Does the client know best? Part 2

Does the client know best? Last week’s Design Talk post got all kinds of thoughtful responses, including one near the end by Mike Carroll, the author and publisher who’d designed the original cover himself, thanking all of you for your contributions and announcing that, by popular opinion, he was reverting to his original design, which can now be seen in paperback on Amazon.

After Mike’s post, another reader weighed in with the following letter, which I did not release in the comments section, but I post for you here. I do this because it raises an issue that is, to me, of utmost gravity — and that is the attitude toward clients that we bring to our work, most pointedly the idea that we are better than they, and our work inherently more worthy.

It’s a sensitive issue but enough of a learning opportunity for all of us that I wanted to not let it slip away.

My responses follow his letter.


Our reader writes,

“John’s first ‘30-minute’ revision brought out the best of Mike’s original design while removing the amateur elements that detracted from its efficacy. John’s redesign ups the credibility of the author and makes him look like an authority on his subject. For some reason, Mike thinks that looking like an authority on his subject will make students not want to read his book. This reminds me of clients who insist on crappy designs that they admit are crappy but say make them more ‘accessible’ or ‘down home.’ Ugh. Design should not call attention to itself. It should be transparent and support the message that it is meant to convey. The first revision (John’s) did this admirably.

“Mike seems to get the most pleasure out of having his self-published version validated. That is worth much more to him than whatever additional books he could have sold. As he clearly delineated in his response, he acknowledges that he is limiting his sales and his credibility as an expert in this field but ultimately achieving his primary goal: validation that he can do it all himself.

“This serves as an important lesson: that we designers can spend a lot of time and effort toward supporting what we think are a client’s goals — increased sales, better product, effective usability — when actually the decision-maker is motivated by other factors (ego massage, calling the shots, proving his ability to design), which begs the question: Why did you ask the designer in the first place?

“Mike says he can’t afford a designer, when, actually, what he means is that he doesn’t value the work of designers. The time that John spent with his friend for free was valued at exactly that by Mike. A salient lesson, indeed.”


My response is this: The attitude revealed in this letter can stunt a professional career. I’ll explain.

First, some clarity.

Mike didn’t come to me. His friend sent the cover to me, and I jumped in. In other words, Mike wasn’t asking for a designer, much less one to “not value.”

I pitched a few designs aimed mainly at giving structure to his concept. These were done quickly with almost zero knowledge of Mike or his market, certainly not the way we’d treat the job in a true, client-designer relationship, where we’d go deep.

He took my suggestions into account and modified his designs. In the end, he reverted to his original vision, which, as I said at the outset, I like, even though it’s messy.

My caution is this: Never assign motives, especially pejorative ones, to someone you have not met face to face. And even then, resist.

There are many reasons a design can be rejected, and all are valid, starting, I’ll emphasize, with the possibility that the client is smarter than we are. Or maybe he just likes blue. Never assume. Give him the honor of taking his opinion seriously; it will free him to know if he really means it.

Also, do not presume to know which designs would perform better (“increased sales, effective usability”). There are so many currents and cross-currents in the market that the only way to know would be to put both covers out there and measure. Even then, the results may not be clear. Twenty individuals could buy one cover, but one instructor might buy 25 copies of the other.

Similarly, we are not the audience for his book. We are viewing the covers strictly as designers, and once over lightly at that. Design is one piece of a living puzzle (sometimes it’s the key piece, but by no means always). To the student interested in his career field, Mike’s cover may be perfect. He alluded to this in his response.

As for “limiting his sales,” that’s unlikely; we can be sure that Mike will be tracking results. He invested blood, sweat, and tears to get his book out there, and he’ll be keenly attuned to the feedback, as we would be. He’ll know, at some point, whether or not his cover design is an issue. I’m guessing it won’t be.

Accept that when he said he can’t afford a designer, he means it. And just because a designer (me) offered him work for free does not obligate him to like it, much less use it.

Before & After readers have heard me say that the best design is not one we dream up. It’s not a façade, but rather, it’s a portrayal of reality, a form beautifully and truthfully expressing a function.

What’s important here is that when we assume to know another’s motives, we blind ourselves to what’s real. We can never produce the best design, or even decent design, as long as we favor our opinion — more correctly put, our judgment — over the true, living, breathing thing. A blind designer is an incapable designer.

This is not trivial. We are all unjust judges, which is easy to see once we notice that our judgments always come out in our favor.

My advice: Respect your client. Give him your best work. Hold it lightly. Stay open. Help him get where he wants to go. If he needs to circle back, be there when he arrives.

Talk to me.

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91 Responses to Does the client know best? Part 2

  1. Dimitri says:

    I like John’s response — well said and well explained.

    Long time ago, I had a friendly chat with a family friend, who was then in his 70s. He said, “Doctors — big deal! I went to one, he connected me to a machine, pressed the button, the machine printed a diagnosis, and he charged me $200!” To my friend, the machine did all the work. The doctor just pressed the button; therefore, anyone can be a doctor — they just need to know what button to press.

    What if the client seems to be like that — thinks that anyone can be a designer because they just need to know what buttons to press on the computer, and Photoshop does all the work? Just pick the font you like, the fancier the better, some bright colours, etc. The only skill involved is to know which buttons choose fonts, colours, etc.! In other words, the client thinks that a designer is someone who knows how to use Photoshop, period.

    How would you apply the advice from John’s response to this situation, which is quite different from Mike’s case?

  2. Mark Barnes says:


    That could quite easily be the most important and well-made post you’ve ever published. I remember reading your comments on a similar issue (a logo for a non-profit), but I can’t find that post/article now. I’m sure other readers would find the discussion there equally beneficial. Any ideas where it is?


  3. Susan Barnes says:

    I know you will get many responses attacking the letter writer, so I don’t need to add my two cents. However, I did want to thank you for making the point I have been trying to make for years — none of us knows everything, and never knows everything that motivates the client. Right or wrong in our eyes, the client writes the check; if that isn’t reason enough to respect his/her opinions, you are in the wrong business.

    • Denton says:

      Bongo! Make the client happy and they will be back. That is the end game. Not necessarily a portfolio piece. Ego will get you fired; customer satisfaction will get you work.

