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How to Deal When Your Client Only Likes Ugly S*!t

Written By Stacy Nguyen | Jun 5, 2018

We’ve all been there. We’ve all been in a position where we lovingly poured hours of thought, sweat, blood, and tears into work that we think is smart and effective — only to have a client come back and tell us they don’t like what we have done. Instead, let’s go another direction.

In these moments, clients will have a bunch of neato ideas on how to make the work better. Their ideas usually consist of stuff like blowing up jpegs of their logo so that it is the size of a billboard, slapping that blurry thing on a picture of a white man in a business suit holding wads of cash, and then posting that twenty consecutive times on Facebook.

I know, I know. How do we stop ourselves from murdering this person? Well, here are some ideas on how we can all stay out of jail, based on my years of dying on all the molehills.

First, don’t ever tell someone that you think their tastes stinks.

I know it’s really tempting to tell someone that you think they might be tone deaf — but in a visual kind of way — but stop. Do not do this. Don’t even imply it. No one in the history of humankind has ever responded well to this kind of insult. Being less than gracious will result in defensiveness on both sides, anger, and it could make the client question your professionalism.

Remember that you are not paid for your art. You are paid to solve a problem.

Rather, try to empathize with your client and see where they are coming from. Often, clients have a hard time articulating why they feel resistant or do not like something, and it is our job as designers to dig deeper and ask questions. Maybe your client wants that photo of a man holding money because they think that the work you proposed is not tangible enough or the call to action is too soft. When you take time to ask probing questions, these things will come out and compromises can be suggested.

Remember that you are not paid for your art. You are paid to solve a problem.

Back when I was a news editor, every now and then I’d get a submission that was really inappropriate for the newspaper. Typically, these submissions read like journal entries and were biased. After reading these submissions, I’d have to go back to the writer and tell that person that what they sent to me wasn’t really what I was trying to buy from them. I was trying to buy an unbiased news story full of quotes and research; I wasn’t looking for a first-person commentary from a single point of view.

I think about that often whenever I encounter a client that asks me to change so many things about a design. As much as I want to rail against what I think are bad design decisions, I also make myself remember that what I am working on isn’t really my baby. It’s their business, and it’s their baby. At the end of the day, they have to feel comfortable with what they are getting and feel that it properly represents their business.

Try to reason with the client and talk about whether the work fulfills a function.

Documentation and prep is really important. The times that I did not sit down and write a thorough scope or design brief have bitten me in the ass because there was nothing to refer to when the project went a little sideways. That is why it’s very important to establish the intent, the goals, and the logistics of the work.

When I do this, I can use that documentation to refer back to with the client at a later point. When I do this, we can talk about whether or not the work I am doing is fulfilling their business need, rather than whether they like or dislike how the work looks.

Not every piece is a portfolio piece.

Guys, we all make stuff that is ugly. I have made so many things that I never publicize because I am so embarrassed by the quality of work. I have made things that are borderline offensive and that sort of infringe on my personal beliefs. It happens.

I just don’t put those items on my portfolio or in my work samples. I just take the wisdom I accumulated from the project, keep it at the forefront of my brain, and then I take the files from that project and put it into the black hole in my computer (that’s just a special drive I reserve for “decommissioned” projects), and then I forget about it.

If your client’s bad taste is really destroying your soul, it’s okay to break up.

There may come a point where you dread every phone call, every email, every meeting with your client. You may stay up late at night buzzing with anxiety because you just don’t know how to move forward.

When it comes to this, you have a few viable choices. You can suck it up, finish the project to the best of your ability, and just not do work for the client again in the future. Or you can quit with class, refund them a fair portion of their money, tell them that you don’t think you are the designer for them, and recommend someone else that you think would be a better fit if you can.

I have done both during my career. It’s always hard to do this kind of thing, but it’s important to be kind, professional, and direct. One time, the client appreciated the clear communication and forthrightness enough that they gave me a referral after many months had passed.

Ultimately, assume good intentions. No one ever intends to represent their business in an ugly or tacky way — so understand that you and your client are actually on the same team. In my most rage-y or discouraging moments, I make myself remember this. And when I realize that my client and I are working toward the same goal but simply have different ideas of how to get there — it’s easier to move forward in collaboration and cooperation.

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