You’re not the only ones!

After sending her my fourth revision, I got this reply today from a client about a book cover I’m working on:

“I love the border! Could we try it in black? The blues/purples are great, but seem to clash with her clothing. Also, could Mrs. B be just a bit smaller? Perhaps 2″ shorter? Thanks so much for hanging in there with me.”

Had to sigh. This is a small job for a friend. No money. No creative brief. No formal arrangements. Interesting is that this is where micromanaging usually occurs. It rarely happens, at least to me, under professional conditions with thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars on the table.

Not much at stake here, of course. But this can happen. Probably shouldn’t offer help unless you’re available to deal with it.

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35 Responses to You’re not the only ones!

  1. Beth says:

    I’d have to send them an email back that pauses the process and also calls for a conclusion.

    Dear friend, I love your attention to detail; thanks for sending the ideas. Things were kinda slow for a while but they have really geared up, and I am super busy. I will only be able to make one more change, and then I will not be able to do any more on your project. Please send a list of the last set of changes and what kind of format you want your final edition. My last date to get things to you will be Aug 31. As of Sept 1, I am completely booked and will not even be able to send to you copies. Good luck with your project. See you soon.


  2. MS says:

    Ugh . . . talk about déjà vu. Things are so much simpler now that I’m retired and am turning down any/all design work. After a 41-year career, I don’t miss it at all.

    • Shayna says:

      Lol…not so encouraging for those of us newer to the biz, though. :/ I will say, LOVE all the helpful advice we get from Before & After and, especially about stuff like this, the book “Design is a Job” by Mike Monteiro has been tremendously helpful and validating. Also, his particular video “F(*&K you, pay me” Crass, but accurate. Nice to know though that this happens even to established and respected industry veterans! Design hug!

  3. JD says:

    I try to avoid doing these kinds of favors for friends and family. There seems to be no sense of value, coupled with a general misunderstanding of graphic design. Even though this is my profession, they tend to more freely disregard my professional advice and simply want hands to create their own design. Instead, I offer to help them choose a designer to work with, and will offer brief second opinions if requested.

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      So true, JD, especially “they…simply want hands to create their own design.” There IS no understanding of graphic design or respect or understanding of the process. These are just folks without the software, so they cannot do the work themselves.

    • Ty Cahill says:

      I also avoid it whenever possible. It’s sometimes worse with web design because there’s no tangible delivery and nothing physical to value. People never understand how much time it takes to do things. Of course, I have to include myself as one of those people.

      A while back we purchased a ceiling fan for our family room. I opened the box and declared that the fan would be installed AND working in 15 minutes! How hard could it be?! Take down existing light, put up fan! Well, two hours later…

  4. Maggie says:

    I think the problem is two-fold. One is that the professionals with thousands on the table are better educated in dealing with designers (hopefully). The other problem is that the more you charge the more you are respected. It seems to be human nature that the less we charge, the more people figure we don’t really know what we’re doing and therefore require micromanaging. Sad but true, in my experience.

  5. Tana says:

    Sounds to me as if your friend didn’t know you very well. She should have known that John McWade, best designer out there, could be trusted to provide the best design she could ever hope to pay for (or not). For some of the rest of us, it may not be so clear. For a longtime client I’m working with a new person. I had to say that AA charges would kick in when I sent the third draft. Error correction, fine; conceptual modifications, time to pay. Still, freebies for friends and family are tricky. If you really want to do a favor, how about a discounted rate with a few ground rules. Or “just too busy” works fine.

    • David says:

      “I’m sorry, my *paying* clients are keeping me busy 50 hours a week, and I simply don’t have time to take on any more. I’ll be happy to recommend a colleague; what’s your budget?”
      …funny, I never seem to get an answer back to that question.

  6. Linda says:

    On one hand, it’s kind of reassuring that even JM has someone disregarding his experienced decision-making.

    On the other hand, it’s kind of depressing that even JM has someone disregarding his experienced decision-making. :-)

  7. Lynn says:

    While I agree that many clients simply want experienced hands, sometimes people suggest changes because they don’t know how to ask for (1) the reasons behind a designer’s choices and/or (2) reassurance the project is finished.

  8. Chuck Green says:

    Haha… For some reason it seems that it is, more often than not, the person you are attempting to be the most gracious with, who becomes the most difficult.

    I think it’s because they don’t understand the process. They figure that if they are paying you, that you are supposed to somehow see the world through their eyes when, in reality, they are paying to see the problem through your eyes.