      So, if what the client “needs” is for you to get out of the way, then, no matter what your input/experience will bring, get out of the way. But leave your contact info. In my experience, they will eventually see the value. Chances are . . . guess who they will call.

      • Dean says:

        I recall an interview with the British actor Michael Caine, and the interviewer asked him why, although he has been in movies that have been feted and won many awards, he has no compunction to appear in, say, Jaws 3D or some other “piece of crap.”

        His response was that when he started out, he tried hard to say yes to movies he felt were right. But there was no correlation between his choice and the success of the movie.

        Movies he acted in that he thought were truly superb vanished from the screens with barely a ripple, and others that he took just to pay the bills turned out to be box-office smashes and were well reviewed.

        So now he is a gun for hire. He gives his absolute best for every performance, and it is what it is — and is out of his control anyway, as there are so many more elements in the success of the movie other than his performance.

        Interesting . . .

    • Maria Scharf says:

      So true! Of course we try to give our clients our best designs, and hell, who doesn’t want to add to our portfolios?! But not every project is going into the portfolio, and at the end of the day what’s really important is that the client needs to be happy. To start, I will try to persuade them in my direction if I think they are going astray, but if that doesn’t work, I’ll go with their suggestions. I always say that if they really want to go with ugly, I can do ugly — it’s easier! Then I do exactly what the client wants, laugh about it to myself, and go on to the next piece. They all don’t have to win awards.

  4. Steve Ruis says:


    I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again: You are a national treasure. It is imperative that we always challenge our own biases and proclivities.

  5. Fran Egdar says:

    Dear John,

    I love you — and I love the way you think! Now, I’d like to know whom you consider to be the best presidential candidate at this point. :-)


  6. Steve Dye says:

    To solve problems and communicate messages through beautiful design is an impressive accomplishment. To sincerely value the souls who are in need of your skills is true success.

    John, you do both extremely well. Thank you for encouraging all of us to do the same.

    • Paul says:

      Well said Steve, I try, although sometimes fail, to take my head out from the computer, the problem solving, to remember the people who I work with.

      I remember a quote from the Patch Adams movie that went something like: “When you treat the disease, you win some, you lose some, but when you treat the person, you win every time.”


  7. Doug Crew says:

    Well said. Reminds me of my largest client — he has “white space” phobia. That is what he wants, and in the end, that is what I get. I do the best I can within his parameters. I do get a lot of positive feedback from him on my designs.

    Thanks for this and all the other help you give. I just wish I had found you sooner.

  8. Becky Blanton says:

    John, I just LOVE everything you do and the wisdom that you share, particularly when it comes to clients. In a perfect world, with reasonable clients, the advice you give does work! Since you mentioned not assuming motive etc., I’m curious about something.

    Because I’m currently working with a narcissist client and am on my eighth and ninth revisions while doing great work and kicking myself for not limiting my revisions to three because I love to do the best work possible —- how do you deal with unreasonable clients if you don’t at least explore motive and mindset?

    One in 24 people are sociopaths, according to experts (Book: The Sociopath Next Door), and U.S. Health and News mentions a study that has one in 16 people as having a clinically significant narcissistic disorder. So, we’re looking at about one-third of our clients having serious mental-health issues that make them unreasonable jerks. Any tips on dealing with them?

    • These statistics also suggest that one-third of all designers have serious health issues that make them unreasonable jerks — which could be one reason why this article needed to be written. ;-)

      One thing I’m taking away from this discussion is the value of working toward refraining from being a psychopathic, narcissistic designer who places no value on the client’s thoughts, opinions, and general well-being.

      They don’t teach that at design school. Thanks for the article, John.

      • Becky Blanton says:

        :-) Good point! I didn’t think of it that way, but yes, designers can be jerks and sociopaths too. I go out of my way to please, and need to set higher prices and stronger boundaries to avoid the jerks, but they are inevitable, I suppose, on both sides of the fence.

        • Maria Scharf says:

          I loved your comments. In the future, you need to state to your high-maintenance clients that the price includes x number of layouts and x number of revisions. If they revise further, the price goes up by $x for each additional revision. This is an upside of being a freelancer. Staff designers are not so lucky.

          • Becky Blanton says:

            Thanks Maria! I will do exactly that! I worked as a staff designer for the Tennessee Valley Authority when they had an art department. I know what you mean! I got so used to doing 20 and 30 revisions that it just never occurred to me to limit it to two or three and then charge more. But when we pay our own bills, it’s a must!

  9. Staci says:

    Thanks, John. We should all read your advice once a week . . . or once an hour!

  10. Jon P says:

    I think designers should seek out clients who feel their opinion is valuable, and take it seriously. Clients should do likewise when they seek out designers.

    It’s fine for a friend to ask, “What do you think of my design?” But beware of the client who ever does anything like that.

  11. Jeff says:

    Yeah John . . . but you still have to admit Mike was wrong. ;-)

    • John McWade says:

      Haha! Very cute.

      Not so sure Mike’s wrong, though. Read this comment that I received offline:

      I worked at a medium-sized newspaper for almost five years from ’98-’03. I was a pain in the ass for this paper as I kept pushing to do more Internet stuff. I finally got them to get me a video camera, but part of the deal was that I would be a one-man band — shoot, interview, edit, write the story — yeah, it was hell, and when I saw that first book design, I immediately said “YES! that is EXACTLY what the job is like, messy design and all.”

      When I saw your cover, I just thought you had sucked some soul out of it — no offense. In that respect, Mike hit the “ethos” of scrappy news reporting (it’s all scrappy these days) smack, dab, dead on. Unless this appeals to the person who wants to do this kind of work, they will fail hard and fast. I also reached out to a couple of friends who work as cameramen at NBC and CNN to look at the book jacket and give me first impressions. “Nailed it” was unanimous . . .

  12. "Client" says:

    Thank you for publishing this. From the client side, I am tired of having to walk on eggshells when dealing with designers.

    • Jon P says:


      You’re doing yourself a disservice by walking on eggshells — it’s not helping the design process. As long as there’s respect on both sides, then opinions should be expressed freely, and they should be heard.

      If there’s not respect, then you should work with a different designer.

