September 2021
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If you read the stories on the Clients From Hell site, you will have a feeling you’re in the wrong industry. The tales of horror try to display clients as barely functioning morons, but the truth runs deeper than that. Sure, there are those who truly are morons, as with any human being in any industry, but design is a profession of twists and turns, and terms that are learned in art school, that allow designers to communicate more with other designers than with the layperson.

Another problem, is that as the availability of design software reached the general public, those who could use even Microsoft Word to make a party invitation for their child’s birthday suddenly thought that design is easy and those who charge for it are just a pair of hands, who charge too much for something so fun and effortless.

Unfortunately, the terms professional designers are taught, like file formats, coding, production, and copyrights are still foreign to most clients who want to be involved in the process, on an equal, and transparent level.

How to Make Clients Understand You

Walk the Walk, But Talk the Talk

Transparency is the key to working with clients. They don’t understand the design process… and some not as much as they think they do, or pretend to do. It’s like trying to convince a car mechanic you know what he/she is telling you about your broken vehicle. You nod a lot and reach for some automotive term, so you don’t get fleeced with parts you don’t need. In the end, the mechanic spots you for the non-mechanic you are.

Zipped Mouth
Image credit Bigstockphoto

Some of the entries by designers on the Clients From Hell site are more the shame of the designer, than the client. Using “design-speak” is counterproductive to designer-client relations and the transparency that makes for a smooth project. Read the following entries from that site and see if you agree the designer could have explained the terms and needs better, so the client wouldn’t waste time and effort.

The client I was working with decided they wanted to have their signature appear on the website we’re developing. Since there is a colored background on the site, I asked them to send me their signature, saved as a PNG with a transparent background.

What I got was a PNG of their signature, written on a transparent piece of paper that they had scanned.

CLIENT: I need a shirt designed for our international customs team picnic this summer. We’re thinking, “Trade Geeks.”
ME: Alright, send me the information, and I’ll see what I can do.
CLIENT: I just did.
ME: Where did you send it? I don’t see –
CLIENT: I need a shirt designed, and we’re thinking “Trade Geeks.”
ME: That’s not much of a brief.
CLIENT: It’s two words — how much more brief can it get?

CLIENT: The logo is perfect. Don’t change it. I just think it needs a little more magic to it.
ME: What do you mean by “magic”?
CLIENT: I’m not sure myself, but that is where I was hoping you would come in.

CLIENT: What are the corporate colors again?
ME: In CMYK or Pantone?
ME: What?
CLIENT: Microsoft Word.

Image credit: Bigstockphoto

CLIENT: It’s not a “WOW!” It’s just a “wow.” Do you know what I mean?
ME: Not really, can you please be more specific?
CLIENT: Let me put that another way. I wanted a “WOW!” You gave me a wow.” Is that so hard to understand?
ME: Is that really putting it another way?
CLIENT: I told you exactly what I wanted. I can’t be any clearer than this.

CLIENT: Can you create the Terms, Privacy Policy, and Contact pages now?
ME: I need you to provide the content for those.
CLIENT: Can you just use dummy content for them for now?
ME: They’ve been up since I started the site with dummy content. I need you to provide me with the correct content so we can launch today.
CLIENT: Well can you just create them using dummy content for now? I’m traveling.
ME: They’re already created. I just need you to give me the real content for the launch.
CLIENT: Can you just use dummy content for now?
ME: I… yes, I can. But, to be clear, it won’t be the correct content. Just filler text.
ME: That’s what dummy content is.
CLIENT: Are you sure?

The client responses seem ridiculous, but put yourself in their place. Do they understand terms like “CMYK,” or “Pantone?” Have they ever heard of a “creative brief?”

Speaking Your Native Language is Not Enough

As for asking for “magic,” it reminds me of my own miscommunication story with a boss of mine:

I was given a project by the president of a company at which I worked. She was known for being difficult, as well as vindictive, and I swear I almost fainted when her secretary called me into the president’s office. The assignment was simple: come up with new stationery for the company that would rebrand everything. She said, “I want something sophisticated!”

I looked up sophisticated in the dictionary, and started by designing three choices for her. When I showed them to the president, she was a bit upset. “I said I want something sophisticated!” she scolded.

I designed three more, all corporate with a European fashion flair. When I showed them to her, she grew angrier, and demanded to know why I couldn’t get something “sophisticated.”

Image credit: Bigstockphoto

I tried again, and again with no luck. After the eleventh design attempt, I looked around her office, which was decorated with 1970′s kitsch, toys, and retro furniture. The word “sophisticated” suddenly took on a different meaning to me. “Would you show me an example of some sophisticated designs that inspire you?” I asked her.

She pulled out a letterhead she had received, and shoved it at me, probably trying to paper cut my throat. I looked at it, and said, “Oh, you want something whimsical!”

The next design hit it on the head. It wasn’t that I couldn’t design “sophisticated” — she just couldn’t communicate the visual she wanted by using the right words, and wasn’t pleased I embarrassed her.

Why couldn’t she pick the correct words? Because non-creatives often can’t put a visual in their mind together with the right descriptor. They’re not morons, mind you — they just can’t communicate a look with words. By the same token, they don’t understand creatives who describe a design direction and get the picture in their heads.

We serve Clients – We Solve the Problems

At a local design event, hosted by a small, but successful web design agency, their account manager spoke about the importance of complete transparency when dealing with clients.

Problem Solving
Image credit: Bigstockphoto

It’s a lot of hand-holding, dumbing-down design language, and a constant updating of the project to the client so they feel comfortable with the process. That’s when some designer raised his hand and insisted the process should be “enigmatic wizardry,” as he put it, believing the design process should be kept secret from the client. For that statement, he was dubbed, “Dumbledork.”


The easiest way to assure yourself of a smooth project, is a clear creative brief, a strong contract, constant communication, simple language, and, it seems from those who post on Clients From Hell, lots and lots of questions, and explanations throughout the process.

Never assume a client even knows what a jpeg is, and how to make, or send one.

Onextrapixel – Web Design and Development Online Magazine

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