Hiring a designer: a client’s perspective

The following is a guest post by Aditya Mahesh of AMBeat.com, a blog offering resources for entrepreneurs — advice, start-up profiles, interviews, news analysis.

train tracks splitting
Image by nerovivo

Now I’ve never been a graphic designer (my background’s in copywriting), but by hiring designers on numerous occasions I’ve gained insights from the customer-side that will help you satisfy your own clients. The following tips will help you keep your customers coming back.

I don’t know what I want

Chances are, unless I’m a designer, I don’t know what I want. All I know is I want something functional that looks good, is comparable with my competitors, and features constant colour schemes for branding. I’ll look at other designs that have already been created and ask for something similar. Hence, it is important that you can take the information I give and help me visualize what it is you think I want.

I need control

I mightn’t know anything about the design process, but as a customer — and especially as an entrepreneur and small business owner — I need control over every aspect of my business. Hence, to keep me happy, you need to give up control over the process. Show me samples and updates throughout to make sure you are creating exactly what I want. If I ask for a change you don’t agree with, do it the way I want and the way you think it should be done (provided it isn’t too much extra work) and let me decide what I think is best.

I’m unsure about pricing

Many businesses are willing to pay for quality but the fact is that no matter how much your time is worth, there are designers willing to put out decent quality for 1/10 of your costs. Hence, you need to ensure that your competitive advantage is significant and apparent. It might not be fair, but that’s what the web has done to the free market. Outsourcing affects everyone.

I appreciate honesty and quality

I cannot tell you how many designers have told me they’d complete a project to my specifications only to delay the delivery date and the finally deliver something completely different from what I requested. So whenever I hire a designer who is candidly honest, delivers what I want, and goes above and beyond, I go out of my way to help them in any way I can. I appreciate someone who goes out of their way to make sure I’m happy, and if you do so, most of the time it will lead to repeat and referral business.

I want you to stick around

Once you have delivered a final project, don’t simply disappear. Just because I have what I want, this doesn’t mean I know how to use it. Help me apply the designs you created. No matter how brilliant the outcome, I will look poorly upon your service if you disappear and I have to pay someone else to apply or edit the design. It also just makes good business sense to stick around after completing a job. I’m constantly looking to complete additional design projects.

Summary

Overall, I don’t want to keep hiring new designers. As long as you can provide what I want at a reasonable price, I’ll keep coming back.

Here are some related posts elsewhere

Note from David:
No two clients are the same. For the designers amongst you, is Aditya a client you’d be happy to work with? Would you have any reservations? If you’ve previously hired graphic designers have you found yourself thinking along similar lines?

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41 comments

  1. This post is going to be very helpful for me as I am starting out with a small…company…if i can call it.

    Great post Aditya.

  2. Great read. I think if we take this approach with all unknown clients you wont go wrong.

    Designers should definitely not ignore what the client has already. Ask them what they like about there current website, and what parts they like and dont like. If they dont communicate this, I would at least take the colour scheme and logo they already have and start there.

    People also have to realise that some smaller clients may have already purchased a supply of print material and if they cant afford to change it., changing colour schemes and logo’s without their concent would be very silly.

  3. Excellent post. It is often difficult to understand things simply from a client’s point of view. I intuitively knew these things but this post spells them out.

    Thanks for the valuable insights!

  4. webmaster

    I think you hit the nail on the head with “I don’t know what I want”. I find that is more often the case, they know when they see it, they often know what they don’t want, but rarely do they know what they want. ;-)

  5. I have lost business, trying to involve customers in the design process. They not only don’t want control – they resent the imposition of being shown intermediate steps.

    I have also gotten business from small businesses that don’t want to get involved. They want a web presence, maybe. Anything they get that doesn’t seem too pricey afterwards, that they don’t have to think about, suits. I find this immensely frustrating – I spent 17 years in scientific software development, using egoless programming processes, and continuous process improvement using frequent reviews. I miss the feedback.

    Yet there is a niche, a segment of web customers, that doesn’t want to be bothered with the design.