  13. Richard McClintock says:

    Often “bad” design is more effective, being more credible, because it seems more authentic. Consider political posters — if they are too fancy, they imply artifice or snootiness on the part of the candidate. They have to be down-home. They can be clear and organized, but still have to be basic to be believable and approachable. Mike may know his audience better than we do, wanting to distinguish his purely practical book for ordinary people from coffee-table-style how-to manuals for yuppies.

    • Jon P says:

      Good design is work that best solves the problem at hand.

      In some cases, the solution calls for a more approachable or down-home style to fit the self image of the intended audience.

      So, therefore, “bad” design cannot, by definition, be more effective. Perhaps in some cases bad design works by sheer luck. But wouldn’t you rather have design executed by someone who has considered all the implications of their choices?

  14. I do covers, interiors and indexes for books. I just had a bad experience with an index client. They provided a word list. Fair enough. But as I worked, I came to realize that their list was actually the index from a previous edition of the book. I spent a lot of time looking for terms that weren’t there. Lesson learned: Either I index the book or the author does, not both.

    Similarly, I got a cover-design request where the author offered two photos, one of herself next to her son’s gravestone, and another of the son with a billed cap on backwards and a trash container in the background. I reduced the graveyard scene to about 1/8 size on the cover 4 and used just the head of the deceased son in an oval shape feathered into a summer sky in the background. No, the client wanted the entire photo, trash can and all, on the front, and her graveside pose full width on cover 4. Lesson learned: If the customer wants a cover just so, then let them do it themselves. In graphics, too many cooks spoil the soup. So now my rule is, you do it or I do it. Not all customers are that egocentric, but too many are.

  15. Jonathan Wieder says:

    Exactly, John. This should be framed and hung in every design office in the country. Maybe it should be recited in schools like the pledge of allegiance.

  16. Greg says:

    I’ve been reading these articles for a while now, and, although I’m still relatively new to the design world, there is a consistent theme in John’s messages that has made my life easier for all situations: Don’t settle for inferior design, and do not hold your knowledge of design above those who aren’t “professionals.”

    To that end, Dimitri, I would suggest that you use your talents to present the client’s thoughts the way they want them, but with proper functionality and purpose. You may not be able to change anyone’s mindset about designers, but with an open mind and good presentation, you may be able to sway how they approach design.

    Anyone CAN be a designer, but the difference between a professional and a client is in the designer’s ability to bring a notion to life — on paper. My boss is not a designer, per se, but she is very adept at conceptualizing our materials and then allowing me, the designer, to bring them to life. So even though she is not a designer by trade, she does bring value to the design table.

    With all that being said, it made my life easier when I learned to approach designing for others with a touch of humility. I love my designs, but I have learned that it’s not my opinion that matters in the end. Upon this realization I stopped getting my toes stepped on each time I am asked to “try something else.”

  17. Wendi says:

    Eloquently said, John, as always. I’m sharing this write-up with my team and tacking it up on my inspiration board. We all need a reminder every now and then of the danger of assumptions and the benefits of humility. Thanks.

  18. Kay says:

    I agree with John’s response. As a designer myself and sometimes a client of freelance designers, respect your client. As John said, “Listen to them and give them your best work.” Ultimately the client has the final say. We never know what is going to be successful in the marketplace — there is no accounting for some people’s taste.

  19. Randy Martin says:

    Don’t be afraid to “fire” a client. In the long run, trust your gut in the short run.

    • Hi Randy,

      I agree. There are those occasional times when a designer does have to fire a client. Going in the direction the client wants is one thing; being a door mat is another. Sometimes you give your best work and it is rejected. Do we produce something that compromises our design values just for the money? Thanks!

      • Caroline says:

        Yes. Designer/client relationships are just that — relationships. They may be mutually respectful and open, they may be collaborative. They may be effortless, or challenging but effective. But you may be as enlightened as John and still want to pull your hair out and scream. Recognize when it is not working, recognize it early, and get out.

  20. Kim Williams says:

    Thanks John, I needed that. I am struggling through a video project with a client who has decided to be executive producer, producer, editor, interviewer . . . the list goes on. The fact that she has no background in film, video production, or design has not seemed to cross her mind. This is just a fun job to her. I have taken a moment to breathe after reading your response, and have decided to approach the project from a less-emotional place. After all, if it is her name attached to every title in the credits, I can make a clean break and hope no one associates me with the end product. With this client — I must surrender!

  21. Gretchen Fitzenrider says:

    Wow. I’m not sure what else to say. I am familiar with the attitude of the first letter (my own a lot of times).

    I’m going to print this and refer back to it often.

    Thank you for the paradigm shift. :-)

  22. Roberta says:

    What a gem: “Give him the honor of taking his opinion seriously; it will free him to know if he really means it.”

  23. Bang Vo says:

    This is the best one yet. It drives home so many points. (We) designers are communicators in visual language; let us communicate and not dissent.

  24. John says:

    The design process is truly a collaboration between the designer and client. Sure, I know about design, and the client should listen to my opinions. On the other hand, I know little if anything about the client’s business. But they do. I should listen to them. There may be a good reason a particular design style reaches their audience, even though I don’t find it to be very attractive. After all, creating a successful publication that reaches the audience is our goal, not padding our portfolios.

  25. Ty Cahill says:

    “Twenty individuals could buy one cover, but one instructor might buy 25 copies of the other.”

    And another 25 people may buy the book without looking at the cover. My wife buys the latest book from her favorite authors without any thought to the cover design. And people may buy a book because they know the author, see good reviews of the book, had someone recommend the book to them, or couldn’t find any other books on the subject they’re looking for.

    • Jon P says:

      Good point. It’s been rare to see the cover of a book even mentioned in an Amazon customer review.

      But the cover should give you an idea of what to expect from the content — in style and substance. It does affect how we feel about the book.

      • Ty Cahill says:

        You’re right — the cover should tell us something about the content, which makes it all the more important to design in collaboration with the author, since they (should) know the content and style better than a designer.

        When I’m browsing a bookstore, the cover is what gets my attention and determines which book I pick up. But when I’m searching Amazon, the cover doesn’t matter as much.

        • Jon P says:

          Agreed. I’d never want to design a book cover without that collaboration. Maybe it’s a personal bias, but even on Amazon, when I see the cover, it can really affect the way I perceive the book. And often, I use the “Look Inside” feature.

  26. Gina Crawford says:

    John, thank you for so eloquently stating exactly what I feel.

