Thoughts on Design Integrity. Getting what you want from your client


You’ve just been given a project and the client has made a list of demands that will surely result in a total design failure. Your integrity as a good designer is on the line… …WHAT DO YOU DO?

Manage the client’s expectations BEFORE the project brief is even written. In an IDEAL world, the battle over a client’s expectations is begun during the very first meeting. This often means that the sales person – not the designer – must start this fight. This is not an easy task. Most clients come to a design firm with some idea of what they want. And a sales person’s job is doubly difficult because they’re busy trying to sell too. The added task of managing a client’s expectations is often times in direct conflict with making the sale.

What a client wants to hear is: “Wow, brilliant idea. We can execute that design, no problem.” not: “These ideas suck. You should let one of our designers make something better.” But whenever possible, a sales person should start by hyping the designer’s expertise and suggesting that the client should open their mind to a design that may not fit exactly with what they have set in their mind… …in an ideal world that is.


Talk to the client immediately. So, the sales person did their best, but the project brief is still chock full of horrible ideas. Don’t hesitate. Don’t start designing. Don’t pass go. Do not collect $200. Proceed directly to your phone and call the client. This conversation needs to take place immediately. Now is the time to get the client on your side. Pitch your ideas, explain why your ideas are better than theirs.

Give the customer what they ask for. Or, more to the point: Give the customer what they EXPECT. Now, I know this statement is a bit of hot button, at least it is at Go Media. Let me explain.

Imagine that you pull into a McDonald’s drive through and you order a Big Mac. You pay your money and leave. As you drive down the street you open your bag and inside you find a McChicken sandwich and a note: “I know you ordered a Big Mac, but this chicken sandwich is much healthier for you. So, you should eat it instead.” How would you feel? Personally, I would probably be feeling rage boiling up inside of me. “Son of a BITCH!” I’d be thinking. “I JUST PAID!!! I asked for a Big Mac… nobody said anything to me when I ordered and now I have a fricking McChicken sandwich. I already PAID for a frickin’ BIG MAC. Who are they to tell me what is best for me?”

Is the note wrong? No, not necessarily. A Chicken sandwich IS healthier than a Big Mac. I probably SHOULD eat the chicken sandwich. That’s not why I’m mad. I’m mad because I had an expectation. And the jerks at McDonald’s just insulted me by ignoring my request and essentially saying to me: “You don’t know what’s best for you.” Well, isn’t that arrogant! They don’t know every aspect of my life. Maybe I’m dying of cancer and this Big Mac is my last meal.

In the same way, we must respect our customers. Yes, many customers are idiots that ask for retarded design things that are probably bad for them. But we STILL must pay them the respect of not immediately assuming that we know what is best for them.

Have you researched their customer base? Do you know their entire marketing plan? Have you used their product? And if you’re going to do something different than what they asked for, you need to manage their expectations BEFORE you start showing them proofs. If you don’t follow directions you’re going to piss them off 99% of the time. So make the call and have the conversation. Pay them that respect at least.

Show them. Ok, so you got the customer on the phone, they still think they know best and want it THEIR way. Remember: your design integrity is on the line. We can’t give up yet.

Here is where your mettle is tested. How far are you willing to go to defend your integrity? Sometimes you have to spend your own time (unpaid by the customer) to mock up a SECOND design. This will give you the opportunity to actually SHOW them the better design.

It’s important to make your design the second of two. The first one still needs to be your best version of what they’ve asked for. In this way you haven’t insulted them. It would be like having that McDonald’s employee show you the beautiful, juicy chicken sandwich and saying: “Are you suuuuure you want to eat that greasy burger? Look at this tender juicy chicken sandwich. I have the Big Mac ready for you if you really want it, but this chicken sandwich has half the fat and calories!”

Accept the challenge. Nothing is impossible! So, nothing you’ve said or showed them can change their mind. They still want their list of demands met. So, you have to ask yourself: How good of a designer are you? The client has just presented you with an amazing challenge. They’ve given you a long list of demands that would normally result in a horrible design.

So, do you accept this challenge of giving them what they ask for AND still making a good design? It may take a lot of extra work and mental strain. But that’s what we’re paid to do – to come up with solutions to problems. Are you going to work the challenge or do you just give up – declare the client an idiot and walk away frustrated.

The choice is yours. If you are quick to give up, maybe you’re not as good of a designer as you think. Time to get behind the mule and plow.


No beans, what now? You’ve done everything in your power to make a good design. You’ve pitched them on your ideas. You’ve shown them a better solution. You worked their horrible ideas for hours and hours. You’re at the very end of your rope and the design still sucks. What now? What do you do? Do you “sell-out” and give them a horrible design, or do you stick to your principles, refund their money and tell them politely that you refuse to work with them?

Well, if you’re on your own this is a personal choice. Thousands of “starving artists” live meagerly and never budge on their design (artistic) principles. Some designers may even become rich and famous by sticking strictly to their principles, always doing their work 100% their way with no compromise.