    I created a document way back that I call the Design Constitution. Article 7 is about Aesthetics. It says,

    “It is the Client’s responsibility to establish goals, to provide information, and to review and approve or reject concepts and finished work. It is the Designer’s job to translate the client’s story and goals into compelling words and images.

    Great work results from a near obsession with detail and nuance. Done right, a brochure, a Web site, a catalog, and so on, is so carefully structured, changing a single significant element can drastically impact the whole.

    Rather than dictate specific changes to a design—“move this here” or “change the color to,”—let’s agree the Client will request a new design or a variation of the original that addresses specific problems.

    Though it is helpful for the Client to point out areas of the design that they believe are inconsistent with the sensibilities of their audience, let’s agree not to do each other’s jobs.”

    • Mike Stillion says:

      I would love to read this document. “… let’s agree not to do each other’s jobs.” One of the best things about this blog (above the learning about how and why to be a better designer) is that you often come away with language you can use to articulate both design and business decisions. That is so helpful, especially when working with clients. It truly helps us all be more professional. Have you ever considered making the text of that document available as a post or on the internet?

  9. Celia Mendez says:

    For a good laugh about this very topic, watch “Graphic Designer vs. client” on YouTube. It’s hilarious only because it is so true. The only upside of working pro bono is that sometimes you can use those great designs that your ignorant friends rejected for your portfolio to get paying work in that area. This actually happened to me, once. Now I only do volunteer graphics work for organizations I am involved in. They don’t give me a hard time. It’s also a great excuse for why I never have time to design for my friends. :)

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      Celia, that has been my experience, too. Doing volunteer graphics for organizations — in my case small animal shelters — is the easiest. They value my time, abilities, and don’t give me a hard time either, after great, initial conversations about goals and “look”. The non-profits struggle for every penny they raise and are grateful to those who support them. Doing graphic design for friends is a time-consuming (and often thankless) endeavor…

  10. Paul says:

    There’s probably some psych term (or Freud term) for what’s going on here. I did a business card for my father-in-law, as a ‘present’ after I saw his white business card with black Arial.

    This man turned into Karl Lagerfeld overnight, lecturing me on style, colours, fonts, and layout for the next three months!

    I’m happy to say I absorbed it all — he IS family after all — and I owe him a fair bit for his daughter, but no joke, he would have spent thousands if it were a commercial job. (Which we all know he wouldn’t have, if it cost him anything). This ain’t pro-bono; let me coin the phrase ‘disprodis’ or disproportionate discount. In other words, when you offer an inch of creative gratis, they take the globe!

  11. Mark Bennett says:

    This is too late for John, and Beth’s advice might be a good way forward, but I read, once, of an approach to pro bono work that could be a template for future work. The agreement is straightforward — I will create your thing for free. To do that, I will take your input, create the thing, take one round of feedback, then create the final. The design direction will be mine, end of story. My time and expertise are valuable, and I’m willing to share that value with you — but only to a point.

    • Jan O'Hara says:

      Love it!

    • Right on the money, Mark.

      Like most designers, I get asked by friends to do free or low-budget favors. Sometimes I agree, but I always make sure that I set the parameters going in. It wasn’t always so and I got burned like John did.

      I’m pretty firm with clients in general to say to them ahead of time that they can provide input but as the expert I’m free to accept or reject it. They get one revision, no more. If they don’t like that arrangement, then they should find someone else. It weeds out the micromanagers pretty quickly.

      In the past I was lazy about going through that same process with friends because it felt too “business-like”. But since I started that several years ago I’ve had no problems at all. They seem to respect the work more because they respect the process going into it, just like any paying client does.

  12. Dan Coggins says:

    This occurs often with pro bono work. It’s amazing how people micromanage when things are free. You think people would be grateful.

  13. WriterGuy says:

    Boy, does THIS sound familiar. Did a project for a family member, and after a dozen revisions, they literally gave the printer the Word document they started with for a book cover. Aargh!

    The other life lesson I’ve learned is that there is no right amount of money to charge friends and family. Give yourself a fair rate, and they feel ripped off. Give them a low rate, and YOU feel ripped off.

    For me, it’s pro bono or nothing…

  14. Rich Zhang says:

    JUST tell him/her this is what you think it should be as a professional designer. If not acceptable, do it himself/herself.

  15. It’s your personal experience, would you please share with us what was the final outcome and how revisions occurred? I am a bit curious and amazed by such a versatile and high profile professional artist, what he made and how was the response. Thanks for sharing design secrets …

  16. Kathy Crowe says:

    I have this problem when I give a client a flat rate, for various reasons. They tend to want revisions that seem simple to them but are very time consuming to me. My own fault. No more flat rates.