    “What’s important here is that when we assume to know another’s motives, we blind ourselves to what’s real. We can never produce the best design, or even decent design, as long as we favor our opinion — more correctly put, our judgment — over the true, living, breathing thing. A blind designer is an incapable designer.”

  27. Max says:

    John, this article may open a new section of your site to allow others to showcase their version of a design that’s in question. Maybe even give others a chance to prove their value and ultimately land “the job.” Maybe even add a voting system to allow viewers to vote on their favorite.

  28. Richard says:

    Great debate, and one close to my heart. Here’s my two cents: I am a designer, not to be a wrist (or button pusher) for a client. My education and experience are only the tools of my trade; they are not my trade. My skill is the communication of an idea through graphics — and to do it to its utmost efficiency. And for me, to also create a piece that a community finds attractive. I’m an artist, too. If ugly sells, I want no part of it. I reject the book cover, because it is amateurish and clumsy. Students who regard this (design) as acceptable are accepting mediocrity as a future goal. We’ve failed at our job even if the client is happy.

  29. Marie Gale says:


    Two small sentences in your post were profound; we should follow them not only in designing, but in life. They were:

    Give him the honor of taking his opinion seriously; it will free him to know if he really means it.

    Help him get where he wants to go. If he needs to circle back, be there when he arrives.

    In life, as in design, one of the hardest things to do is allow people to work things through for themselves, giving them enough space to come to a different (or the same) conclusion without feeling foolish or somehow “wrong.”

  30. Rachael Crutchfield says:

    Boy, do I hear the frustration from all of us (designers) in the “ugly” client choices that got printed. But I do find, more often than not, that if I put myself on the client’s side of the table and really listen to what they like about their choice, it’s the clue I’ve been missing, and I come back with a solution we can both be proud of.

    Sometimes, though, we just have to take a deep breath and say, “This one isn’t going to win any awards,” and move on to the next good project.

  31. Great advice. A humbling reality check. Nice to see your wisdom extending beyond the technical realm and into client relations. Thanks.

  32. Miguel says:

    John, your professionalism and humility continue to inspire me . . .


  33. Nancy Jones says:

    I like the guy’s original design for two reasons: 1) It looked different (different is good!). 2) After putting his heart and soul (as all authors surely do) into a book, he alone knows how the cover should look.

    My favorite line that I always use with my customers is, after explaining that my first design is usually to get a feel for what they like, “You know your business better than I do.” Although their beauty shop may be in pink and purple, that doesn’t automatically mean they want more of it (the wife may have done the decorating). Even though all the other attorneys in the area use a certain font with scales, maybe this guy wants to be different. My point is, pull in the customer’s intuition. They are the ones who will be living with the design. I leave my artistic ego at home, where it does not try to give somebody what I think they should have. I do explain my choices sometimes but walk a fine line not to sway my customers to my opinions.

  34. CattCatt says:

    Beautifully said John.

    I’ve seen it quite often in my place of work. Someone requests a marketing piece, and the designer decides how it should look and feel. It will end up being more extravagant, more expensive than what they requested, but most importantly, it won’t contain the elements they need. A couple of years later, the client is tossing out thousands of this beautiful, “professionally” created piece because they didn’t use them . . . it didn’t serve their purpose. Thousands of dollars have been wasted. And chances are, the client will be submitting their original request again, probably with a debate, and going through the same process again. At times, some of these requestors will go outside of our office to get what they need.

  35. droolcup says:

    Profound posting; excellent responses with many good suggestions. Great learning situation for us all. Agree you should achieve National Treasure status, but only Japan seems to do that.

    Coupla suggestions: The work speaks for itself; take your ego out of the picture. Take things professionally rather than personally. You know how good you are; no need to trumpet it. We are here to serve -– and I mean serve — the client. Smacking his hand for bad taste doesn’t apply here. There are many things which shouldn’t work, but do: Consider the bumblebee. Aerodynamically, he shouldn’t be able to fly, but he does.

    Anecdote: My father was an excellent photographer who worked in advertising in NYC from the forties through the eighties. He did a lot of editorial work. Often, he would lament that the president of a company was the stock boy who had risen through the ranks over 35 years and who had no taste whatever, but “knew what he liked.” He’d do eight fantastic shots and one hokey shot that he knew the client would pick. This validated his ability to himself (and art directors out there, or folks leafing through his sample book), giving him a chance to really use his chops, and kept the clients happy. And he was good enough to recognize that the client often knows his audience best: Who are we to think that the particular market niche we are trying to reach has the slightest clue about design, transparent or not?

    Be sure to donate your brain and compassion to your replacement when you retire, John. Or, clone yourself . . .

  36. Brett says:

    Wise words, John, and true for almost all aspects of life. I have spent a large chunk of my life working with abused children, and what you have said, reframed, is excellent advice for all parents and their children, as well as designers and their clients.

  37. EZIO MATTASSI says:

    Dear McWade: I don’t agree with all this ooplah!

    Last week I refrained myself from writing about Mr. Carroll’s book cover.

    But I see that this is continuing, and I’m basically surprised by your imput on the subject, Mr. McWade.

    Mr. Carroll’s book cover seems that it was designed in 1966. I have been following your advice on graphic design ever since you started Before & After, and I’ve had the greatest respect for your output throughout the years.

    Don’t you think that the young people who might be looking for help on the subject of that book deserve a 21st-century aproach?

    There is no WOW or AHHHH! Come on, Mr. McWade, show them some spectacular design like a Raptor F22 or something fantastic, clean and beautiful!

    • Ty Cahill says:

      I’d hate to buy a book because it has a fancy cover, only to discover that the content itself is sub-par.

      On a slightly different subject, as a designer I’m often sickened by direct mail I receive from non-profits asking for donations, because the design is terrible. Courier font, with words highlighted in yellow and underlined. But the direct-mail folks have tested the response rates and discovered that the ugly letters get more response than the pretty ones. (At least a few years ago, when I was working within the donor development community.)

      I have no idea the content or quality of this book’s substance, but sometimes we designers are too quick to put lipstick on the pig — or we design a beautiful book cover that doesn’t represent the content/style of the book itself.