  6. This is a very good summary of a client’s thought- and decision-making process during a design project. In particular, I agree that it is important to respond to client requests, showing them the design and/or design elements they request along with the designer’s preferred option(s).

    Design – graphic, interior, architectural – is inherently a subjective discipline and this means that, though your client may not know “how” you do your work, they will likely have a strong opinion about it. It is the designer’s responsibility to recognize that he or she is offering a service and should therefore always respect the client’s feedback.

    The best designers are able to use client input along with his or her own professional expertise to develop a successful design that ultimately enables the client to feel good about the results of a collaborative process.

  7. I think the author squarely touched on the most important concerns of the client-designer relationship. Granted, some clients don’t want be a part of the design process and trust that you’ll give them a great finished product. But there are those clients that know exactly what the want- they may not be good at articulating it. As a designer – a good designer you should be able to address each clients concerns differently.

    If there is a need to take full control of a project because the client wants you to – go right ahead. But if you have a client that wants the control, as a designer and business professional you should find a way to work so that the client feels that he is in control. The key to a successful project is providing what the client wants but staying true to what you know as good design and usability practices. I believe you can always find that balance.

    Just my two cents.

  8. I’m not looking very well at the “I want to stick around” point, because from my perspective as a designer, for most clients, “sticking around” means making random tweaks, updates, maintenance and even populating the readymade product with the content (sic!) until the end of the world. I will stick around, if you’re gonna pay me hourly for every hour spent on the project after it has been delivered. Heck, we can even make a separate contract for these matters, that never was a problem from my side.

  9. Most clients don’t know what they want and want to have control over the process; however, the designer is still the pro, and his or her ideas and opinions should be trusted. Good design isn’t completely subjective; there is a purpose and reason behind everything we do, to insure that the design is going to be successful for your business. Many client changes and suggestions are completely irrelevant and adversely affect the professionalism of the finished piece. Have a little faith that we know what we are doing, and think about how you would react if someone outside of your field told you how to do your job.

  10. Excellent post; thank you for it. I’m working with a client a second time on a completely new project for a night club and I noticed how I usually come up with concepts that are way too intricate… I have a bad habit of trying to design for design’s sake (designs that would be really neat to other designers, perhaps). The client summed it pretty well after looking at the initial concept: “I need something that the average, un-artistic person can read.”

    The solution was a completely different approach that took less than an hour to create. Had me thinking about the dangers of overcompensating for much longer after sending it to the client and getting the thumbs-up. What if he decided he’d go try another designer right then and there?

    Things I have learned so far just starting out: simple is usually the way to go unless the client wants something crazy/trendy, never doubt yourself, keep open to new ideas, and always say thank you.

  11. David G.

    Most clients I have worked with have an idea of what they want But don’t know what thy want exactly. The control part, well you should always make it a priority to stick to the idea the client wants. Some clients give you the freedom to design as you please cause you are the professional. The pricing and honesty part, well, my experience with pricing, some clients always want it cheaper, someone down the street can do it for half the price. Answer(question), is their quality, one on one communication and service as good as ours? One thing I’ve learned not only in design or printing business, everyone wants things done when you say it will be done. Sticking around part, I agree with Mariusz Ciesla, I’ll help you with ideas and finding solutions to your printing, but once you ask for a tweak or a change here and there, please pay me!!

    Overall great post. Thanks.

  12. “They don’t know what they want” that’s the common thing happened for me. Even you have provided a complex questionnaires to fill out or asking them to include design references, sometimes you just have to be able to read their mind. The interpretation of what’s on their mind is not always easy to deliver in visual output.

    This could be challenging or giving you headache when they keep asking you to design some alternatives after another.

  13. Marge Bell

    I sometimes teach a small class at a local college – Let’s Talk Websites. I, too, am used to a phased software design process, and request that students (all small business owners) develop a customer analysis, a business analysis, and a requirements document. I ask them to review the competition’s sites and list what works and what doesn’t, both in terms of navigation and look/feel. We talk some about designer jargon. Bottom line, time is money. If you go to a designer without knowing what you want, you’re paying somebody to read your mind.

