The 10 Simple Rules of Being a Great Client

How to be the client every designer wants to work for.

Working to create something is difficult. Creating a new product, a website to promote your company, or even the company itself can be a stressful time for anyone, and finding a designer to help can be stressful as well. A great client-designer relationship is paramount to the creative process and making sure it’s as stress-free as possible. But how do you ensure you have a great working relationship with your designer? Simple: you just have to be a great client. Here are the defining traits of every great client.

1. Great Clients Have a Budget

A budget is something a lot of clients of mine have seemed to struggle with. Design is often something that’s a big question mark on an expenses sheet, and a lot of pricing for it seems to come down to if it “sounds right” when they’re drawing the bottom line. It never fails to surprise me what people think design is worth- some think it’s in the tens of dollars, while others are worried it’s in the thousands. I find that regardless of the design, with a moderately skilled designer, $300 is a great ballpark to cover most types of designs, and a great starting place for any negotiations.

Of course, nothing beats research and knowing the standard hourly or job rate of designers in your area. Coming armed with knowledge about what standard rates are will also let you know how in-tune the designer you’re approaching is, and if they’re the right fit for you.

2. Great Clients Understand That Quality Takes Time and Costs Money

It’s true that there have been great designs produced for free. However, the odds are very low that the next job you find on Craigslist is going to be one of them. Work done for ‘exposure’ is unfair to any designer that it’s elicited from, but it’s also a foolish choice for the person eliciting it. Very rarely is free or rushed work good work, and if you find yourself looking to get work for free or for very cheap, it might be a good idea to take a step back and ask yourself if you’re really set up for the project you’re working on.

The quality difference between a $20 and a $200 design could easily double the value of a finished product. Quality costs money and takes time, but it’s also worth a lot more than the amount you put into it. Remember, designers are still a business, and like a business, if you make it worth their while they will seek to make a great working relationship with you by producing the best work they possibly can.

3. Great Clients Are Open to Advice

The old adage of ‘the customer is always right’ may seem like a great way to conduct business when you’re making hamburgers for a living, but when designing a complex deliverable it’s more trouble than it’s worth. A great client-designer relationship is based on trust in the other that they know what they’re doing, and the best clients have open ears for what the designer tells them.

You’re almost certainly not your designer’s first client, and this is probably not their first job of this type. If they’ve done this job successfully before, they could have valuable insights into the direction of the project. Being open to discussion rather than making demands often times makes the difference between a mediocre product and a great one.

4. Great Clients Are Strong Leaders

I’ll get this out of the way now: design by committee is the worst possible way to design. End of story.

The best designs in the world have come from companies that understand that creation is best handled with a visionary at the helm. That’s not to say a great client won’t look for outside opinions- everyone has passed decisions by their spouse before going ahead, but there’s a big difference between that and showing a mock-up to the entire office. There’s nothing more frustrating as a designer than getting a mock-up back with notes from a dozen different people who felt like they ‘had to say something about it’.

5. Great Clients Know When to Step Forward- and When to Step Back

Feedback is an incredibly important part of the design process- designers aren’t psychic, after all, and the communication between a designer and a client is one of the biggest reasons a design will succeed or fail. But there is an invisible line that must be walked by every client about what type of feedback to give.

The key is knowing the design-client boundary. A client can (and should!) offer up every single problem they have with the design when asked for feedback. In response, designer should rush forward to fix those problems or address the concern in another way, possibly by explaining to the client why that problem isn’t a problem at all. But a client isn’t a designer (usually) so offering your attempt at solutions usually does more harm than good.

6. Great Clients Never Say the Words “Creative Freedom”

You know you don’t mean it, you just want the designer to like you.

7. Great Clients Make Payments on Time

As a client, you’d be incredibly upset if a designer delivered work to you on the 10th that they promised to get to you by the 4th. The same virtue goes for payment- and a lot of designers who freelance don’t have a lot of fiscal wiggle-room. Paying on time is just plain professional.

8. Great Clients Have the Right Materials

There are less stars in the universe than there are times I’ve started a design commission for a client and been handed a .zip file of a few 300 pixel wide .jpgs labeled “assets”. When a designer begins a project, there are a number of things a client needs to provide, and one of those is usually reference images and files.

Designing a website, for example, does not also mean designing the logo for that site, so a client should have a nice high-resolution .png to provide to the designer for them to work into the site. Great clients know what they need before a project begins, and what they already have- or at least know to ask what they need to provide. Letting one side assume the other will fill in the gaps leads to a bad work experience for everyone.

9. Great Clients Respond on Time

To have the best possible experience with a designer, giving them time to work is much, much more important than giving them proverbial ‘creative freedom’. Often times, a design will go through many, many iterations that the client never sees- I know that in my practice I will ‘finish’ a client job and then sit on it for two days before going back over it with a fine-toothed comb before submitting it. This kind of behavior is important for refinement, and waiting to give feedback two days before you want the finished product is probably the least helpful way to do that.

10. Great Clients are Concerned With Trust

A great client will have their mind on the end goal and end product- it’s not about ‘getting it done’, but getting it done well. To be a great client, it is paramount you seek out a designer whom you can trust, and whom you feel will be the right person for the job. Finding someone who is ‘good enough’ usually isn’t.