  38. Darren Addy says:

    By profession, I’m a web dev. But I’ve always been interested in design and analyzing — as a visual person — what works and what doesn’t (and why). I’ve enjoyed your videos in the past and learned a lot in the process. But I have to say that my respect for you has taken a quantum leap in the way you have handled these past two installments, and I believe your comments here show something that is becoming far too scarce in the world today: genuine humility. I have little doubt that your lack of condescension towards your clients benefits your “bottom line,” but it would be the right and honorable way to treat people even if it didn’t. Kudos!

  39. Suzanne Higgins says:

    Mike needs to stick to writing books. His cover at least uses black to bring out the colors in his photos but having the type at the bottom barely unreadable is a big mistake.

  40. Pat Butler says:

    John — just an excellent article from you! The bottom line for clients is that they are ultimately satisfied, and that satisfaction might not come from giving them the best work, but rather, the work that is most appropriate for their perceived needs.

  41. sbee says:

    That’s all very nice, John, and it makes a lot of sense. In the real world, however, graphic designers are the lowest rung of the ladder and need to survive. The final design wasn’t up to par. And, sadly, I do agree with the LW. You’re there to do a job, please the client, and most of the time it’s not quality work. It’s what they want, or they’ll find someone else who will. Then burnout sets in. I finally gave up trying to please the client just to put food on the table.

  42. Elsie Montgomery says:

    Well said, John. Respecting others is always more important than assuming my ideas are better than theirs or that they have no idea what they want or need or are talking about. My grandmother used to say, it is better to be nice than right. Sometimes that is not the case, but your response to this critic was both.

  43. Bettina Gruver says:

    No comments on the design discussion, though interesting to a lay person. What is deeply impressive is John’s approach and the person revealed behind the professional designer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts; you have certainly provided much to think about and to take away into one’s life — beyond design.

    Thank you!

  44. Jon P says:


    This article reminded me of two things I try to keep in mind:

    1. Many clients don’t inherently understand the difference between a good design and an inferior one — but they always know if you respect their opinion and have their best interests at heart.

    2. Trust is the basis for selling good design to your clients. If they trust you, they will trust your opinion more often.

    • Ty Cahill says:

      I think designers also need to educate clients as to why things are designed the way they are.

      Several years ago I worked with a graphic designer (we shared an office) who always had her designs destroyed by the president of the company. She would leave proofs on his desk, only to have them returned covered with red ink — edits that drastically changed the designs.

      One day the designer was gone when the president came in looking for some proofs. I found the proofs for him, then spent a quick 30 seconds explaining why the specific colors were used, and the rationale for selected typefaces, layout, and design elements. Later that afternoon the proofs were returned with no edits. Zero. It was the first time her proofs came back without a drop of red on them.

      Sometimes the client just doesn’t know, and they need a little education.

  45. DougcomD says:

    What about situations where you are the smartest person in the room? I work as an app architect in the medical space, and have since 1980. I have an IQ of 188, and without a lot of math, I can say that I can assume that the client isn’t one of the .0000002 percent of the world population that is as smart.

    Do they have opinions that are, in the end, decisions, so in that sense “right” ones? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that those are good designs.

    I’m done with leading the client to believe they are the Baal Shem Tov. I get it — they pay the check. But more important to me is that they hired me for my intelligence. And when they are done with that, by ignoring design recs, research, best practices, etc., and just saying “make it more blue,” then it’s time for another client.

    At the end of the day it is about respect. Self respect. I’ve never found a client who I’ve needed so badly as to put my name on their crappy ideas.

    • John McWade says:

      You don’t need me to tell you that there are many kinds of intelligence. There is IQ-test intelligence, design intelligence, mechanical intelligence, people intelligence, emotional intelligence, on and on.

      Yet, people are, on the whole, average. Even the brightest and most talented among us are average, or even below average, in most ways. A lot of brainy guys can’t get a date or keep a schedule or appreciate tailoring. Thing is, average people like average things, which is why we all drive the same cars, eat the same food, wear the same clothes, carry the same smartphones. Our differences are in small degrees.

      A client’s design preferences are not inherently “right.” Many people have no design sense whatsoever. But as I said in the post, design is only one piece of a living puzzle, and it is often a minor one, which is why we see so many “crappy” designs prevailing. Other factors outweigh it.

      Leading a client to believe that he’s Baal Shem Tov is obviously dishonest. So is resenting the check writer. Does it surprise you, then, that your design recommendations and “best practices” get rejected?

      If you’re like me, you like making beautiful art and relish the opportunity to make it for something real. But think about it. Can you truly say that, having dived deep into the client’s space, you know exactly what will work? Of course you can’t. Even if you could, do you have the skill to express it visually, verbally, exactly?

      As I said in the post, the best design is a portrayal of reality. It is fundamentally a human endeavor, not an intellectual or even an artistic one. It requires shared vision, teamwork, empathy, love, risk. In my experience, most designers who fail here do so trying to impose their own vision.

  46. I am not a designer. I stumbled upon Before & After while searching for info on designing a logo and website. I have learned a lot from the forum. In his last three statements, John gave excellent advice for treating clients in any venue. If we lose sight of who we are working for, then we should not expect to have earned their respect. The last statement resonates with truth. Thank you, John, for your candor.

  47. Craig in Brisbane says:

    Reminds me of the saying: “I don’t care how much you know, until I know how much you care.” Nice response, John.

  48. Rachel says:

    I’ve enjoyed the balanced and open way you’ve explored the issues and emotions around the interaction between a client and a designer. But I’ve really appreciated the way you’ve brought humanity and empathy to the subject — we’re designers: we’re communicating to and for people. It’s easy to be distracted from that, given the very personal focus we need to design something in the first place (and so very hard to predict how the audience will react!).

  49. Chris says:

    I started as a sign painter in the late ’80s. Most of my customers were people who had done their own signs.

    A local restaurant that had been at the same corner for three years. The food was excellent, the service top-notch and the store was spotless. They lost their sign in a storm. The owner replaced it with white chip board, and he spray painted the name in orange.

    The owner told me he couldn’t afford a “real” sign. I countered that he couldn’t “afford” to not have a real sign. We parted on friendly terms. My assistant went off in the truck about people not valuing good design or our profession.

    Three months later on the verge of bankruptcy and a bad review in the local paper that mostly mocked his sign and ignored everything else, he came into my shop holding my business card. His wife had written what I had said on the back of the card.

