8 Types of Design Clients We’ll All Encounter & How To Work With Them Peacefully
We know ’em. We love ’em. They pay our bills and help us afford our Creative Suite subscription. They’re our clients.
I’ve been freelancing ever since my junior year of college. At the time, I was working my very first part-time design job at my university and felt that I was ready to take on a few clients in the real world. Or at least the “real world” that existed within the borders of Metro-Detroit. It only took a few months for me to realize that everything my professors warned me about was 100% true. They warned us that we would encounter some people who are easy-going and would let us do what we wanted to do. And on the flip side, there would be clients that clearly come from a different realm of reality. The latter are the ones that I feel I have become all too familiar with in my few years of freelancing. If you are starting off your design career as a freelancer, I highly recommend that you check out this list to know what you can expect on your journey. Please keep in mind that I love freelancing and enjoy the challenges it can bring. I write this as an informational piece, not a warning or cautionary tale of some sort. Of course, I hope that you never have to deal with particular individuals mentioned here. But let’s keep it 100 — there’s a good chance that you will.
Below, my friends, are the eight types of clients that I’ve encountered throughout my career and how I’ve learned to work with them peacefully (i.e. not smack them in the face).
1.) The “Do You, Boo”
These are the sparkling gems that will light up your world. They are the diamonds in the rough. These clients wash away your tears and remind you of all of the reasons you wanted to be a graphic designer in the first place. The “Do You, Boo” clients are those precious individuals who allow you to use your creativity however you please. They listen to your professional advise, are open to making changes to their original ideas, and typically don’t ask for too many edits/revisions along the way. They believe in you, your talent, and your vision — just as any good client should! Buy them a coffee when you pass off the final files. They deserve it for being so kind and easy to work with.
2.) The Helicopter Client
Sure, they believe in your ability to make their vision come to life. But they would feel much more comfortable if you let them stand over your shoulder while doing it. If they could, they would definitely just design the work themselves to ensure it turns out just how they want it to. Because they don’t have the professional tools or skill set, they will let you do it under their supervision. Don’t be surprised if they ask to meet up to discuss (and watch) every single revision.
Take a deep breath, have some patience, and remind them that you will work hard to make their piece absolutely perfect. This client might have a lot of pressure weighing on them, causing them to be a little pushy and apprehensive. Developing trust, reassurance, and consistent communication will help put them at ease. Establishing in-person meetings ahead of time will also help make the process much easier, and show them that you are proactive.
3.) The “Lemme Get a Sample” Client
I don’t know if these people are completely ignorant to how design works in general, or if they have a skewed understanding of how long it takes to create a “sample”. Whatever the reason may be, it seems that your portfolio filled with a variety of work is highly insufficient for them. No, they don’t want to see what you’ve already completed. They want you to create something new specifically for them to see if you’re capable of meeting their needs. Oh…and they aren’t paying you to do this either.
You’ll have to kindly explain to these clients that your portfolio is the spot to find said “samples”. They should be looking at your design style and skill set, not searching for super specific projects that have yet to be created. If they love your work and want to see an example of what their prospective design will look like, that is what you call a “draft”. Drafts are included in the design process that they will be paying for. Again, you will need to communicate this to them as clearly as you possibly can. If you need to, create a physical timeline and payment plan that will help them understand this a little bit better. After talking to them, you might realize that they’re looking to see something completely outside of your realm of expertise. In that case, maybe you can recommend them to a friend who specializes in that type of work/style.
4.) The $hook One
Speaking of payments, let’s go ahead and address the financially oblivious clients. Or as I like to call them, the $hook ones. These are the individuals who are not familiar with designer’s price points. While we all charge different rates for different projects, one thing remains the same: we know our worth and charge accordingly. The $hook ones typically go into consultations with a number in mind, and are instantly shook when they learn that the price is 3x what they were expecting.
