Why Do Bad Designers Always Seem to Get the Best Jobs?

We’ve all heard the saying “a designer is only as good as his/her clients.” Some designers, regardless of skill level or experience, seem to always have the most interesting assignments that are creative, challenging, and highly paid, while others, who may have more experience, technical skill, or talent, get stuck working for peanuts on unfulfilling, low-level work.

Why is that? Why do mediocre and bad designers seem to always get the best jobs, while good, talented designers struggle in obscurity?

The answer almost always has to do with marketing. Every designer’s Achilles’ heel, marketing is nonetheless a vital part of freelancing success. In this article, I’m going to share some tips on how good designers can market themselves to exactly the kind of clients that will best suit their services.

It’s All Sales

What’s the difference between a good designer and a great designer? Notoriety, of course. There are literally thousands – possibly millions – of designers out there whose talent and technical skills rival or even surpass those of the tiny handful of designers who are “well-known” or famous.

Are those well-known designers doing something especially different than the talented designer “misses?” Well, yes and no. We already know they’re not necessarily better designers – perhaps their style is more in line with current trends and thus they’ve gotten more recognition in recent years, but good design is good design. Trends come and go, but a strong understanding of basic design principles will never go out of style. So how do these famous designers differentiate themselves?

 6 principles of good logo design

If you’ve ever worked in an office, you know that the management positions don’t always go to the most capable or competent leaders, hard workers, and visionaries. In my time as a corporate employee, I saw brilliant, talented, creative people get passed over for promotions and high-level work by incompetent, lazy, belligerent jerks – over and over again.

Why? Because the jerks knew exactly how to market themselves to their superiors. They knew what to say and how to say it. Every job is a sales job. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer, an artist, or a Sunday school teacher – we all have to sell something to someone. And we all have to make ourselves known to the people who can help further our careers. This applies doubly to those of us who make our living freelancing, as there’s no framework or built-in networking platform vis-a-vis a corporate job.

Selling the Experience

Designers who compete for freelance jobs have quite an uphill battle to fight. They constantly have to convince potential clients that they’re the best person for the job, while simultaneously diverting the client’s attention away from the zillions of other designers out there who provide essentially the same service.

Now, I’m about to say something that might depress a lot of you out there who are hoping for a freelancing miracle. The sad truth of the matter is this: the typical design client knows next to nothing about design, and couldn’t care less about your technical knowledge, years of experience, or brilliant design sense. Yup, it’s true. They just don’t give a damn. You say you’re an award-winning branding manager who’s been featured in industry publications? That’s nice. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Standards-compliant web developer? Eh? What’s that?

It can be extremely frustrating when a client simply doesn’t care about the work you’ve put into perfecting your craft. I could be smug and suggest that you only work with clients who do care, but that would be pretty irresponsible of me. No matter how far up the freelancing ladder you go, there’s always going to be a discrepancy between what you think the client should care about, and what they actually care about.

The key to selling yourself as a talented, capable designer lies in the way you present your skills. The first thing to go should be the idea that you can somehow convince a non-designer to care about the intricacies of design. You can’t. Save it for your fellow designers, and instead focus on the experience you can provide your clients.

Your technical skills and knowledge are not experiences for your clients – they are merely attributes. Put another way, when you see a television commercial for a pizza shop, do you ever see the inside of the actual pizza kitchen anywhere in the ad (not the fake set meant to sell you on “authentic Italian cooking” or some such nonsense)? Do you ever see what kind of knife the chef uses to cut the pepperoni and other toppings? Or the Serv-Safe certificates of the pizza making staff? Of course not.

What's the difference between good designers and a great designers

What you see is a delicious-looking pizza, complete with sizzling sound effects and mouth-watering, rising steam, possibly being paraded in front of the camera on a round dish by an attractive, young actor dressed up as a server or a pizza chef. In the background, you might see a laughing group of diners seated at a table, pulling apart their pizza slice by cheesy, gooey slice. You’re being sold an experience, not a simple list of attributes or qualities.