    He told me that business was so bad he was considering filing bankruptcy and going to work for his brother-in-law. He figured it was too late to turn it around. I asked what got him into the restaurant business.

    He talked, I listened. We came up with a design as we stood at the table. Two days later we put up his new sign, lettered the doors and listed his hours on the glass.

    That night he called to say his place was packed, and everyone was asking when they had bought the restaurant back from “those other guys.”

    Twenty years later he now owns six restaurants, and we do all of his signage and even his printing. He has sent me more business over the years than I can accurately account for.

    The thing is, I didn’t do anything more than my job.

  50. Tennyson says:

    Respecting the client’s input or vision is actually not a huge challenge (even if it is as crappy as hell!) as long as they won’t blame the designer for any negative feedback they will get once it is published or launched :-p

  51. AJ says:

    A confession: I am the writer of the response that sparked this follow-up discussion.

    First, I totally agree John is a prince among men. Not least of all because his priority here was protecting his client against embarrassment in this forum (even to the point of defending indefensible design choices). And second, because he actually emailed me privately in advance to let me know he would be writing this. Class act. My respect for him, already pretty tall, towers even higher now.

    However, I should like to humbly submit for consideration that the “direct” tone of what I wrote, while not appropriate for a meeting with a client, was not at all inappropriate in a discussion among designers and aspiring designers on the Before & After blog. Since Mike is not my client, I felt free to respond purely to the discussion in the forum, and my comments were directed toward my observation of the process outlined therein.

    It goes without saying that what we discuss and the way we share among ourselves as professionals is different from what we share with clients. As this is a forum for designers, I commented candidly on the situation as I saw it, without the usual “kid gloves” approach that I would use directly with a client of my own (or a friend, since, let’s face it, that’s who we usually do these free design projects for.)

    I certainly don’t recommend storming out on a client or even speaking as candidly as I feel I can in a forum or blog. I also don’t think I’m a better person than the client or friend I’m designing for. I do, however, think that a professional designer does have an educated eye and an ability to communicate visually that a client may not. Finally, I firmly believe that sparing the feelings of those involved in a design process is laudable and necessary. But recognizing good work for what it is and calling bad work on its shortcomings is not at odds with humility, especially in a professional or educational forum.

    John’s response to my post may have been based on a sense that I was unfair to Mike, because he knows Mike to be a nice person, without bad motives. While I have a hunch that Mike is likely to be an extremely interesting guy who is a pleasure to know personally, I don’t know Mike as John does. All I had to go on was the response written by Mike in the discussion forum, in which he dedicated no less than three paragraphs to talking about how he knew all along that he didn’t need a designer. Comparing himself to Leon Uris, Mike has stated pretty clearly that he felt himself to be much further ahead by ignoring John’s advice. And he did ignore it: In every revision he studiously avoided John’s input and instead veered widely in other directions, completely redesigning the cover each time as if he wanted to get as far from the polluting influence of the advice John gave as he could, all the time saying, “I’m hearing you.” All I was saying is maybe we can make sense of this baffling response to John’s help by assuming that Mike may have had personal reasons for doing so that were not revealed in the design brief.

    I thought that this scenario was true to life and useful in two ways: first, in demonstrating that there are often less-than-logical reasons that may drive clients to make choices that seem at odds with their stated goals. These drives may go unspoken, maybe unknown even by the client, but can be as much a goal as anything stated in the design brief. There may be other stakes at play for that client — not evil, just human — validation being one of them. (I submit that if personal validation had not been a driving factor for Mike, he would not have dedicated those paragraphs to talking about his pleasure at being validated in his DIY design.) And secondly, the post was useful in illustrating the result in which doing free/cheap work very often ends.

    Objectively speaking, Mike’s original cover showcases uneducated design choices. We can quibble over whether John should have used red in the type, but overall he took the book cover from screaming “amateur” and brought it up to professional standards. The fact was that John offered valuable and (very good) advice for free, and that advice was valued at $0.00 by a client who harbored a strong belief that he did not need a designer but could do it better by doing it himself.

    Finally, in a spirit of full disclosure, I, like many on this forum, am not a professional designer (I earn my crust in a different, related field). However, after years of having my sensibilities educated by those who are trained designers, I have gained a great respect for the work of people who do have an educated eye and professional execution that design training confers. Their work is valuable, effective, and does make a difference to the bottom line and deserves respect and remuneration. This is the position that I was defending on the blog, and strangely, for a design forum, I find I am in the minority.

    I also know (from being one myself in the past) that a client who is not educated enough to know the limits of his own design abilities, though he may be an expert in his own field, is one of the most difficult clients you will ever have. The fact that this client may have been taken on pro-bono adds an additional factor that should be soberly considered by students and designers alike and might be an excellent follow-up forum topic. (As would be the idea that if the audience for something being designed is “students,” then good design principles do not apply. But that’s another topic.)

    John has much more professional experience than I do, so I would normally be inclined to defer to his opinion. However, I respectfully submit that recognizing this sort of client, along with developing a sense for signs that your time as a designer is being wasted and ignored, and knowing when to bow out — graciously, politely, with humility, is a sanity-saving survival skill that will foster and protect, not limit, the longevity of a design career.

  52. Books don’t sell that well. A few thousand and you can be called a best seller. Ninety percent of all books don’t sell more than 100 copies. So the sales do not necessarily pay for cover design.

    So non-fiction authors make money through seminars, presentations, etc. They actually sell books — I mean, they do it like a sales process. In this process, the book is one element, the presentation (Holy Lord! PowerPoint!), the delivery, author’s standing (i.e., résumé, affiliations, etc.), the website, newsletters, sample writings, blogs, videos, audio recordings, even the visiting card is involved. I think, rather than handle a book cover, designers should pitch for the entire spectrum.

  53. Laura Westenkirchner says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with John. These are not ego projects for our personal design esthetic. I work with a variety of clients and some love my design and some don’t. I try to educate, but only minimally; I can introduce my “taste,” but I can’t insist. By being suggestive but respectful, I can often make some beneficial changes with designs that I don’t care for. Don’t ever think that your client can’t detect snobbery, and don’t think that you know it all. Haven’t we all been in a design conundrum that someone comes by and throws it all out and sends you in a better direction? I have bred dogs in a former life, so don’t get “kennel blind” where you can’t see your own need for improvement; but then, maybe I am preaching to the choir — we all subscribe so that we can get better!