  14. I would have serious reservations about accepting this person as a client – there’s a couple of red flags here – though maybe they come as a result of poor word choice:

    The entire “I need control” section would make me think twice right away. Design companies, web firms, etc have processes of their own for a reason – they need to work efficiently. The good, smart ones involve the client at several different points and give them plenty of chances to give feedback and guide things along – but no client of mine is going to dictate how the internals of my business work. Certainly he/she is welcome to ask to see X number of iterations of design, be kept up to date at his/her level of comfort, etc — but he/she isn’t going to control my production process, the tools my company chooses to use, etc. That’s absurd.

    The “I want you to stick around” section is also a red flag. Aditya says: “Just because I have what I want, this doesn’t mean I know how to use it. Help me apply the designs you created.” …

    What does this mean, exactly? Does it mean that we’ve designed you a logo and a website, and now you want our help making up letterhead or a print ad — and expect that for free? That’s not how the industry works.

    The vast majority of design firms are structured around the billable hour. Every hour they’re helping you do stuff without getting paid for it, design firms are losing money and you’re getting free services. Sorry, but that’s just not fair to the design firm.

    If “sticking around” just means being polite and helpful in quick stints when you call up with a question — sure. If “sticking around” means continuing to do more work for you without billing you for it — now’s a great opportunity to pass on you as a client and save some headache.

    As a client, you need to be willing to accept that the places you’re hiring are ALSO businesses, just like yours, and that they can’t provide free services left and right and remain profitable.

    Yes, design firms often do a crap job of catering to their clients needs, but if clients would occasionally stop to think that the designs they’re getting come from a small business / entrepreneur just like Aditya — maybe everybody’d be a little bit happier.

  15. Great post, well written David, this gives a great insight into how you must work on a daily basis, Nice one!

  16. Lara T.

    This is a very important post as it sums up the designer-client relationship. I think it’s very important that the designer & client sit for a reasonable amount of time for each to explain himself and his views. The designer can not start his design without having a very well explained brief from the client’s side, and the client would not be able to communicate wth the designer if the latter did not explain his concepts.

    However, there’s one point that I’ve noticed a number of times with some clients; it is that when the he asks for a design the way he wants it, and the designer provides him his wish in addition to another design from the designer’s point of view, the client gets to chose his design because he has a primary idea that what he wants is whats best, but thats NOT ALWAYS THE CASE!! I mean that’s what we, as designers, are here for, to provide the correct concepts and directions for our clients.

    And yes, I agree with some that sticking around after the design is finished, may be a bit of a headache if the client was not keeping his tweats and amendments to a limit… But, all that could be fixed if an agreement or a set of points were discussed or signed off from the beginning between the designer & client.

  17. Brad,

    I’ve had similar experiences with those clients who happily leave you to do what you do best. The “I need control” issue is a red flag for me (as Steve also mentions in his comment). I would definitely ask a potential client to clarify this before working together. Steve states what we’d all agree upon when he says:

    (the client) isn’t going to control my production process, the tools my company chooses to use, etc.

    To be fair to my guest author, I’m pretty sure this isn’t what he’d do, but it’d be good to get his take. Aditya?

    Calvin,

    You touch on those designers who know exactly what they want (or at least say they do). That’s an immediate red flag for me. If they’re so sure, it’s not a designer they need, but someone who knows how to use design software.

    Mariusz,

    Absolutely. Any changes / tweaks once the final artwork has been supplied should be factored into the original agreement. A designer “sticking around” could mean simply being there to answer questions about a print run or give an opinion on the application.

    Camille,

    Lisa makes a point that I agree with — that design isn’t entirely subjective. I’ve drafted a blog post about it, as I imagine it will bring a lot of differing opinion to learn from. Thanks very much for dropping by.

    Audee,

    I’m glad that most of your clients don’t know what they want. That’s where you come in, what you’re being hired for.