  17. AL says:

    I don’t work for free very often anymore. I have a very small family, and they don’t ask often, so I’m always happy to help them out! (And they haven’t really done this to me, thankfully.) I’ve also had to tell nonprofits where I quote a lower price that “this is what I can do for your budget.” As in, I’m not going to be spending 20 hours Photoshopping something for you because the stock image you want doesn’t exist. Or, “this is the price, as long as you have everything written and ready to go before I get started.”

  18. Somebody once told me, “Never employ friends or family. They end up taking advantage.” And I suppose we should add to the designer 10 commandments, “Never do work for friends or family. You work for free and they still end up taking advantage!”

    Anyway, graphic design isn’t a real job. Anyone can do it, right? I mean, it’s just drawing and coloring in, after all! It’s not rocket surgery!

  19. vroni says:

    You are not the only one; it happened to me with related people, too — but it’s mostly not your fault:

    “The most frequent motivations for micromanagement, such as detail-orientedness, emotional insecurity, and doubts regarding employees’ competence, are internal and related to the personality of the manager.” (From:

    My solution (not always working …): Considering that, I have to look clearly at the person and her character, her mind before I accept doing things for her, whether friend or related or not. Is he/she: very emotional and doubtful in other things too? Does he or she often change his or her opinion? Do they respect my profession, and do they really know what I am doing — or do they call it indolently “something with computer”?

    And yes, to be kind and graceful can be a boomerang.

    I decided to remain polite and friendly as can be but now more clear and some sort of authoritative. Only one correction per item. This keeps away most of the color-changers and mourners driven by hell.

    Despite all cautions it happened to me a couple of days ago, that a small client (dentist) wanted me to change his spiral apple logo first into lila then into right blue. Because his wife wanted to attract more attention with a frantic color. I said him, by all respects, that they both ordered a spiral apple (their briefing) but not a spiral plum for their dental surgery — spirals per se are attracting attention sufficiently.

    He did not accept my reasonable answer and announced to fire me, if I will dare to bill him for my (in his opinion too) moderate changings.

    Small clients can turn out to be evil, too. Despite all cautions. It’s not your fault. It’s the zeitgeist. The spirit of the age.

    Kind greetings from Germany, where “the client is king” (saying) — but only if he behaves generously and gracefully like a royal.

  20. Tammy A. says:

    Initially: “we want to show we’re fun to work with.”

    First comp: “the colors are too bright.”

  21. Gretchen W. says:

    Here’s an idea I had for pro bono work after being run around in circles by a family member who planned on starting a business, then abandoned the idea as the stationery was about to go to press. Require a $500 deposit up front. If the design is printed and used, they get their deposit back. If not, you keep the deposit for your trouble. This also helps a lot when you spend hours on a design presentation, and they say “Meh, nothing really grabs me.” Either they give you constructive feedback, or you keep the deposit.

    • Barbara K says:

      Gretchen, I love this idea! Most of my pro bono projects do get printed, but I know I will use this idea in my next pro bono design brief. Thanks so much.

  22. Mark C. says:

    I can understand the frustration when you’re doing someone a favor, but the comments I’ve read seem to all have a “my way or the highway” attitude regarding customer input. Do any of you get repeat business from anyone?

  23. Kathleen says:

    Clients from is one of my personal favorite places to go for a laugh after a long week at work. Also gives prospective on the fact that it could be worse!

  24. Scott Boucher says:

    My approach to this issue is to be very choosy when selecting projects for friends and family, and I always make it clear that, in exchange for my professional expertise and skills, they will have very limited input into the final design. If they’re not okay with those terms, I offer suggestions for other designers. Once this working arrangement is established, I tend to really enjoy the projects because of the creative freedom. In turn, my work tends to be pretty darn good thereby providing my friend/family with an exceptional piece and my portfolio with a new addition. Definitely a win-win.

  25. Edmudo Ramírez says:

    What a situation we run into! But, my polite answer for these kind of requests from fiends or family is just to say: “Man, I am really sorry but am too busy these days. But I can give you couple of emails of good designers for what you want”…

  26. Keith says:

    I work for a small, family-run firm where everything is done in house — for a reason. Management’s approach to creative output is essentially “what can I change.” The few times the firm has gone outside for creative work, the vendors eventually quit because of revisions. As the internal creative resource, I make it clear that I am here to do the job regardless of the number of revisions, but doing so pushes back other projects.

    I have solved change requests from family and friends in a more passive way — slowing my response time to each request.

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