I personally have never taken on a $hook client. To be honest, I usually don’t hear back from them after the consultation (which isn’t a terrible thing). I try to be reasonable with my prices, but sometimes these individuals get angry when I refuse to lower the costs any more. In situations like this, I recommend that the tight budget holders reach out to a design student. Since students are still in school learning the craft, they usually won’t charge as much as designers with two degrees and years of experience under their belt. Some may not charge at all since they’re eager to gain experience. The design babies could definitely use that money more than the professionals. Turning the $hook clients over to a student designer is a solution that helps everyone win in the end.
5.) The Skeptic
This client won’t be perpetually shook after discussing your prices, but they will give you the side eye. Although they claim to “have the funds to do it” and they “don’t mind paying the full price if they have to”, these individuals will argue that your prices are a little suspicious. They might ask a million questions about your process, your educational background, or do other things to justify why they should pay you so much. Some do this to ensure that their money is being well spent, others do this because they might not have worked with a designer who charges quite as much.
In cases like this, I break down my prices to the best of my ability. Your educational level, average time spent on projects, experience, and capabilities are all factors that can and should play into your costs. If you’re unable to explain the what’s and the why’s behind your prices, I suggest that you sit down and so some evaluating. You should be prepared to explain this to any client whenever necessary. If my price breakdown isn’t convincing enough for this client, I then begin questioning their questions. It is important to be understanding and sympathetic, as there is probably good reason behind their skepticism. Did they have a negative experience with their last designer? Is there something about my work that they are unsure of? Do they have budgeting restrictions that they’re embarrassed to talk about? Are they used to paying someone else at a lower rate? Getting down to the root of the problem will provide some well-needed context and help you determine how to move forward.
6.) The Serial Client
You are probably the 5th or 6th designer that this person has met with this month. Nobody has managed to meet their needs yet, and they’re really not sure if you’ll be right for the job either. You can spot these clients by their constant mention of previous designers or past projects. They will use a lot of comparison verbiage. And talking to them might make you feel like a finalist in a competition show. These individuals are either a.) trying to be very specific with who they work with, or b.) not 100% sure of what it is that they’re looking for.
Once this client is finished running their list of questions, it is your turn to ask them anything and everything about what they need accomplished. Even if you realize that this client isn’t for you, you might end up helping them narrow their search. By dissecting their requests and asking the right questions, you might help them discover what type of designer they should be looking for.
7.) The Vanishing Act
This client will seem interested and engaged in the beginning. Phone calls go well, email communication is timely, everything is perfect. You might start thinking that you have a “Do You, Boo” on your hands. Then all of a sudden, it happens…*POOF*…they disappear. No more phone calls are returned. They stop answering emails and texts. In extreme cases, they might even go as far as blocking you on social media. What makes it wild is that you never even saw it coming — everything seemed fine! You don’t know what the heck happened, but you’re confused, angry, and a little salty.
If you find yourself in this unfortunate predicament, don’t feel bad. It’s happened to us all at some point. These clients are the reason that contracts, down deposits, and watermarks exist. The last thing you want to do is give someone a peace of your intellectual property for free. Even if a client seems to be wonderful, you still want to protect your work at all costs. Never send raw/original files, be sure to place a watermark or password on any files that you do send, disable any editing features when possible, and don’t share anything before some form of payment has been exchanged. Though you may feel helpless and bamboozled, just know that you’ll never have to relearn or relive that lesson again.
8.) The Red Flag Walking
This client is self-explanatory. They are literally a red flag walking. These people will exhibit signs from some or all of the problematic clients on this list. They might be hard to detect right away, as some of them start off as if everything is fine like a Vanishing Act will do. But over time things start to get a little rocky.
Here, friends, you will have to use your best judgment on how to handle the situation. Use the tips laid out in this article to help you determine how to navigate a situation before things get sour. Remember: developing trust, reiterating your process, being understanding, protecting your work, and practicing good communication will help you find a safe and peaceful solution for any client situation.