    Marge,

    I think you’ve taken Aditya’s point about not knowing what he wants too literally. He’d obviously know if he needs a website, for example, what the purpose is, what content needs shown etc. The main factor is that it’s up to the designer to produce an effective design, without needing their hand held every step of the way. I hope everything’s going great with your teaching, and it’s good to see you place emphasis on the customer / business analysis.

    Steve,

    Thanks for your take. In terms of the additional work that might follow after the project, any designer should account for this before their work begins, and keep the client clear about what to expect. I mentioned your issue with the client having control at the top of this comment.

    Thanks to you and to everyone else for your thoughts. I don’t usually have guest authors here, but it’s helpful while I focus on my book (hence why two of the last three posts aren’t mine).

    (Another comment just came in.) Hi Lara, I agree with that. It’s often after quite a few emails or talking on the phone a few times before I agree to start on a project. Accepting every potential client isn’t good business practice.

  18. This is all fantastic advice. I think I’d recommend that new designers talk with businessmen around their area to get a feel for what they expect.
    For the most part, it’s a matter of miscommunication when something goes wrong. It’s best to get as many points-of-view as possible.

  19. About the control thing: no designer likes to be micro-managed and that’s abundantly clear from reading the comments on this post. I like to outline my work process from start to finish during an early discussion with a client: sometimes verbally and always in an email. I’ve had good responses to this from clients who feel it gives them a better perspective about what to expect from me and when. If someone wants to alter my work process, that’s a red flag for me (unless there’s a fair reason like they’ll be unavailable during a certain period of time).

    As for the sticking around part: fair enough to expect to be paid for whatever work you’re asked to do. It may help to try and anticipate any potential add-ons ahead of time (applying a new logo to business stationery seems like an obvious one) and ask the client in advance if they want the add-ons too. Some might call this upselling, but another way of looking at it is that you’re anticipating the client’s future needs ahead of time and probably before they realise what they’re going to need down the track. A lot of people will see that as a plus.

  20. I couldn’t have put it better, Tracey. I find it beneficial to direct potential clients to my design process and FAQ pages (if they haven’t already read them). A lot of clients will be dealing with a graphic designer for the first time, so have little-to-no idea what to expect. The last thing anyone needs are unrealistic expectations.

  21. Excellent post & very helpful (in my opinion) to hear from a client’s perspective. I have been thinking about these topics quite a bit lately due to some broken down communications between a particular client and myself. I wrote a post on my own blog about it in an effort to hopefully help in similar situations: http://bkmacdaddy.com/blog/tips-to-bridge-the-gap-between-clients-and-designers

    I appreciate the insights and I’m certain they will be helpful for designers and clients alike as we try to “bridge this gap” together. Thanks!

  22. Thanks guys for all the positive feedback, these points are just feelings I have gone through when going through the design process and thought freelancers could appreciate in better understanding what it is that their customers want and how they want it.

    A few of you have said that designers should be paid to stick around and I completely agree. I feel that fairly designers should give customers at least a few rounds of complimentary modifications to ensure that the product is exactly what the customer wanted but any / all future modifications / maintenance should provide additional compensation.

    I also get that designers don’t like to be micromanaged; however, as a customer, I want to see what I am paying for at least a few steps in the process. This saves you money and time too since you don’t spend hours going in a different direction than what I am looking for. It keeps us on the same page and makes the process more efficient.

    I would also add that you be very transparent with the customer and lay out a contract regarding what is included with the design and what is extra, how much the product will cost, what modifications can be made for fee and what is extra, etc., etc. Clearly spell out everything.

  23. @ Steve

    Re: If “sticking around” just means being polite and helpful in quick stints when you call up with a question — sure.

    That is what I mean. Any significant changes or additions should off course be properly compensated.

    As far as control is concerned, I’m not going to tell you how to do your job, I just want to see what you are doing and have the ability to change the direction / themes of the work if I don’t like it.

    It does both of us no good if I give you a project, you disappear for a month, and then show me something that I don’t like. By saying “I need control”, I mean I need access…I need to be able to see what you have done and make sure that what you are creating is what I am looking for.