If your clients are decent and treat you with a reasonable amount of professionalism, they’re going to expect that you know what you’re doing. They will take it as a matter of course that you have all the necessary skills and know-how to complete the job adequately. A simple list of the things you can do isn’t going to impress them. You need to sell them an experience – the sizzle, not the steak, in other words.

Having a Backup Plan

You’ve probably heard of the recent business phrase “multiple streams of income.” It’s become quite a popular goal for business owners and freelancers, especially since the internet has become a powerful and simplified way to make multiple income sources a reality. But you don’t have to be a fast-talking, greasy-haired entrepreneur wannabe to take advantage of this important idea. Today’s economy makes it tough for even the most established freelancers to stay afloat, and if your client base is too small, you could find yourself in real trouble if one of them stops calling.

Creating an exclusive niche for yourself is important, but it’s equally important to have a large enough pool that you can easily generate new business. Keeping up with your marketing efforts, even if you can’t currently take on the new work, will ensure that you always have prospects lined up just in case one of your current clients falls through.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask your current or past clients for referrals. Generally, people are happy to spread the word about freelancers who have done a remarkable job. And as a bonus, you’ll widen the net of clients who are similar to those clients you’ve already worked for, since people tend to talk to their friends in the same industry.

What Do You Think?

How do you approach marketing as a freelancer? Are there any specific tactics which have worked for you? What about tactics which haven’t worked so well?


  • This is a great start, and inspired me while i was finishing up a proposal today. It’s true that some of the best designers and developers are poor salespeople, and as a freelancer it’s often frustrating that my introverted self struggles with the client interactions. Anyway, I really liked the analogies here, but hope maybe you’ll go further in another article, since it really cuts off after “you need to sell it,” and doesn’t say anything about how those bad designers *actually* do the selling of real web work (instead of pizzas)! Thanks!

  • sad but true :)

  • Tim, I wasn’t asking how the bad designers execute the work, but rather how they sell it. While I do agree that a lot of bad designers undercut good ones with low prices, not all of them do, some charge quite a lot, and still manage to get the deal, what with their barely modifying templates and themes, like you said. I’m curious how bad designers sell this service to clients, as the author was referring to.

  • Totally Agree :-(

  • Phil Wollerman

    Hi Alicia. I’ve worked both agency-side and client-side and am currently freelancing with multiple income streams, so this excellent article resonated with me.

    The difference is having some sales skills, not a con-job as Tim implies but being able to sell your services and then create repeat business. I went from a career as a motorcycle mechanic to selling fashion internationally with some graphic design in between.

    The skills I learnt dealing with customers at the bike shop stayed with me throughout; it’s all about people, and projecting confidence. People make very quick decisions based on whatever clues they have to hand; much like a website, the first impression sets the perception of quality, the font, illustrations and, far behind, the content help create trust.

    If you’re like me, you don’t buy off people you don’t trust. That’s why referrals work so well, as do reviews.

    The first thing you have to sell is yourself. If they don’t like you, you better have cornered the niche or simple behavioural economics says they’ll go somewhere else, regardless of price. That is the crux of the issue.

    Be nice, be attentive and respond quickly etc. but those are all kinds of what Maslow called “Hygienes”, not far different from clean teeth, fresh breath and clipped or polished nails. Humans are very visual, so what you wear matters, but underlying all that is the fact the we always make decisions for emotional reasons.


    “Buy that car”
    “Bomb Cambodia”
    “Buy that pasta dish”
    “Engage that freelancer”

    So you need to have that decision made in your favour as soon as you can when you meet a prospect – that is why referrals and reviews work so well, they predispose people to have a positive attitude towards you/your product.

    But the single greatest tool you have or skill you can learn is confidence.

    Prospects look to you for indications about what they should do and how to behave. You have to take control and become the leader.

