Why Can’t Graphic Designers and Their Clients Ever Agree?

I decided to ask designer and blogging buddy, Dennis Salvatier, this question — having worked with many designers over the years. Here is our conversation.

Jeannette: I’ve worked with many graphic designers over the years. These are designers whose work I’ve really admired. Strangely, though, when working on a project, some designers do not seem to grasp that the objective of the work is usually to sell a product or service. Sometimes, they fall in love with a design and try to sell it to the client even if doesn’t work.

By the way, I love my company logo design and masthead. A designer with whom I’ve worked on other projects created it. And I love your work, Dennis. But why is there this disconnect between design studios and their clients?

Salvatier Studios

Dennis being playful

Dennis: Thanks, Jeannette. The biggest problem with the client/designer relationship is that there is rarely a conversation about the relationship itself. Roles need to be defined before any work is done and that is the responsibility of the designer.

A good designer starts the conversation, but a great designer provides a design brief. This is a short questionnaire that includes questions about the brand, competitors, target market, budget and goals.

Because many people devalue the work of a designer (due to the common misconception that all we do is push buttons on a computer) it’s important for the designer to provide a “terms and agreement” contract that states the designer’s role, the work being done, target date for completion, payment schedule and all the deliverables owed to the client.

These actions show the client that the designer is running a business and is not just a hired hand. He or she brings value to their investment by providing knowledge, skill and consultation. It’s the job of the client to recognize this and respect the terms.

Setting up the relationship in this way would avoid common problems like the client wanting to bypass the designer’s advice and instead wants it done their way, or better yet, consults their spouse because they’re an “expert in design.”

If you hired a designer why the hell do you want to do their job? A designer’s task is to design an effective communication piece based on a brand strategy, not the client’s personal preferences or own personal glory. That’s where the headaches begin.

"branding, logo design"

Dennis' restaurant logo

Jeannette:  This is sound advice. I agree the roles need to be defined. But despite having defined the client/designer relationship, there can be grounds for legitimate disagreement. This is where things can get a little hairy. No offense, but a designer can make the greatest case in the world for a particular design — how it supports the brand, target market, competitors, etc. — but the client doesn’t agree.

Let’s face it. Even designers have their personal biases. The client may feel the design is too “consumer-y” if he works for a B2B company, or — this is going to kill you — he doesn’t believe the colors represent the brand and sincerely believes it. Does the designer fight the client for his design or the colors in the true belief they will work best? How have you handled this kind of issue?

Dennis: The creative process is never without discussion or disagreement. Most clients can’t cut the umbilical cord from their idea. It’s their baby. I get it. But do you want the best for your baby or to instill your ideals and preferences on it?

The way I look at it, you’re paying me to provide a service. My job is to do my job at the best of my ability, keeping your brand’s goals as my priority. I should know, based on the brief, who this is targeted to: B2B or consumers. If my work is hitting the mark and the client still disagrees with me, he or she can call me biased or anything else they like, but I remind the client of the goal and ask why she’s changed her mind.

This happened to me very recently actually, and when I asked that question the client answered, “Well, I was thinking of something different.”

At that point, I asked her if she would like for me to stop providing advice and simply design, based on her preferences, which I would be happy to do. I don’t need to fight clients who are already fighting themselves. I get paid either way.

What I do in those instances is never show that work on my website. All fighting the client does is give him a chance to badmouth me to his network. I’d rather they be happy with work I will never claim and get more referral business.

But I turn the question back to you, Jeannette. You’ve been on both sides of the fence – creatively and as the client. What do you tell the designer when he explains his reasoning for your design and you still don’t like it? Could it be possible that you simply want your way?

Jeannette: That’s a perfectly legitimate question, Dennis. And I do think that a lot of clients have a “God Complex.” They think they know everything and they will make a change simply to show who is boss. I’ve sat on both sides of the table — as a client and a consultant and seen it. (I hope I never did it).

I agree that if the client insists then you have to follow the Golden Rule: “He that has the gold makes the rules.” But it doesn’t serve the client well, as you point out.

"branding, graphic design"

Dennis' snowboard design

Not too long ago I was asked to create new copy for a website. Based on our discussion, I submitted a Creative Platform — similar to your questionnaire. We agreed on their brand positioning and I investigated the key words to use. It turns out they wanted to create a new title for the person who manages electronic records in physician offices because they were offering training for that position.

Only problem is no one used that title. No one. Not one search. I couldn’t convince them that they didn’t exist if no one could find them. But they insisted. You know the rest of the story.

So I guess we’re in agreement that the final decision is the client’s. But it still begs the question — how can client and designer meet on some common ground? What are your thoughts on the role of personal chemistry?

Dennis: I think finding common ground, when there’s a difference of opinion, comes down to respect; respect for the designer and their work, and respect for the client as the representative of the brand or company.

I’ve found that my favorite clients to work for are the ones who respect and trust me. They understand that I want to do great work for them, but also know that the work represents me and I would never give them something I wasn’t proud of.

