my new Youtube buddy, Les Brown, says “It’s possible.” You can find new meaning and guidance in unexpected places just by investing in your clients, not as external entities, but as partners, friends, collaborators, artists, and experts in their field. If you can build trust with these experts, you’ll eliminate many points of friction, as your client will view you as a partner with a stake in their success. You must see your clients as they often are, reflections of your professional place in the world. If you want better clients, start by building a better you first. Recognize the agency that you have to choose your professional situation, and how you can change the fundamentals of your life to enable choice. If you can do that, your clients will become your friends and you will begin to share in their success as if it were your own. As the late industrial designer Eva Zeisel put it, “When I design something, I think of it as a gift for somebody else.”