Graphic Designers: Avoid These Mistakes With Your Clients

585 396 Derek Kimball

mistakes to avoid with design clients

In “How To Win Customers & Keep Them For Life”, author Michael LeBoeuf sites that 68% of customers quit on a business because of an attitude of indifference or rudeness by the owner, manager, or employee, while only 14% leave because of dissatisfaction with a product.

From my years working as a freelance graphic designer, I’ve learned a lot about what not to do when it comes to dealing with clients. This doesn’t mean I never screw up, but I’ve been able to minimize my screw-ups by learning from my mistakes. If you too are a designer, are you avoiding the following mistakes with your clients?

Discussing Personal Problems:

no negative talk with clients

It’s one thing to mention to a client that you have to delay their project because of a death in the family or because your child is sick…but sharing with them all of your personal problems when they ask how you’re doing creates for an awkward situation. Unless you’re client is a close friend, they don’t want to hear about your sick uncle, car problems or financial troubles.

Poor Phone Etiquette:

wise phone etiquette

Don’t be that designer who leaves countless voicemail messages or calls clients first thing in the morning, really late at night or on the weekends.

Also, avoid when possible, talking to your clients when your hungry, woken from sleep, in a grumpy mood or any other time when you’re brain isn’t working at full speed. One bad conversation can put a bad taste in your client’s mouth and have them second guessing their business relationship with you.

Geek Talk / Design Lingo:

graphic designer geek speak

In an attempt to educate your client or convince to them you know what your talking about, it can be easy to start speaking in “geek talk”. Before you know it, your on some tangent about the benefits of “vector” vs “raster”. By the time your through, your client has fallen asleep or slit their wrists from the boredom you inflicted on them. Unless your client is well versed in design lingo, it’s best to talk in simple, easy to understand, neophyte language. They will breath easier (and not slit their wrists).

Not Listening To Your Clients:

graphic designer ignoring client

Lets face it, with conversations most people are simply waiting for their turn to speak rather than truly listening to the person their talking to (especially when the other person is uninteresting). This may be a result of ego or nervousness. Either way, it’s not good for customer relations.

If you are someone who has a tendency of over-talking others and not listening very well, try being more mindful during your conversations. If you’re client likes to talk, let him/her do so. It will take the pressure off of you and allow them to feel like they don’t have to rush their statements.

Being A Designer Know It All:

graphic designer "know it all"

Our clients pay us for our expertise and professional insight, however we need to always remember the difference between offering advice and dictating our opinion. If we as designers don’t value our client’s input, they will walk away unhappy or fight us relentlessly. And besides, sometimes it’s the client who surprises us with a good idea that our trained eye fails to see.

Careless Emailing Tendencies:

emailing clients

When we talk to someone over the phone, it’s easy to pick up on sarcasm, anger, joy, etc…simply by listening to the tone of the speaker’s voice. Yet, when writing or emailing someone, there are no vocal clues to help us express our intended message as easily. Yes, we have the exclamation point, smiley face, and all-caps at our disposal…but they only go so far.

I recently emailed a client with the words “…you seem trustworthy enough”. When I wrote this, in my mind the words came across in a lighthearted fashion…but in hindsight I can see why my client didn’t read it that way, as she responded “I hope I seem trustworthy and just trustworthy enough”. Did I offend her? Was she being sarcastic in her response? Exactly my point. Sometimes things get unintentionally misconstrued. Good enough reason to double check your writing before hitting the “send” button.

Over Promising & Under Delivering:

graphic designer sketching

The best way to make a customer happy and keep them coming back is to exceed their expectations. The best way to exceed expectations is to under promise and over deliver. Here’s what Andrew Keir says on the subject:

“It’s not about promising a deadline of a month, then working furiously into the wee hours of the night to complete the project in a week. Over extending yourself and making promises you can’t keep is obviously a recipe for disaster. It’s about delivering everything the client deserves and expects, and delivering it better and/or sooner than they expected it. To receive exactly what you expected and receive it on time is merely satisfactory. To receive something better than expected and sooner than expected is exciting!”

Skipping The All Important Design Brief:

design brief

Not asking your clients the right questions about their design needs and expectations is like trying to ace a test without studying. It’s no wonder design work on crowdsourcing sites looks so generic. Spending the time briefing your client before starting on a project will not only save you time, it will allow you to provide you’re client with designs that fit their needs. A win win for everyone.

No Retainer / Down Payment:

down payment

Unless you’re working with an established client, never ever start on a graphic design project without first getting some money down. You can’t afford to be spending countless hours of your time with no guarantee that you’ll be compensated something for your efforts. If your client doesn’t want to pay you some up front, walk away…it’s not worth it. Read more on why graphic designers require down payments.

