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The Client’s Point of View

I recently came across a site called Clients From Hell, a blog that collects “client horror stories from designers”. Horror stories might be a bit of an overstatement – I skimmed a few posts, and there was nothing about people losing an arm or getting their faces blown off by clients. The general theme of the site appears to be designers mocking their clients for not understanding technology, Photoshop, or web conventions.

I’m a designer, and I have done my share of client work. I know how frustrating it can be to deal with clients at times, and I can empathize with my fellow designers. But to publicly mock the people who pay you to do your job seems to be a rather ungrateful and asinine thing to do.

Three years ago we launched Harvest, and since then we have transitioned from a web design studio to a product company. We have stopped taking on client work, and on a number of occasions, we have sat on the other side of the table and acted as The Client. Having been on both sides of the table, I’d like to offer you the client’s point of view:

We, the client, pay designers to create a usable and pretty design. You’d think it works like buying a camera: go on Amazon, add to cart, type in credit card info, check out, and a few days later you get a brand new camera at your door. Working with a designer works more like this: write a big check, meeting, answer lots of questions, review design, meeting (and it cycles a few times), write another big check. And the kicker is: if we don’t like the final design, there’s no refund. Many designs that we have invested money and time in never see the light of day. But we certainly won’t be putting up a website whining about designers or crying foul on Twitter.

Fellow designers, let’s be grateful for getting paid to do a safe and socially respectable job. Show a bit more respect for the people that write us checks (they don’t have to hire us, you know). And please, stop whining.

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This was posted in Small Business 101.
  • There’s definitely two sides to every coin. I’ve had bad experiences on both sides of the table as well, Shawn.

    I think one could easily launch a website entitled Designers From Hell. I have plenty of friends that could share horror stories about dealing with designers. The most common examples I can think of are (1) a designer failing to deliver on time and (2) a designer walking away with the money. I’ve seen both.

    Let’s all just get along? :)

  • I see where you’re coming from Shawn, and agree with you Spencer. I’ve been a website developer (programmer mainly) for a little over 9 years now, and I’ve seen both sides of this. I’ve had more than my fair share of really stupid comments / questions from clients (usually because the client is just unfamiliar with something), and I’ve also had to deal with 3rd parties that totally make a mess out of things.

    I understand your frustration Shawn, but there are definitely clients out there who, no matter how politely / thoroughly / professionally you present yourself and your work, will not be satisfied, or will make you run in circles preventing you from either finishing the project, or producing a product that you can be proud of.

    I think the lesson here is to:

    1. Be happy for the work, and realize that 98% of people out there don’t understand what we do / how we do it, and be patient with those people.

    2. Understand that there will be those people out there who just aren’t worth working for on rare occasion, and sometimes it’s best to just call it quits, for both you and the client.

    Great post, though. It’s nice to hear some thoughts from some fellow developers.

  • If you are truly writing big checks for design work, then there is a lot more to it. The discovery work you skimmed over in your article is a very important part of the process. It can take a great deal of time, and involve hard costs for things like research as well.

    A qualified designer will build rationale for their designs drawing a clear line between these findings and the goals, thus justifying the expense.

    Still you will find clients who are not satisfied. The funny thing is, the client is never the target audience, yet they think they are. If a client wants to impart their own design skills in the process because the work, although rationalized, does not meet their personal tastes, then perhaps they should forego the expense in the beginning and work with that special person in their family who is a great designer.

  • As small business owners we should be grateful for clients, instead of begrudging them that we have to do a service instead of being an instant online rockstar. The best leaders are willing to serve, and never really stop.

    The second aspect to this is developing a way to communicate and adjusting it, if you sense right away that someone might be too difficult to work with, adjust your communication style and see if it helps. If you are still having trouble communicating, avoid taking the job and perhaps recommend someone else that they might work better with.

    Most of all be thankful, most people have to rely on a huge company and years of working for someone else’s dreams just to pay the rent. It’s a blessing to be able to work creatively for yourself, or a small company where you have a voice. Most importantly we all have the opportunity to make the internet a better place, and improve the day-to-day lives of people all over the world. A privilege not everyone gets.

  • I’m grateful for my good clients, and I fire the bad ones. Some people aren’t ready to bring me on as a partner and aren’t prepared to talk intelligently about branding and design that’s a waste of my time and doesn’t help either of us grow. I’m not expecting every interaction to be perfect or not to have any pushback, but I do expect my expertise to be valued.

    Clients from Hell is fun, and its cathartic. It reminds you that, you know, everyone is dealing with horrible clients and ridiculous requests. It’s a way to say: well, at least my client isn’t THAT bad.

  • Topher Davila on December 15, 2009

    Shawn, I think you might not be getting the point of the “Clients from Hell” blog. First I would like to say that sociologically anything that’s gone as viral as the Clients From Hell Blog has strikes some sort of cord, and that it does so in a community as relatively small as designers shows this more so. It’s obviously connecting with a lot of somebodies. This isn’t a value judgement on good or bad it just means it’s obviously connecting.

    As to the value of the content I think it’s a fun good thing in the same way Twitter can be. We designers don’t work in large companies for the most part or we freelance so the concept of sharing, whether it be help or therapy is something individuals in our field don’t get much of.

    “Therapy” is I think what it is. That or the digital version of the water cooler. Any designer that’s been doing it for any length of time has had some clients that are doozies, either by innocent lack of information or their the worst kind of jerks – ones that are jerks at base and think they know about something when they have no clue. Who else can you tell these stories too except other designers? (and we have no water cooler to actually gather around)

    Some times you just gatta get it out and tell some one and have someone else laugh with you so you both can know it’s not just you that goes through that kind of thing.

  • My husband is an IT guy and he says: Users are Losers. Unfortunately, he does help me. So I think it is in the nature of the trouble to gripe a little bit now and then. He told me the users complain that machines don’t work and he finds out they are not even plugged in. (I’m not that bad.) But you seem like a nice group of people. I would like you to find a client desktop you can integrate with for tracking projects and interacting with them. I’d like to use a seamless integrated product between QB the desktop client facility and Time and billing. Am I dreaming?

  • Don’t get me started on clients from hell… LOL

  • Karen Schoellkopf on January 8, 2010

    @Jean We have Quickbooks integration for the Windows version only. You can set up the Harvest – Quickbooks Integration by going to Manage > Account Settings > Third Party Integration > Edit Quickbooks Settings. Let us know if you have any questions as you set it up!

  • I, too, have browsed (OK, obsessed) on the CfH site. With 15 years as a web designer I could appreciate and relate to many of the stories. But there are some great points not only in the article but some of the comments. It is cathartic to talk about the issues. We do it internally in our organization (though I always tried to maintain a “regardless the client is paying our bills” attitude) and it happens amongst my peers.

    My impression of CfH, after LMAO, was that most of these clients were simply ignorant of the process. I have had a mantra for the past ten years – Manage Expectations. The more a client can be educated and informed up front, the more smoothly the relationship will unfold.

    Granted some people are simply adversarial. Regardless of your industry, they will occasionally crop up and try to ruin your day.

    One of the values, I think, of CfH is an exposé of the issues designers face. If approached from an attitude of “this is amusing, now what can I learn from it”, it is useful.

    It’s easy to become jaded as we mature in our work. The stories mount. But it’s important to remember that our job is not simply to design, but interpret. And that requires skill sets that go beyond design.

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