  24. Good article and interesting perspective from the guest writer. I think everybody’s wants and needs vary slightly but in the overall picture from my stand point, I think I know what to expect from clients and it’s either one way or the other. The guest writer wants to check for updates and everything else as the designer is working through the process which I’m sure some people are not too fond of but at the same time he wants to keep you around which means you get more work to do so when dealing with clients there’s always a give and take in every situation.

  25. O'Leary

    David,

    This is a wonderful and very informative article. This will help me greatly in my quest to becoming a successful freelance graphic designer.

    Thanks!!!

  26. Very nice article, solid tips indeed.

    Perhaps a monthly payment plan for maintenance is a good idea for clients who like you to stick around?

    Read up: http://css-tricks.com/the-heating-company-analogy/

  27. Cool Post.. totally different perspective.
    I liked the very last part “Summary” :)

  28. Awesome article! Just wrote a post on my own blog about the last point on the idea that designers need to follow up with clients. A project shouldn’t end when the contract has been completed and the check signed.

    Designers and Developers, Are You Throwing Away Good Money? – http://www.moongrabber.com/web-design/designers-and-developers-are-you-throwing-away-good-money

  29. On the issue of control, I think the client is entitled to influence the direction of the project with comments like ‘I had something more fun and child-friendly in mind’ – ask for a green circle inside a blue square with your favorite inspirational quote underneath and you will lose your designer.

    Some things simply can’t work for one reason or another, while others just don’t suit our aesthetics. I think there’s a small amout of ego involved in Graphic Design which makes it hard to separate the two sometimes, but ultimately we’re both working towards the same goal.

    By sticking around, I read ‘becoming a contact rather than a mercenary’. The client wants to know they have a ‘guy’ (or lady) they can refer to for their design needs on the current or future projects.

  30. Whilst this is all good as a wish list. You must consider if you can afford a level of service like this. All this talk about. “Good designer will” and “bad designers won’t” drives me mad. The process is only as good as the amount of time put in, the more time the more money. Creating a design which is not 100% as you imagined or providing as much interection does not make a designer “bad”. You get what you pay for. You have to separate product (design) and service (providing constant feedback – two lots of mock ups etc). Often the end result is no different to the passing eye, just the experience for the customer, hence the perceived value and hence the price is bigger.

  31. Aditya,

    Thanks for responding. Now that you’ve clarified, it sounds like you’ve never worked with anybody I’d call a “real designer” or “real design firm” when you make your statement about control.

    Any designer / design firm worth its salt has a specific process that involves presenting you with 2 or 3 options/directions for potential designs, then doing “revision rounds” where you are presented with revisions to 1 or 2 of those directions as you narrow your choices down.

    The fact that you have clarified your statement about control as just not wanting to be out of the loop for a month and then get a final product says to me that you’ve never worked with so much as a “decent” designer, let alone a good one, because your post gives me the impression that the process I just explained above would be foreign/novel to you.

    As someone who has worked with a few design / web firms in his time, I take for granted that these things are just a part of the process!

  32. Steve,

    You would be surprised to see how many designers do just that, especially on small projects like a simple logo or graphic.

    Seeing how inevitably some of these designers would be readers of this blog or at least interested in such a guest post, I thought it would be a good thing to mention

    However, I’m glad that this point does not apply to you or the compaies you work with. Unfortunatley the fact of the matter is that it does with others, and it was these designers who I hope benefited from that section of the post

  33. Ricardo

    “put out decent quality for 1/10 of your costs”. Hmm, right. I assume “quality” here stands for “reasonably visually pleasing design”, which is really only 1/5 of the end result. Real design for the web focus on user experience, findability/usability, and ultimately some form of ROI. It sounds like you still hire designers to make virtual business cards, not websites with a real purpose. As Steve pointed out, for any professional design firm it’s unfeasible to involve the client in all parts of the process.