The creative process is all about communication, and my favorite clients are the ones that constantly keep me in the loop and give me a heads up when things on their end will affect our work together. For example, I have a term in my contract that states that if I do not hear back from you within three business days, I have the right to terminate the project and keep the deposit.

Seems harsh, right? Well, I’ve had past clients who went off the radar for months without explanation and kept me from taking on new business because I was still taking care of theirs. When they reappeared after a long time, they demanded the work be completed immediately with a complete disregard of my current clients. It’s not fair to leave a designer hanging when earning their fee depends on your feedback and approval, so I had to include that clause to avoid these problems.

Luckily, I have some really considerate clients who call me when something comes up like a vacation, emergency or any other reason that prevents them from moving forward at that moment. They notify me and I make arrangements with them. If there isn’t honest communication between both parties, there will be problems. Wouldn’t you agree?

Jeannette:  I think the operative words here are “respect” and “trust.” There has to be mutual respect and trust that the designer will do his best work, within the goals of a campaign. In turn, the designer needs to respect that the client is constantly adding new information based on the dynamics of his company’s business.

In the agency business there is a saying, “We have to know the client’s business as well as he does.” That’s impossible. You can hang up the phone with the designer, and five minutes later the client could learn about some new development that will impact a campaign and its design.

"Volkswagen Think Small Ad"

Volkswagen Think Small Ad

There needs to be what I call a constant “communication loop,” circling the designer and client. If there is a breakdown in that loop then things will start going wrong. I’m glad that you see it in the same way. I think we’re beginning to get somewhere! One last question: how should designers and copywriters work together? What makes for a successful, collaborative relationship?

Dennis: Agree that things can change, but for the most part, the client should be prepared with copy and any special images for the designer to begin working. Copy can change, and it will, but it’s necessary to have something semi-finalized in order for the designer to create a layout that can be worked with.

But to answer your last question, I think copywriters and designers have the same goal: a successful and clear message. Of course, egos can get in the way, but it’s very important to have a brainstorming session where both sides can be heard and a partnership can be created. Idea after idea will be thrown around and some will be good and some will be awful, but a successful collaboration will start with (again) respect and working together.

Back in the 60’s, Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) was the first ad agency that realized that designers and copywriters needed to be in one creative department. The result was more finely tuned work. Their “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen single-handedly cemented that brand into the American consciousness, and it’s all due to designers and copywriters working together. Mad Men on AMC is a great example of this kind of teamwork.

Jeannette: Final word — as a writer I’ve often deferred to the designer to create the basic concept and layout first. I know it’s sort of chicken and egg — which comes first. But, as you say, if the designer and writer are in the same room, depending on the campaign’s objective, they may decide that the website, ad or brochure should be copy heavy or design heavy.

Referring to your (DDB) example, you may recall that the “Think Small” campaign featured an image of a Volkswagen with barely any copy. The design and image were key. On the other hand, John Caples’ iconic ad “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, but When I Started To Play!” definitively showed that consumers will read very long copy if it’s compelling and they are interested in the subject.

"They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano But When I Started to Play"

John Caples' iconic long-copy ad

We’ve covered a lot of ground here, Dennis. But I think we’ve both answered my question of how to solve the problem of any disconnect between designer and client. The relationship must be built on respect and trust. Why is that not surprising?!

Dennis Salvatier is an award winning graphic designer and illustrator for Salvatier Studios, an independent creative services studio that specializes in brand identity design and illustration in Los Angeles, CA. In his spare time he blogs, illustrates, collects comic books and spends time with his wife.

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Comments

  1. I love the way you have done this article Jeannette and both you and Dennis have given good insights especially for those who don’t have much experiences with writers and designers.

    One question for you both is if you are working on a project that needs design and writing do you find many clients encourages both sides to communicate together, such as with a web design or do they keep each aspect separate?

    • Good question, Susan. I’ll let Dennis answer that question from his perspective, but my experience is that the client encourages that collaboration. I certainly did when I was on the client side and as a writer. Conflict can occur when either the artist or writer is a dominant personality who wants to control the process — s/he wants her way. Frankly, it happens if one is a prima donna with a big reputation and ego. I saw that when I worked in agencies. On the other hand, I’ve also seen marvelous collaborations between highly regarded artists and writers and when that happens the result is magical.

  2. The creative process, when it involves a client and a creative, can be challenging. I very much agree with you when you say then they must find a way to come to a consensus and be on the same page. Trust and respect are a key component to making that happen.

    I just recently entered into a collaboration with a graphic artist to help me create a new brand/logo for my blog. I am an artist and was much too close to my thoughts about what I wanted. The graphic artist was very artful in gaining my trust and respect and the outcome was so much more then I had expected or could have hoped for.

    • Susan — As an artist yourself you were brave to put yourself in the hands of another artist. I went to your site and loved it. Glad the collaboration worked to your advantage.

