Dear Alphabettes: How to deal with clients who think they know better?

Dear Alphabettes,
how should I best deal with a client who asks me to change the design of some letterforms and spacing against my advice?


This is a very good, important, and tricky question.

Sometimes clients think they know better than us, that they hired us not for our competence, skills and professionalism, but just to mechanically execute what they have in mind. There are three ways this can go:

In the best case scenario, we don’t really need this job, we can run away from these people and never spend another minute thinking of them and their silly ideas.

In most cases though, we can’t afford to do that. So we go into ‘it’s just a job, it pays rent and bills’ mode, and in a way, it also pays for our silence.

But we are designers, and all that we have is our reputation. Releasing something that we know is below our standards, will harm it. We may have no way to control clients and how they will promote the substandard work we did, or which absolutely pointless and meaningless detail will be proudly present as the cornerstone of the entire project, or keep them from using unfinished and unpolished versions of our files. We have no way to control how our designer colleagues and friends will react to it, or — on a larger scale — the opinion of the general public.

In the bearable version of this scenario, we may be able to remain anonymous, keep our work a secret and our reputation intact and move on to the next project.

In the worst case though, our name is credited everywhere and we will have to own our choices: no one forced us to take that job. So we’re trying to ride out this not so great situation, (because at some point people will forget, right?), and move on to the next project, hopefully it will be better than this one.

We’re not aware of a total-disaster end-of-the-world case where a brilliant designer’s career ended abruptly because of a single terrible project. (If it exists, let us know in the comments.) So maybe the hidden question here is: how to deal with ourselves when we have to work on such projects and with such clients? It is an extremely delicate and personal balance. How much can we point out before losing our clients, or our jobs? How much can we insist in trying to make them see what we see before giving up and smile and nod? Where is the line between us not doing our jobs and keeping our jobs? How much are we willing to compromise or sacrifice? How many of these projects are OK to accept before they become all we are working on? How much can we tolerate to be ashamed and embarrassed of our own work?

(Luckily not all jobs or clients are like this. Some are open to new ideas, some come with perspectives and points of view that enrich and improve our work, and make us proud of collaborating with or working for them.)


Do you also have a question about work ethics, the universe, or everything else? Tweet at us @alphabettes_org and if the answer doesn’t fit into a tweet, we may reply here.

10 Comments Dear Alphabettes: How to deal with clients who think they know better?

  1. John Hudson

    While it’s important to consider the options for the consequences when a client forces an unwanted change, it would be great to also present some practical advice on how to negotiate with the client about such things, and even how to forestall such situations at the contract stage. With regard to the latter: a clause that states the circumstances under which client feedback will be acted upon or not; a clause that gives the designer the right to be disassociated from the resulting work (I understand film and TV writers/directors typically have such a clause, enabling them to have their names removed from films that have been butchered by studios).

      1. John Hudson

        Personally, I’m fortunate that I can’t recall a situation in which a client really wanted to force an unwanted change in a design. [I suspect this is in part because of the nature of the work I do, and I can imagine that this situation may well arise more often if making fonts or lettering for branding work, in which the proximate client might be a branding agency or graphic design firm.]

        If a client does suggest a change, or questions why I’ve made something in a particular way, I’ll explain how and why I’ve done it the way I have, but I’ll also seriously consider their suggestion and provide as detailed an explanation as I can about why it will or will not work. I’m always going to concentrate on the thing-in-itself*, i.e. on the practicalities of the design, not on my expertise, professional standing, or authority.
        *There’s gotta be a great German term for that, right?

  2. Indra Kupferschmid

    I can’t really add much advice because I usually go with #1 (leave) or #2b (do it but take my name off). Setting up some rules for the collaboration in the beginning is good (which I certainly did not always do). I’d add to the contractual things John mentions that I, generally, always mention that changes and corrections after the second or so iteration are billed extra by the hour with my rate attached. That keeps some from commenting endlessly but not always which gets us back to 1, 2, or 3. And it doesn’t solve the problem of them asking for things that I find undiscussably bad.

    Maybe some of us, especially entry level people, don’t have the persuasiveness or built-in authority or expertise of some of the people I saw commenting on Twitter in this thread but I am certain many designers have experienced totally beratungsresistente clients at some time in their career. Even 20 years in, I’d be very happy about tips from colleagues how to deal with those.

    1. Indra Kupferschmid

      Heck, sometimes I even pull out a DIN norm to convince them I’m not making things up!

      Secondary literature, books, articles or other experts “saying the same thing” can help though. e.g. cutting off terminals at arbitrary angles that don’t relate in the slightest to the natural ductus or any logic in the other letterforms are bad because, um, Edward Johnston.

    2. John Hudson

      “I, generally, always mention that changes and corrections after the second or so iteration are billed extra by the hour with my rate attached.”

      In the case of fonts, we provide an initial delivery as beta software, and the contract will specify a time period (typically 60 days) during which any changes that fall within the scope of the contracted deliverables will be made a no extra cost.

  3. Nick Sherman

    I’ve learned about this situation the hard way and can offer the following advice:

    1) Do whatever you can to steer the client away from a bad idea BEFORE you show them what it looks like. I once worked with a client who asked for something my collaborator and I didn’t think was a good idea, but it also wasn’t hard or time-consuming to execute. We figured “we’ll do it and show them so they will understand why it’s a bad idea”. This backfired, of course, and after seeing it they only wanted it more.

    2) Don’t be afraid to remind them that the reason they’re paying you to do the job is because you know what you’re doing, probably more than they do.

    3) Also don’t be afraid to be blunt in communicating that you think an idea is bad. There are many cases where I later regretted being over-polite when suggesting a client’s idea wasn’t good.

    4) This applies to typeface design more than lettering, but if the client is very stubborn and insists on retaining a change you don’t agree with, you could include it as an alternate/non-default feature, or at least include your preferred variation as an alternate feature.

    5) In a worst case scenario, where repeated advice against a bad decision doesn’t seem to matter, reserving the right to have your name disassociated from the project (as John mentioned) is probably a good idea. In many cases I imagine telling the client you think the idea is so bad that you don’t even want your name on it may help to communicate how strongly you feel about it.

  4. Andrés Torresi

    I think our «designer reputation» is related to the design community more than the public in general or potential clients. Personally I did good and bad work and sometimes the bad quality was a consequence of the relationship with the client and the typical situations described here. But, luckily or because non doing mainstream stuff, I was never exposed and judged in public by my colleagues. All the bad designs I’ve done didn’t change my reputation between all my clients. This reputation was usually also linked to other areas of professionalism, not the result itself (accuracy, listening, delivery, honesty, service, etc.). The design community usually judges design work by its solely graphic result. The same behavior than someone who doesn’t know the profession can have. I think that’s the tip of the iceberg and it is unprofessional to attack someone because of what you see, without any other information about the process.

    Critical thinking is good and I think there are places for these discussions, specially in type design field. It’s healthy to discuss how to improve our results in our forums, universities, type design events, debates, etc. We can go through this without affect other’s reputation. We want to learn? Let’s do it in the uni.

    What, in fact, damages a designer and, in my opinion, the perception of general quality in design is making open and viral attacks to other’s work. I believe this could create some confusion: How professional are these people if they are saying each other they are not? What’s the value of experience and education degree if, at the end, a colleague will say they are crap? Behind a designer there is something called life and you hardly know what could be happening there.

    These practices can bring some self-advertisement in the short term and can put you (or create the feeling that you are) above everyone else. But at some point damages the perception of the design field.

    We will be better with a better sense of community and professional respect.


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