In my experience, designers are still subject to the golden rule: the person with the gold makes the rule. Translation: At the end of the day, the paying client makes the final decisions. The designers that get their way most of the time, are the ones that are the BEST at pitching their ideas and selling them to the customer. If you want to do things your way – I suggest working very hard on your people skills and practice the art of pitching!!

William Beachy

I always try to do good design, despite the challenges my ignorant clients give me. I pitch good ideas when I have them, but I also pick my battles. At the end of the day I have a mortgage, staff payroll, and a pile of other bills to pay. I don’t feel like I’ve sold my soul to the devil if I execute a bad design for pay.

Some people dig ditches or clean sewers to make a living. I’m a graphic designer. Most of the time I’m very proud of the work I do, but occasionally it’s a dirty job too.

Oliver Barrett

I believe that when a client comes to us for work, they aren’t just paying for the final product. Aside from the obvious production work, they’re paying for research, conceptualization, and our opinion. I like to see what improvements can be made to a client’s idea in order to achieve the best results possible. I like to approach each project as if it could be a potential showcase piece, so I want it to be as good as possible. Sometimes that involves pushing the client in a new direction.

I like to think that I’m pretty good at pitching new ideas and getting the client excited, but sometimes the client doesn’t want to change. You have to learn when you can influence the client to move in a new direction and when to back off and give the client what they want. I find the best way to influence a client is call them on the phone and talk about what you’d like to do with their project, in addition to showing them what they had originally asked for. After talking on the phone, send them a follow up email with some samples so that they can get a rough visual of what you had talked about on the phone.

Keep in mind that you should maintain a genuine level of enthusiasm (without sounding like a complete fraud) when talking to the client about a new idea. You want them to get excited about it. Then, when you post your proofs, make a few statements about why your concept is more effective.

This is not a fool-proof system, and don’t be surprised if the client just sticks with the original idea.

Adam Law

In my opinion this isn’t a discussion about design integrity as much as it is a comment on a larger problem within the graphic design field. It is my experience that clients do not generally understand what a graphic designer is, what a graphic designer does, or how a graphic designer works. I cannot recall how many times I’ve been called a “Graphics Designer” (note: there is no “S”). If someone cannot get my job title correct, I have little hope that they are going to be “on board” for the entire design process let alone understand how the concept I am pitching them is a better, and in most cases less cliché, idea.

So the problem actually becomes: “How do I educate the client about design and help them make more intelligent decisions?” This can be a really tough issue to tackle. Most people become insulted if you call their ideas dumb, even though they may in fact be unintelligent, and will become less responsive to your suggestions if they feel insulted. I have also run into the problem of clients being resistant when you attempt to explain the process to them, as they feel you are telling them they do not understand what you are doing. Even though it is often the case that they do not understand what you are doing.

It really becomes a process of holding a client’s hand and convincing them to trust you and to allow you to do your job in the manner that works. The process is always a two way street as you must also allow a client to educate you on their needs and how a client thinks at the same time as you are showing them how your process works. At the very least you have to convince them to let you at least try your idea, even if it’s on your own time as Bill suggested.

However, I have to disagree with Bill’s analogy of the Big Mac and the Chicken Sandwich because that suggests you are getting garbage in the end either way. Either of these would be cookie cutter solutions to a problem, in this case hunger, that aren’t going to consider a person’s specific needs. Rather I propose that you give the client filet mignon rather than a Big Mac if allowed to properly work through the design process.

The client gives the designer (chef) their input (how they like their steak cooked) and then trusts the designer (chef) to create a great solution (meal). You never hear a person telling a chef which spices to use or how long to cook the meat on each side. If they wanted that much control the chef would probably ask them why they came to the restaurant when the customer obviously could meet their specific needs better than the chef could. Each solution (steak) is unique to the client’s problem (needing a meal) and no two solutions are ever the same (every steak is unique no matter how many times you’ve prepared the same cut of meat). It is when a designer is fully trusted by a client and allowed to work through the complete process, that the end result is the highest quality product possible.

When considering the financial implications of the design process, “Selling out” is not a term that correctly applies to the circumstance because that term does not have enough depth to describe the situation. What is really happening is the client is not getting what they paid for because of their own self sabotage. The blame cannot be placed on a designer when they have not been given the opportunity to do their job and come up with a creative solution to the design problem.

We are not simply purveyors of “cool”. Designers do not make things “look cool” or “look slick”. If this is what a client wants they may be better suited for 99 Designs or Crowd Spring. In fact, the term “cool” should never be uttered in the context of design. The end result may be considered cool by the masses, but the designer’s job it to come up with a creative idea that solves a client’s design problem. Nor should a solution ever fall into a specific style (after all style = fart according to Sagmeister) or be trendy. Every solution must be unique to a client’s specific needs and fully non-formulaic.

