Telling A Client “No”

You’re the expert, right? You’ve spent four years in design school and have a few years of real-world experience, right? You obviously know all there is to know about design and clients are just dumb and uneducated. You force your brilliant design decisions on every client because you have the degree and portfolio to back it up. The client is simply preventing you from making your mark on this world.

Or perhaps you’re just the lowly designer who can’t say no because clients are the ones with the cash? As the Golden Rule goes, “The one with the gold makes the rules.” So who are you to say no when a client waves your next paycheck in front of your face right after they ask you to “make the logo bigger” or “make it cooler”?

Both of these extremes are bad and exhausting ways to live your life as a designer. You need balance (duh, right?). Well most of us play both of these roles at different times, but you need to find a comfortable in-between zone and you’ll find yourself much happier and successful as a designer.

To live in that happy medium you’ve got to balance being informed and articulate with being charismatic and nurturing. Here are a few tips to help:

Be nice and inspiring.

If your voice or email is blunt and without tact, you can really turn off a client. It depends on who you are dealing with of course, but in most cases clients are easily offended when their passionate ideas are judged, criticized, or stepped on. If something isn’t working, let them know in a way that shows you understand and care about them.

Preface your words with positive remarks like, “I think that could be a good idea, but I really recommend doing THIS for this reason.” You won’t win friends by making people feel stupid or less educated than you.

Learn the language.

One sure fire way to increase your ability to say no to a client is to simply read up on the history of design and typography. Understand why certain typefaces work well in certain situations. Understand how people interact with a website and be able to articulate it to a client.

A client doesn’t have the same “eye” that you do, so they might not see what you see. If you can articulate clear and sound reasoning in a comforting and respectful way, you’re gold. Back up your decisions with evidence, not just “because I think it looks better.”

Show, don’t tell.

Sometimes the best way to get a client to understand your reasons for saying no is to show them. Do your idea AND their idea and present them with both options. Tell them you went ahead and did their idea but “here are reasons why my solution works better for you.”

If you don’t have the time to do both concepts, then show them unsuccessful or other anecdotal evidence. A client of mine really wanted to use the Bleeding Cowboy font, but it’s widely recognized as a bad font. I wanted to tell them no and show them links to articles that describe why it is a bad choice. That did the trick and they felt comfortable knowing that I am “up on the trends” so they don’t have to be.


As a designer, it’s your job to educate and help a client understand the value of what you are giving them. We don’t want you to get walked on by your client, and we don’t want you to come off as a know-it-all that makes the client feel dumb.

Here’s the trick: It’s not about being right or making the client say yes. It’s about building a solid relationship of mutual respect and friendship. Clients will be saying yes to your design decisions all the time if you can balance knowledge and charisma.

Do you have any advice for telling a client “no”? Let us know in the comments section below.