    If you lack these skills it’s not too hard – act like you are confident, no-one can tell that inside you’re terrified and they will react to how you present yourself. In psychology that’s called mirroring. You can test it out by sitting opposite someone in conversation, and arranging yourself and waiting until they copy you or not – if they don’t, they probably disagree with you, if they do, they will copy you.

    Fold your arms. Take a sip of water. Lean back. Smile. Cross your legs and see which way they cross their’s – most of us do this and subconsciously read it all the time.

    Try practicing your lines and telling yourself, out loud if you want, that “I am always confident in meetings, and lead my clients to mutually-beneficial and profitable results”. You’ll feel silly fo a while, but I’ve used this variation on NLP to cure my habitual lateness for flights, losing my phone/keys etc.

    If you act confident and bring them to feel the same way you can then recommend they do the things favourable to your income, such as the new branding strategy, site architecture, UX etc.

    As far as price goes, don’t aim to be competitive, pitch high – if they don’t know what makes good design/etc they get all their guidance about quality from price. You can go and pick up jeans at Wal-mart for $40, or you can go to Chanel and pay $800. You know they are better, there’s obvious physical evidence, but you have an expectation of far greater value in those Chanels that is driven by the price and the fact you “trust” the brand.

    All just part of my rambling experience an observation/education.

    Guys – girls like confidence more than anything else – cash, cars, abs, intelligence… if you project that you are in charge of yourself they find it irresistibly attractive. For the same reasons I outlined above.

    Unless someone wants to prove me wrong?

  • Thanks, Phil! Great advice and thanks for such a thoughtful reply! I am confident this will work! (See what I did there?)

  • Well, while I don’t like to fool people into hiring me by using industry lingo, I have started leaving technical information out of my proposals because the client doesn’t really understand them, and so far I think it’s working well.

  • Phil Wollerman

    If you are able to understand what the client’s problem is, articulate that and then show how your proposal solves it they should be happy with your design.

    If you take the attitude with you that clients “don’t know good design” they will pick up on it. Make them think all their ideas are great, then gently make them think they can be even greater – use the lobbyist/PR trick -sketch out the big bits, and let their own biases fill in the gaps.

    Most clients need some help – those that are design-literate will quickly understand what you are doing with communication design – this does not often happen in SME situations, where sadly they get the most upset.

    Just say yes. Do your best, but also offer some alternatives (including one you really prefer) at the pitch stage. That way you might get something for your portfolio.

  • Bad designers usually have better negotiating and marketing skills than good designers. They focus on finding a job and do anything in their power to present themselves in the best light possible. Good designers usually rely on the quality of their work, which of course isn’t a bad thing, but in an online market nowadays, you have to really put yourself out there and overtake the competition.

  • From experience I’ve learned that bad designers don’t busy themselves researching, creating and testing new ideas. They spend their time copying ideas from others and delivering something they somewhat think that will work well for their clients, and so the clients react well. Of course a serious designer will go the professional way and will research, test and refine ideas, be creative, etc., but he/she will lose nothing on prioritizing the client’s view (the client usually knows his/her business needs and certainly knows important things about his/her business we designers just can’t catch imediately) and then incept his/her design culture/skills in the most harmonious and integrated way possible. It’s not always easy – it’s difficult, but quite possible and promising. We can always be creative and self-fulfilling on spare time anyway, when we have some of it. And we can save the version of the job we feel is the best on our hard drives to take to our curated portfolios. Sorry about my bad english (it’s not my first language).

  • Beenish Fatima

    Useful article, I believe its the consistency plus yes they have already using the same pattern to achieve the results , using old template from here and there etc etc.

  • Yes i totally agree on this. Bad designers do smart work instead of Quality work.

  • angelxaces

    False sense of confidence. Bad designer don’t often know how bad they actually are. One can get surprisingly far without making a single original graphic but by taking bits of other completed work and arranging it in the generic layout of the current project. The rest of us have a pretty good idea how we rank up and have a healthy sense of “holy shit I’m next” jitters. But these dumb oblivious bastards boast the confidence that gets them the job with the skillset that gets them fired the following week.