Lack Of A Project Agreement:

project agreement

Having the terms of a project established in writing is beneficial for you the designer as well as your client. A signed project contract/agreement will ensure there is no confusion when it comes to pricing, project expectations, timeframe for completion, etc. When I first started out as a freelance graphic designer, I didn’t use contracts or require down payments. It didn’t take long though, for me to realize that was a bad idea.

Disregard Of Customer Sentiment:

designer being rude to client

No matter how great our work is, we as designers have to remember that there is more to winning over a client than simply offering quality design work. This quote says it best:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  – Maya Angelou

Thanks for reading. Am I missing any important mistakes that graphic designers should avoid when dealing with clients? Please share your thoughts below.


Derek Kimball

Thanks for reading my blog. I'm a graphic designer who specializes in logo design and brand identity. If you'd like to receive periodic updates to useful design resources and writings, subscribe to the newsletter.

All stories by: Derek Kimball
  • John B (Australia)

    I’ve happened on your site by chance.I wonder if you could help me?

    I’m assisting a grand daughter by searching material relevant to her study for a Master’s degree. Her field is in copyright.Graphic designers must surely face issues of intellectual property regularly.

    My g-daughter’s work includes the nature of the client-designer relationship. Her hypothetical concerns a young designer who is said to have successfully presented a logo design, only to find it subject to legal challenge by a rival organization in the same field. The issue arises, should the client have alerted the designer to the other logo (there are very few organizations in the field) or should the designer herself have done some homework to ensure that plagiarism could not occur?

    My layman’s opinion would suggest the prudence of both courses of action. Would that be the case? I’d value your viewpoint and any resource you might be able to point me to in the field of ethical practices for graphic designers.Thanks.

  • Derek Kimball

    Hello John, Apologies for the delayed response. I’ve been busy trying to wrap up a couple of design projects. Regarding your question, it’s something that I think about quite often actually, because it’s a sticky situation with no easy answer.

    Since I am not a specialist in trademarking, registration, copyright, I unfortunately can’t comment on the true legalities of this hypothetical, however my thoughts and practice are as follows…

    As a designer, I do feel it is my obligation to avoid creating designs for my clients that could ultimately infringe on someone’s intellectual property. This is especially true with logo creation. The obvious reason is because of the simplistic nature of logo design. With this simplicity comes the higher chance that another existing design may be similar to the one I come up with. As a result, sometimes look-a-like designs / concepts do occur.

    With that said, an honest designer will do everything in his or her power to reduce the chance of that happening. The steps I personally take include: research of Google Images, searching logo databases, copyright searches via the government websites when applicable, and trying to create designs that are as unique as possible.

    The really tough part I think, is the fact that sometimes a very simple design for a logo is the way to go. Yet with that great minimalist design, comes a higher likelihood that someone else had the same simple idea. Sometimes 2 logos will share similar traits, yet still be different enough because of their varying stylings and font and color choices.

    Obviously with tens of millions of logos in existence, it’s about impossible to guarantee complete uniqueness with a logo, but some of these mentioned steps do help. It’s about all we as freelance designers can do on a small startup budget. With larger brands come larger risks, but also larger budgets which allow for more research, more exploration, etc.

    I’ve never personally had a client come back to me with a mention of a cease and desist, though the thought does cross my mind. I’ve considered purchasing insurance to help protect against this sort of thing, though it’s very costly and didn’t offer enough protection.

    When a new client comes to me to design a logo, I assume the client has done the preliminary work in regards to making sure the name hasn’t been taken, though I do often ask / remind to make sure the name has been vetted. Preferably, the best approach obviously is to protect the name and get it trademarked. The optimal approach with logo creation is to also protect the design legally. That is something an attorney would handle. I tell my clients that I assist with the design, and attorneys are for trademarking and copyrighting a design and/or brand name.

    So in summary, I do believe it’s the duty of a designer to inform certain things, do proper research, and take certain precautions. I also think a client should share some of these responsibilities when it comes to coming up a business name that isn’t fault of infringement, and making sure to properly register their name and design(s).

    Some of this comes down to $ as well. A small time local hair salon with a $500 budget for a logo should not expect a designer to invest much time and effort into anything but the design of a logo. Yet when a company is investing multiple thousands of dollars into a new brand identity, they certainly deserve a more thorough effort from a designer when it comes to developing as many safety nets as possible.

    I stipulate some of these mentions in my project agreements, which lets my clients know where my services start and end. As for additional resources on this topic, I would highly recommend seeing what has to say on this topic. I actually just purchased their handbook, but haven’t had time to read it yet. I’m sure I’ve read articles on this topic, but can’t recall any specific ones.

    Anyway… hope this rambling answers some of your questions.

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