  3. This post is a keeper for anyone requiring design work. What I appreciate the most is the initial brainstorming session to get the the ideas, emotion, relationship, communication, and excitement, off to the best possible start. I think too many people get tangled up in the nitty gritty details of contracts. When I first start out a relationship, I need to “feel” it.
    Thanks Jeannette and Dennis!

    • Keyuri — I love the brainstorming, too. It gets your creative juices fired up. When I facilitate brainstorming sessions I always ask a final question, “Now I want to hear everyone’s wildest ideas.” Most are off the wall but the funny thing is that I’ve seen a wild idea become the one that is eventually chosen. Once you let go of your inhibitions you unleash your creativity!

  4. That’s a great question Jeannette. It reminds of a magnet on my fridge that says “There magic in thinking big.” If we just give ourselves permission to think big, we can get fired up to actually achieve big! Occasionally I’ll sit on my couch in stillness and allow myself to dream. That often leads to great productivity.

    • Keyuri — I love it that you allow yourself to just sit and dream. It’s wonderful to dream big things — I need to do that more often myself! Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Nice reminder that in-depth communication is the key in ALL transactions. It triggered the idea that there’s a huge amount of marketing and branding going on when a graphic designer is hired, so the more in tune you are with each other, the more successful the project will be.

    • Dolores, a comment after my own heart, thank you. Communication IS the key to all transactions. Thanks for the reminder. Now if only we could get politicians to communicate with each other…but that’s for another post!

  6. @Susan Oakes Susan, it actually depends on the client. I’ve worked with some who immediately give the other creatives contact info because they’re aware this is a collboration between all parties. Then there are some who want to be the bottleneck. They soon realize it’s much better to work as a team.

  7. @ Keyuri Joshi Keyuri, when I was a young designer I hungered for collaboration. Being creative was all I ever wanted to do, but the reality is this is a business and if you don’t prepare yourself for it, you’ll have a difficult time with your collaborations. I’ve had people not pay me, or completely disappear when I’ve spent countless hours on their project. I had to set systems in place to protect myself AND the client. Now, once all the nitty gritty-ness quickly gets out of the way, the fun begins!

  8. @ Jeannette Getting politicians to communicate is a tall order. 🙂

    That’s a great example of how some of these client/designer relationships go sour. Each person has their own agenda and will not budge from it or listen to any other ideas. Thankfully, in the creative world, doesn’t have to be this way.

  9. @ Susan Cooper Susan, I think it’s great that you were able to let go of the project and hand it over to someone else. Not many people can do that, so I commend you on that. I’m glad your collaboration was so satisfying. It makes what Jeannette and I spoke about in this post totally true. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Great article Jeannette and Dennis and a must read for people who haven’t got any experience of workding with designers.

    Have always worked with designers to carry out my visual ideas but still listened to what they had to say. Sometimes they came up with ideas that I had overlooked. But all in all when I have an idea for a new venture/project or whatever, it includes the visual.

  11. Wonderful discussion here an certainly many of us who work with clients can relate to this. Dennis, you know I’ve commented many times on how valuable working with a professional graphic designer can be and the same applies to working with other professional consultants such as freelance writers. It needs to be a collaborative effort. Jeannette, I think you summed it up well when you said ” The relationship must be built on respect and trust.” That’s true in every aspect of building a business.Great interview!

    • Thanks, Sherryl. Dennis and I had a good time in putting together this post. As you could tell, we both had strong ideas about the topic!

  12. Thank you for reading, Sherryl. It come at no surprise that respect and trust are the fundamentals for any successful collaboration, but sometimes we just need to be reminded. It was great experience to talk to Jeannette on the subject, especially since she’s played both roles. I hope it helps readers of this post to consider working with a creative.

  13. I’m currently teaching the design process to a group of high school web design students. This is now a must read for them when we return from spring break! How to deal with clients is the hardest thing to teach (and may be nearly impossible). Thanks for a great resource!

    • Laura — We’re thrilled that you found our blog so helpful that you are using it as a reference piece for your students. Thanks for the compliment!

  14. Wow, what a great article! I loved the line, “A designer’s task is to design an effective communication piece based on a brand strategy, not the client’s personal preferences.”

    I’m a ghostwriter and I find one of the challenges is to talk my client into surveying their titles for their books. It really doesn’t matter if the client thinks the book title is the bees knees, if the reader doesn’t get it.

    I learned long ago to survey anything important. This ties right into what you’re saying. It must appeal to your customers and that is all that is important.

  15. @Laura G That is such a great news. I love that this article will help people who aren’t even in the industry yet. It’s definitely valuable information and I thank you for sharing it with your class.

  16. @Laura Sherman I’m glad you liked the article, Laura. And I’m happy my quote resonated with you. I explain to young designers that their job isn’t to make something pretty, but instead effective. The pretty just comes along for the ride. They look at me puzzled at first, but they understand in the end. I wholeheartedly agree with your point on book titles. If no one gets it, it doesn’t matter that you think it’s great.