  54. Desiree says:

    John — Wow, inspiring and beautifully said: “My advice: Respect your client. Give him your best work. Hold it lightly. Stay open. Help him get where he wants to go. If he needs to circle back, be there when he arrives.”

    I absolutely agree with you. Ultimately, it’s all about the client and what their vision is. Sure, you can try to steer them in the right direction and give them advice and solid reasons why a concept is professional or not, but in the end it is all about them and what makes them happy.

    I once had a client ask me to design a logo. (He had a contracting company — roof work, gutter work, windows installations etc.) He came to me with a jewelry ad and showed me an extravagant gold logo in script and said his wife wanted this font for their logo — she also sent him over with sketches of her own logos with whole sceneries in background! But this was very helpful in letting me translate what they wanted.

    In my opinion, I wasn’t too keen on using a fancy feminine font on a manly, gritty construction van. I expressed my views; the husband agreed with me but said this is what his wife wanted. I came up with both concepts (a rugged logo and a scripty logo), and in the end they went with the scripty logo. Now, I may not show this in my portfolio — ever, LOL, but it made them happy in the end, and that’s what it’s all about! ^_^

  55. maryellen carew says:

    Dear Mr. McWade,

    Thank you. You are to so many of us the Zen master of communication design. We re-learn daily that there is no one right answer, but many; and how tremendously fortunate we are when we can make ourselves happy as well as the client. Luckier still when we learn that our design helps our client achieve the goal. THANK YOU, John, for this wonderful forum, and thanks to ALL of you who replied and continue to reply. I am so heartened by the passion and compassion you have all shared.

  56. muneebah says:

    I am new to the industry with only three years’ experience, so I am a little confused with so many differing views. I completely appreciate being negative or arrogant towards the client is a big mistake, but if anyone can design, what is the point of education in this field and for the industry existing in the first place? Surely people hire you for being more than a computer technician doing as you’re told!

    I’d love to know your thoughts.

  57. John — So true. We must, we absolutely must, listen to our clients. Then, we must find the happy truth between what they say they want and what we know they need.

    This philosophy has kept our business going strong for eight years (so far).

  58. Deb Smith says:

    Wow, what a wakeup call! I don’t know how many times over the last 10 years I’ve encountered the type of scenario you unravel in your articles. I once had a brain surgeon who insisted on micro-managing every dotted i and crossed t throughout the development of his website. My thoughts have always been, “I don’t tell you how to run your business; how could you possibly know more than I do about my business?”

    You’ve completely turned me around and shed some light on the other point of view. I thank you for this!

  59. Bill says:

    If you ask me what I do, I really hesitate binding myself to the title of Designer, Illustrator, or Graphic Artist. My contention is that I have skills that allow me to address a wider variety of needs that really can’t be defined by any singular title. However, when needed, I relinquish all of that to the simplicity of calling myself a designer (and while “creative” is more encompassing, it still lends itself to interpretive meaning).

    Because of what I do and the different types of work I’ve been able to address for my clients, I get some very interesting requests that stretch the imagination of being graphically relevant. And that’s fine with me. I rather enjoy taking on the variety of projects and being able to address them with the same “sensical” criteria that I do my design work.

    Hence, is it not plausible that we might be trying to concern ourselves with the differences of two separate job titles?

    Think about it. There used to be a very distinguishing difference between the work of a designer and that of a production artist, with the latter basically executing the design that was generated by the designer, offering the technical knowledge to make it happen. And as with everything else, we streamlined these two into one and forgot to tell anyone. Hence, when the client comes to us, we need to ask if they are coming to the designer or to the production artist. Many of us play both roles and need to accommodate accordingly. For others it’s very incisive, and we do only one and not the other.

    Having respect for the client and their ideas is always a wise directive. But so is the teaching to clients about what you offer and what should be expected in the process. I work with clients who expect a written proposal, detailing what their roles are and what my — or my company’s — responsibilities will be. This lets everyone know what is to be expected from the potential arrangement, or at least provides a forum for questions.

    Not sure if my input offers anything of value to the conversation, but since its realization, it has been enlightening to me in understanding the relationship I need to have with my clients and the role I am to play for them. Maybe it might be of service to you, too.

  60. Unlike most graphic designers, I don’t have a solution or pearls of wisdom or rules to live by. I don’t have to, because we got out of the graphic arts game a while back. Now, we just consult on referral only. We tell prospective clients that we will do research, a full analysis of what we think they need, a creative brief, and a game plan. If they want to tweak it, accept it, or reject it, that’s their business. If they want to move forward, we help them interview and find designers who will fit them best. We still get paid whether they move on our plan or not.

    But when the Internet was very, very young, we used to design and develop websites. We would seek out clients who were frustrated with their designers wanting to meet to “assess their needs” and “discuss their culture, mission, vision, blah, blah,” etc. The client who “just wanted a website” would become frustrated with the design process and would end up doing nothing, which didn’t benefit either the designer or the client. The client felt the designer was trying to get the client to “sign off” on a design when the client didn’t really know what he wanted.

    Our approach was simple. “Just throw everything into a shoebox,” and we would figure out from what they included what we felt they needed. We got brochures, slides, annual reports, sales letters — anything and everything the client thought would help get us from nothing to a website.

    Most of the time, we were able to get there with relatively few modifications. Maybe it was because the client was at a frustration edge and tired of the push and pull with artists. Maybe it was because graphic designers then really didn’t want to do “low-res web crap” instead of print. Maybe we were really good at figuring out who the client was and what they needed from the materials they chose to include. Maybe it was a little of all of the above.

    The game may have changed a bit, but I think mostly the client just wants to feel a sense of relief that a high level of trust gives them; like having a good plumber. For some reason, graphic design gives clients a lot of anxiety. Some deal with it by getting hyper-involved, some push their head into the sand, others freeze up and do nothing, and others sue. Get to that level of trust by recognizing that it is mostly just anxiety, and both the client and designer will be just fine.

    And remember always that not every battle is a war.

