How to Deal with Creative Differences with Clients


For a techie, one of the not so nice aspects of being a freelancer is the fact that you have to work with clients. When you work for an agency, most of this is handled by the account executive and sometimes you don’t have to deal with the client at all. However, when you work for yourself as a freelancer or as a business owner, you do have to deal with clients.

While very often this won’t be a big thing, there are cases, such as when you have creative differences with a client, when you certainly would benefit from any advice how to handle these situations smoothly. I don’t claim the solutions I offer are the best but as my experience shows, they do help to deal with creative differences in a civilized manner.

The Client Is(n’t) Always Right – Why Creative Differences Could Be Good

First, let’s clarify that creative differences aren’t necessarily bad. In fact, they frequently help to make a better product. Client input can be really valuable. You might have decades of experience but still there are always cases when the client has a better idea than you do – be it for a small detail, or even for the design as a whole.

You need to accept this as normal. The worst mistake you can make is to take it personally. No, almost always the client isn’t attacking you, your knowledge, or your skills.

On the other hand, if you believe the client is always right, this isn’t so either. You are supposed to know more about design than the client. This means that when the client has a ridiculous idea, you don’t have to say “Yes, Sir/Madam” all the time just to please him or her. When the client has disastrous ideas and you follow them, the end result will be failure, which in turn will hardly please the client.

As you see, things are not black and white. Sometimes the client is right, sometimes you are right. You both just need to find a way to communicate your thoughts, so that you can arrive at a solution that will make the project great rather than get involved in an ego fight.

Discuss and Explain Your Points of View

The major way to understand each other is to discuss and explain your points of view. Very often this is all it takes to solve differences of any kind. Here are some points to consider:

A suggestion or demand might sound ridiculous till you hear the reasoning behind it

Not everybody is able to verbalize his or her thoughts precisely and this is a common reason for confusion. When you add to this the fact that generally clients are not familiar with design terminology, it is quite possible that what the client really means is quite different from what you think he or she means. For instance, you might find it ridiculous to have fancy fonts for text because you think the text is the text body itself, while the client in reality wants fancy text for the slogan, or for some quotations you will put as an image inside the text. You just need to clarify what each of you means. When you do it, it might turn out you have no creative differences at all!

Accept that the other party also has likes and dislikes

You might be a genius designer but this doesn’t mean everybody else, your clients included, is a loser with no sense of colors and composition. You like red and orange, your client likes blue and green. You like rounded corners and headlines with a background, your client prefers things simpler. These are all natural and they are not a reason to fight. If you are working on your personal project, you are free to choose everything you want but when you work for a client, you do need to respect his or her likes and dislikes.

The worst you can do is to start convincing the client about the cuteness of red and orange and of rounded corners and headlines with a background. You might manage to force your view on the client but basically this is useless – the client will hardly be happy simply because he or she likes different things. Of course, if the client wants a disastrous combination, you should try to convince him or her this combination is not OK but try to use hard facts for it. For instance, you can say that these shades of green and blue don’t go well together and offer to replace them with other shades of green and blue that are a better match.

I remember once I was designing a site for a friend of mine. The guy was obsessed with black backgrounds but I somehow managed to convince him black is not user friendly – text on a dark background is more difficult to read and besides, black is too necrophilic and makes the whole site look depressing. As far as I remember, the site had dark blue background as a compromise for a while because dark blue is less depressing than black, though it is still far from what I would personally choose as a background but later he decided that it is black and nothing else. Of course, I wouldn’t take a gun and make him remove the black background – if he likes it that much, let’s leave it like that, the world won’t end.

Don’t throw in your decades of expertise as a proof you are right

Sometimes it feels easier to convince a client you are right because you have lots of experience. While there are many cases when years of experience can help you, basically clients aren’t interested in this.

When they don’t like something, they don’t care about the hundreds and thousands of sites you have made. If you can use your experience to convince a client something is wrong (i.e. my attempt to convince my friend that many experts think that all equal light text on dark background is more difficult to read, though there are others who don’t think so), this is fine. But if you throw in your experience as an argument per se, it feels like you are telling a child “I’m right because I’m older!”, don’t expect a client in his or her right mind will accept this.

Both of you might need to make concessions

Compromise is the ground to mutual understanding. Of course, it depends on what you have to compromise. If the client wants really stupid things (i.e. text body in 20px font size because this will make it easy to read) and won’t negotiate, there isn’t much room for compromise and you might have to resort to the advice into the last section of the article.

If I continue the example with the site of that friend of mine, the concession he made in exchange for the black background was that he gave up on his idea of animation and sounds. It wasn’t “Look mate, I accepted your black background, now it is your turn to accept my conditions!” kind of negotiations. Rather, I just managed to convince him that these animations and sounds are annoying at best and they are so last century. I know that many novice designers and clients with no knowledge are fascinated by everything that jumps and screams and this was the case with this guy – he simply didn’t have much experience as a user and he was fascinated by sounds and animations.

“If there is a will, there is way.” This might not be true about everything in life but for most cases of creative differences, it is. If you manage to communicate your views than it becomes easier to see each other’s point of view. Of course, don’t bet on a happy end in all cases but more often than not you can solve creative differences via communication and negotiation.

End the Project, If the Creative Differences Are So Fundamental

It is best if you manage to solve the creative differences with your client and work happily ever after, but unfortunately, this isn’t always possible. Sometimes creative differences are so fundamental that no negotiations can bridge the cap.

, In this case, the only move is to end the project. This is really a last resort but sometimes you just have no other options. If you continue to work together, this will be a torture for both of you. Under these circumstances, the wisest is to end the project, especially if it is still in the beginning and go your separate ways.

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