    It seems small business owners are still fooled by the notion that web design is “easy” or just “mocking up in the PC”, the old “anyone can do that” stand. There is real value in a proper design process, which that guy that costs 1/10 won’t deliver at all.

  34. A lot of clients in Malaysia are just as described above. But from a more extreme point, they think they’re the paying customer hence they’re always right.

    Which brings me to my debate and disagreement of the “I need control.” Here’s a simple point from me after some thought.

    “Clients hire a designer for their knowledge and experience – so, listen and don’t mouth off.”

    Clients who need control should remind themselves again, they’re paying the designer not because they know how-to use the tools but because they know what works and what doesn’t. After all, that’s what research gathering is for.

    And don’t worry, we’ll know you’re still the brand owner.

  35. Its important to listen to the professional when your paying to get something done. You are passing the ball, so don’t try to take it away from them prematurely because of your ignorance or selfishness, or the designer will just think you are not worth it and walk away (subject to a contract, if there is one).

  36. We need an apposing side for clients to read up on us.
    Clients need to trust designers a little bit more.
    We are trying to help you, we wouldn’t do something if it didn’t work.

  37. Great read! – I’ve been in the industry for 20+ yrs and should know. But it’s a pretty good thing if someone takes the time to remember us how the other side looks and feels.

  38. So far I’ve only encountered two types of clients…respectful ones and disrespectful ones. Working with the former they were often times smooth and successful and I was more than happy to stick around for more business opportunities from them. But, with the latter, I can usually tell from the first meeting, the minute they want to have total control and tell me what to do, I will instinctively add 10% on job/client difficulty factor to my estimate, if client starts to ask more than what they’re willing to pay I will complete the job the best I could within the dateline, cut my losses and dash for my life. No sticking around, thank you very much.

    I had a client who asked for a logo design…he was totally happy with the outcome and later harassed me to design his business card for free. His exact words ‘all you have to do is put the logo and contacts on it, very simple’.

    Often times, clients do not understand the difference between styling and design. Styling is simply making that piece look pretty. Design is solving a business problem visually. This is when the client needs to know exactly what is their business objective and their brand identity that they want the design to communicate. When the client doesn’t know the problem, the designer will not be able to come up with a visual solution. Clients who understand this usually have no problems working WITH their designers.

  39. This article was one of the best ones I’ve come across, actually being able to see in black and white what the “other person” (client) is most likely thinking will come in very handy as I personally find that I sometimes feel that a client gets a bit too full on, but this could very well be down to the fact that I might not have listened as well as I could have done.

    So many thanks for this, I will make sure to pass it on to my other frustrated designer friends.

  40. Good article for any starting graphic designer to read but you possibly need to hire someone else to manage your graphic designers for you judging by the experiences you have had.

    No one paragraph of this very good post is “wrong”, however in totality this is a huge red flag reading this from the perspective of an experienced web designer / web developer. If you…

    1) don’t know what you want,
    2) want complete control,
    3) believe that there are others out there who will accept less pay for equal work;

    …you will most certainly drive a very patient designer to…

    1) give you something you feel you must change in some time consuming significant way,
    2) possibly ruin any efficiency in the designers process by changing it in some fundamental way,
    3) drive that designer to disappear after he/she has your money because they do not WANT to work for you.

    You are asking for all three of the following: time, cost, AND quality, all while potentially insulting the person you are hiring by saying that they are equivalent to someone out there that would presumably produce equivalent work for less. Which is the “prove your value or-else threat”. In the cost/time/quality triangle often one gets compromised or two for the benefit of the others; but it sounds like you may not be reasonable about this. Either you pay for the graphic designer’s time and get what you want or you don’t and compromise. If you can’t do this either you or your designer will suffer from the experience.

    If the flavor of this article is true to your style, you will never get the most out of people who you hire, who want some amount of personal fulfillment from their work (a large portion of the human race does even if this is more salient in designers). Again, maybe it’s best to get someone else to manage your graphic designers.

  41. As you mentioned when deciding your design style, comparability with others is usually a good “template” or blank canvas.

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