  61. Loren Williams says:

    For over 30 years I have tried to give each client my best work and professional design(s). However, I have learned that we can only advise, and as designers, it is up to us to lead the client to the decision we want them to make. Failing that, I always remember that the client signs the checks. For a working designer, this cannot be overlooked. My ego and ultimately my design sense always have to take a back seat if I want to stay in business.

    Again, it is up to us designers to justify and defend our work, and ultimately “sell” our ideas to the client, whose training is rarely the same as ours.

  62. Pingback: Does the client know best? Part 2 :: Paul Dupree at Unison Consulting

  63. Kristin Aplin says:

    “When we assume to know another’s motives, we blind ourselves to what is real.”

    Such wise words apply to all human relationships, not just those between designer and client. The world would be a better place if we all understood that concept. Thank you, John, for the quotable reminder.

    And thank you for your thought-provoking blog. I get something of value from every article.

  64. Amy Mc says:

    I really appreciate John’s response. As a marketing director, I have worked with graphic designers. There have been many instances where I thought that a particular concept was great design, but it did not fulfill what I needed. I’m always trying to look at layouts through the eyes of the end user. Sometimes you have to sacrifice some design elements to accomplish a goal. A seasoned graphic designer understands that just because you need to change an element, or don’t select a particular concept, it’s not a strike against his/her abilities.

  65. John Paul D'Amico says:

    Thank you, John, for sharing your insight and wisdom.

    I have been a designer for the past 20 years and have been running my own design studio for the past seven. This is a very important issue for all designers to embrace and understand.

    I was crafting a response to these posts, and then I found this ebook, Design is a Job, by Mike Monteiro. (I do not work for Mike or the publisher.) I think Mike does a great job of spelling this issue out and much more! Worth the $9.

    Here is the forward by Erik Spiekermann:

    “Being a designer is all about attitude. Sure, you have to know your craft, but as we both found out, you can pick most of that up over time if you’re prepared to listen, watch, and learn. Without the right attitude, however, you’ll always be a vendor to some people, a crazy artist to others.

    “Clients need to understand that they’ve hired us to do something they are not good at. And that they need to pay us for our knowledge, skills, experience and, yes: attitude. To be referred to as one of those ‘creative types’ is to be written off as intellectually inferior.

    “Contrary to popular belief, designers are not artists. We employ artistic methods to visualize thinking and process, but, unlike artists, we work to solve a client’s problem, not present our own view of the world. We thrive on constraints, but we hate compromise. If a design project is to be considered successful —- and success is the true measure of quality — it must not only add an aesthetic dimension but solve the problem at hand.”

    Here is a video on the topic from Monteiro.

    • Bill says:

      To me, the quote above is the real argument: “Contrary to popular belief, designers are not artists. We employ artistic methods to visualize thinking and process, but, unlike artists, we work to solve a client’s problem, not present our own view of the world. We thrive on constraints, but we hate compromise. If a design project is to be considered successful — and success is the true measure of quality — it must not only add an aesthetic dimension but solve the problem at hand.”

  66. Jonathan Wieder says:

    I had a graphic design teacher once who told us, “It’s a designer’s responsibility to educate his client.” It’s something I took to heart and have always held as a guiding principle. My best suggestion: Have reasons for the decisions you make. Be able to explain and defend them. But let go when necessary, once you’ve made your point.

  67. BT Zimpel says:

    Thank you for giving my mind peace! I work for an international school in Germany as a freelancer, and I deal with division principals, students, athletic directors, counselors, etc., on a daily basis, and everybody has an opinion regarding design and layout. What works for one wouldn’t work for the other, and sometimes I think it is me, but as you clearly stated in your email — it is not! I will print out the last three paragraphs of your email and hang them up over my desk so it reminds me of how to give the best to my clients. Cheers

  68. View from client's perspective says:

    Since there are mainly opinions of designers stated here, I would like to add some perspective from the client’s point of view.

    Our company needs designs on a regular basis for different products. And yes, we would be a client that some might consider difficult. In the past 10 years we have worked with several designers. Knowing the emotional impact our future input might have on some designers, I always communicate the way we work before starting a business relationship. If there are any reservations, then the designer has the opportunity to mention it right away in order to avoid any hard feelings later on. So my first advice to the designer: Be proactive — if you don’t like input, please mention it beforehand, and we (the customer) have the opportunity look elsewhere if we wish to do so. No problem at all. That might sound hard, but if you work with somebody you want it to be fun and not a struggle. It does not help the design process if either party feels uncomfortable with the situation. Furthermore, we pay the bill the designer sends us for his efforts, and we pay it on time. For all the adjustments we required and time she has put in. And we do it gladly.

    What I am trying to say is that when we hire a designer, we hire his skills and his ideas. We also value their opinion. But that’s what it is: their opinion. And we have ours as well. Now, we would never claim to know it best, but we know what we like. And this is the key issue. We hire designers because we do not know at the beginning of a project how an idea should be communicated as far as design. But when the ideas are on the table, we definitely want to be part of the process. Now, there are ways a designer can communicate their objections to the client, and if the client has an open ear they will listen. But if the client doesn’t listen, the designer will get paid regardless. In this case, the designer should consider it compensation for pain and suffering ;-)

    But the designer has done the most important thing of all: she has helped to achieve the customer’s goals and satisfied him and his wishes. Isn’t that what business is all about in general?

    BTW: There are designers who have been working with us for over 10 years without having any problem or grudge about our working style.

  69. Debbie Lind says:

    What’s the first question I should ask my client?

  70. Dear Debbie,

    Same issues here in Germany. :-)

    Regarding the very interesting answer before of “View from client’s perspective,” the first question I have to ask my client is:

    “Do you need and want input/consulting? Or do you want your design finished without any comments and advice from me/us?”

    So disruptions and anger can be avoided.

    Me, I work for those clients, no problem. But most work for the rejecting clients I can’t put into my references, so I try not to work for too many of them. References are the designer’s assets.

    It is important when contracting to have a clear statement in written form inside the agreement instead of unclear and invisible different contract “cinemas” in both heads, which lead to misunderstandings and bad feelings.

    A further benefit is about liability/responsibility:

    In case of having clearly rejected design/consulting in the contract, your client can’t blame you for not having advised him if “his” design goes wrong for his target group or looks unprofessionally designed. Your reputation as a good designer is a very important one. Better to stay upright.

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