Once they’re out of design school and battling it out in the real world, designers can find themselves in a pretty crappy predicament.
Maybe your teachers warned you to be as discerning as possible when taking on new clients (or maybe they told you the opposite, but you knew it was BS), but reality is often a rude awakening from what you expected when you first started working.
Bills pile up, the rent’s due date looms closer, and suddenly that shady dude who wants you to design his logo and website for $200 and “exposure” doesn’t look too bad.
We all know it can be hard to stick to our guns and seek out quality work that will enhance our careers, rather than drag them down into the mud, but think about one thing for a second.
When you take on a terrible client – one that, say, refuses to pay you either in full or in part, or one that has a million and one changes to make to your designs, you’re actually spending far more in labor costs – and sometimes even in legal fees – to complete that job than you would have if you’d had a few more instant meals and committed to finding a good client.
A bad client is bad news, period. It will always cost you more to maintain a bad client than it’s worth.
Clients hire you for a reason: to improve the profitability of their business venture, whether it’s an information website, a product, or a personal brand. At least initially, they know they need a professional to step in and create something usable and which contributes to their overall goal of making more money.
I’ve found that reminding clients of this in a polite, but firm way is incredibly effective in getting them to slow down and hand you back the reins of the project.
Your ultimate goal as a designer is to find clients who will trust you. If there’s no trust there, your clients may become overwhelmed with anxiety and begin to micromanage.
Generally speaking (but not always), the higher you price your design services, the more frequently you’ll find clients who respect your judgment and who will trust you, and the more you’ll drive away those who only want to play dictator.
Make sure you always charge what you’re worth – if you compromise on your prices at any point in your career, it becomes exponentially harder to make up the difference later on.
See No Evil
Nowadays, more and more designers work remotely rather than in person, and many may never even meet their clients face to face. This is good and bad. If you get a good client, it’s awesome to just receive the design brief, communicate through email, and work your magic.
If your client is a bit more difficult, it can be a nightmare. There’s a ton of research that points to face-to-face interaction and body language as being two of the most important factors in building a relationship of any kind – particularly one that involves business.
If you’re working virtually, there’s no way to gauge the chemistry between yourself and your potential client. This is where Zoom can be an immense help, but if you can meet in person, that’s even better.
Regardless of whether you do it in person or on the computer, for long-term projects, it’s important to see your client’s face and hear from their own lips whether or not their personality is something you can deal with.
You can learn a lot about what kind of client someone will be from the way they speak to you, the words they use to describe their work, and the nature of the work they would like you to do, and even from the state of their desk or office.
If someone is a slob, that might be a red flag. But more importantly, if you get a bad feeling from a client, take that as a cue to get the heck out of dodge.
The Warning Signs
If your client doesn’t respect what you do, they will let you know in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways, particularly in the way they discuss the project they have for you.
The most obvious red flags are clients who promise you “exposure” or “more clients” at some indeterminate point in the future. If you’ve been hanging around the online design community for any length of time, you’ll know that doing spec work is one of the most detrimental things you can do for your own career, and for the design industry in general.
But even paying clients will use this one when they know they’re offering you payment that a service provider in any other industry would consider an insult. You don’t want to work for “exposure.” Yes, it’s a nice thing to have, but potential clients who say this never mean it the same way you mean it.
For you, exposure is concrete referrals. If your client can provide you with a list of actual paying clients you can contact for future paying work, then that’s fantastic; “expose” away. But if they don’t do this, that means they’re trying to game you and getting payment from them will likely be more trouble than it’s worth. Run!
The next big warning sign is potential clients who downplay the amount of time, effort, or work involved in a project.
“Oh, it shouldn’t really take you that long,” or “a student could do this,” or my favorite: “it’s just a simple little thing – I’d do it myself, but I don’t really have the time.” (By the way, if they don’t have the time to do a “simple little thing,” what makes them so sure it’ll only take you five minutes?)
A client who automatically assumes that what you do won’t take any significant amount of time is a client who does not understand what’s involved in the design process.
This is a client you want to run from, and quickly. Why? Because these are the kind of clients who will always argue with you about your rates or fees, since they’re convinced you’ve been racking up extra hours just to cheat them.
Of course you should be making your clients sign contracts to prevent any legal fiascos, but why put up with the headache when you don’t have to? Just walk away.
The last and possibly most insidious of “red flag” clients is the “designer” or “art director” client. You know the kind. The divorce lawyer or communications startup CEO who secretly wishes they had gone to design school, and who actively wants to play a part in the design process despite having no knowledge of design whatsoever.
These types of clients are also known for being impossible for most sane designers to work with. Therefore they often have unfinished design work that they want to hire you to complete.
They might call you at 3AM with “urgent” changes or ideas they’ve had about your work, or they might be wishy-washy about what they actually want you to do or what they like.
Long before a problem ever arises, you can use these straightforward steps to ensure that you don’t get caught up in a nasty whirlwind of broken contracts and legal fees. Always keep in mind that when you meet with a first-time client, you are evaluating them as much as they’re evaluating you.
The right clients will always respect your time and expertise; they will respond to your questions or concerns in a timely manner, and they will be realistic and professional in their expectations.
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