In the end after all your attempts to educate and persuade the client to buy into the process of design and the validity of your ideas fail, then like the chef you must allow them to attempt their solution on their own. That person may get what they want in the end, but it will never be all it could be if properly executed. Not to mention if they are that difficult and unwilling to listen, then do you really want them as a client at all?

Jeff Finley

Here’s a bit from Adam Law:

“We are not simply purveyors of “cool”. Designers do not make things “look cool” or “look slick”. If this is what a client wants they may be better suited for 99 Designs or Crowd Spring. In fact, the term “cool” should never be uttered in the context of design. The end result may be considered cool by the masses, but the designer’s job it to come up with a creative idea that solves a client’s design problem. Nor should a solution ever fall into a specific style, after all style = fart according to Sagmeister, or be trendy. Every solution must be unique to a client’s specific needs and fully non-formulaic.”

While I wholeheartedly agree that every solution should be client specific and non-formulaic, I must offer my slightly different opinion on the matter. We get a lot of requests from clients to make them “look cool.” This is that fuzzy area between art and design. The fact of the matter is, when something is well-designed and well-thought out, people say it’s “cool.” I think the primary discrepancy is that “cool” is a subjective term and is very vague. The word “cool” itself does not describe their needs. What I personally think is cool may not be what the client thinks is cool. This is where communication is important.

When a client wants to be “cool” they really mean they crave that feeling of being admired by their peers. They want to achieve greatness and become successful. They don’t want to look cliché. They want to be regarded as a trendsetter.

Also, style, in my opinion is very important. Style alone should not be confused with being trendy. Sure, if a client specifically asks for something “shiny, glossy, web 2.0” they are requesting a design based on style that happens to be a cliché trend. What they SHOULD be describing is the feelings and responses that they desire in their customers. If they are looking for a friendly, pleasant user experience with easy and obvious calls to action, then perhaps a shiny and trendy web 2.0 style would be fitting. Sometimes being trendy is just what the doctor ordered. Sometimes trends exist because they work and are looked at as standards.

Also, as an artist/illustrator, we often get hired because of our style and technique. The way we execute ideas becomes a trademark that clients ask for. They see something in that style that resonates within themselves and makes them feel good. Style is in everything we do. It’s personality. Branding.

But my point is, we as designers need to understand how to translate a client’s visual style descriptions into executable solutions that help the client achieve what they want. Whether that is more sales, to appeal to a specific audience, to land XYZ as a new customer, etc.

Tim Boesel

When a client says “jump” designers say, “how high?!” I believe many clients know what they want from the start. Either the client has provided an example or has come up with a rough (a.k.a. terrible) concept on paper. Even with all the direction in the world, clients can (and most likely will) shoot a designer’s concept down, no matter how strong the idea is.

When coming up with a strategy to combat clients’ so-called “design block,” the best line of defense is to listen to everything they have to say. Then, educate the client why or why not their design might or might not work. Shedding new light on an old idea will most likely help you win over a client.

A word of advice: it is best not to piss off a client or argue with them. Usually, if you shed new light on a client’s old idea, they will most likely see your vision as the best solution. However, don’t completely throw out a client’s idea, no matter how bad it is. Most clients take pride in their designs and want you to help bring their ideas to life, not destroy them. All egos aside – if it wasn’t for clients and their “wonderful” (yeah, right) ideas, you wouldn’t have a job.

If all else fails and you find out the client is “two-faced,” (i.e. one minute they love your idea, the next they have no money or drop off the face of the earth) then you don’t want them as a client anyway.

Even if you poured your heart and soul into the client’s project or woke up in the middle of the night saying, “this will work, listen to me @$$hole,” you have to put up the white flag. It’s time to suck up your pride and live to fight another day. In the end, you’re the designer. You have fought the good fight for years and you know what works and what doesn’t work. After all, you’re fighting for clients – not against them.

In conclusion, I believe my integrity as a designer is validated. I approach each project – no matter what size – working towards the best possible outcome. At the end of the day, if the client chooses something other than my idea, I can accept that because I know I put all my effort into the project, and that’s the best I can do.

Katie Major

It wasn’t too long ago that I graduated from design school with a built in ego the size of an elephant. I remember very clearly my design instructors drilling into my head “YOU’RE THE genius, don’t let a client have a say in what you do”. One of my favorite analogies a professor told me was that you won’t go to a doctor and tell them how to fix your broken leg; you trust that they know what they’re doing.

Something I had to learn the hard way is that this type of client relationship comes from a mutual respect that has to be earned. If you parade in with your genius idea, thinking you’re master of the universe, that is going to turn off the client so fast you won’t have a chance to even talk about your idea before they reject it. This has been a struggle for me because my knee jerk reaction to a client’s bad idea is “don’t you trust me?! I went to design school, you didn’t. How can you come to me with these horrid ideas?” I am still learning how to best approach this situation with humility and learning how to sell my ideas to people. I realized once I showed the client how awesome the potential was for the project they trusted me 100% through the rest of the design process.