Designer Bait and Switch

02.15.2010 / Author: Steve Zelle

Who Did What?
One of the key factors influencing a client when selecting a design studio, is its past work. A portfolio is seen as proof of talent, experience, and design aesthetic. Clients are drawn to work that is often in the same business space as they are in or that has a similar approach to what they would like to accomplish. They expect that what they see is a good indication of what they will get. While most designers and studios are open about the work contained in their portfolio, I do know of situations where this is not the case. I think clients often miss asking some pretty important questions.

What clients rarely ask when selecting a studio is “Who designed this particular piece, and will they be working on my project?” It is seldom discussed, but portfolios can contain work by designers no longer with the studio, or who will not be working on every identity project. Is there any value in seeing work you like by a designer who will not be directly involved in your project?  What can clients and designers do?

For Clients:

Ask the right questions so you know who was responsible for what portion of the project. Even solo designers sometimes work with a partner or subcontract work out.


  • Who are all individuals that worked on this particular project?
  • What was everyone’s role?
  • Will the same individuals be working on my project?
  • Will they be designing themselves or overseeing other designers?

For Designers:

Be transparent with clients; explain who did what in your portfolio. If the client likes the work of a designer who is no longer with you, you have an opportunity to manage the situation head on. If you can justify the inclusion in your portfolio of work by a designer no longer associated with you, you may overcome the clients concern. If you can’t, then you may want to reconsider keeping the work in your portfolio.

Managing Expectations

On both sides of the equation, managing expectations is something that needs to happen from the beginning of a project. The success of any project is a result of the people involved, perhaps even more so when speaking about design. Realistic expectations can be set by openly discussing the skill sets and experience of those that will be directly involved.

Steve Zelle is a logo designer and consultant with over twenty years’ experience working with clients. Based in Ottawa, Canada, he operates as idApostle and is the founder of Processed Identity. You can reach him through his website or on Twitter.

More Processed Identity via Twitter / Facebook / RSS / Newsletter

More Creative Process Articles

18 comments, please join in the discussion

  1. 02.15.2010

    What a great article and a very important point from both design and client perspectives.

    Keep up the great articles.


  2. 02.16.2010

    This is an intriguing post, Steve. I think it raises another question, though: What *are* clients looking for when they look at portfolios? A firm “house style” that they wish the designers to continue using? “Big name” clients? A vast breadth of different kinds of work? A certain level of craft? A minimum quantity of identity work? Case study metrics on how effective the design solutions were? Work in their specific industry? (This can be good and bad for the client, imo.) A personal connection to a designer or their way of communicating? At the risk of side-tracking this discussion, what a client is looking for out of the design portfolio might even be a bigger question that comes first. Thoughts?

  3. 02.16.2010


    I am glad you are enjoying the site, thanks.


    Side-track as you wish! My original intent for the post was to address just one of the things a client should be aware of when making a decision. A portfolio shouldn’t be a collection of pretty pictures (no matter who did them) but a discussion point for all the questions you bring up. Hopefully this thread can be developed into a future post about what to look for in a design portfolio. Thanks.

  4. @tcberg

    An important and interesting post, Steve. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I’ve found that the most successful design work I’ve managed has started with getting the prospective client to provide clear and meaningful answers to foundational questions about their business objectives, motivations, and target market. With that input, I then can present to them pieces selected from the portfolio because of how those pieces, in one way or another, relate specifically to the prospective client’s needs.

    Otherwise, I’ve found that, more often than not, the prospective client can, thanks to their own personal tastes rather than a strategic framework, be unproductively influenced by work that is not contextually relevant.

  5. 02.16.2010

    An excellent point. One studio (who shall remain nameless) prominently featured the work of half a dozen designers, including me, who had stopped working with them years ago in their portfolio and case studies.

    While they have every right to do so, as all the designers were on a work-for-hire basis, knowing what I know about that studio, I highly doubt they disclosed the fact that nobody associated with those projects was affiliated with the studio any longer.

  6. 02.16.2010

    Jason, what you wrote brings up another question–does the work that Unnamed Firm showcases on their site still fit with the ethos of their current work? And if not, what kind of projects are they taking on now (like projects they are not proud of) on that necessitate them keeping very old work on their site instead?

  7. 02.17.2010

    Great post and great discussion. I would tend to agree with Tim that perhaps the best approach for clients is not to look at past work as examples of an approach or aesthetic that might work for them but rather as proof that the studio can handle a project of similar scope.

    Regardless of the overall quality a studio’s work the success of a single project is often dependent on the relationship between the designer(s) and the creative director, how the client-studio relationship is handled and a variety of other factors that no one can predict at the outset.

    I would wager that a solid portfolio showing the studio’s capabilities coupled with an initial meeting where good communication is established will do much more to ensure successful completion of a project.

  8. 02.17.2010

    Thanks for all the great comments. (Going back to my original post for a second) I feel a designer’s ability to adapt to different needs and styles, to problem solve and to develop logos that work both technically and aesthetically is shown in past work. In some cases the strength of an individual designer can be greater than the rest of the studio combined. Would you not want that person on your job? I agree completely with Isabelle and Tim that there are many other factors, but I think this is a biggie. Thoughts?

  9. 02.24.2010

    I think they should be as open as possible really.

    An agency I worked for 4 years ago still uses all my work in their portfolio (I was the sole-designer for the vast majority of it). It’s still in their, and they haven’t added a single new piece of their own work since I’ve left.

    I often wonder what clients think after they agree to go with that agency and the work they end up with is nothing like what they saw before. Find it a little frustrating.

  10. andrea cutler

    I think it is unethical for other designers who contract work to an independent contractor (such as myself) to pass the work off as their own, but it has happened to me on more than one occasion. And in fact there are several studios I have freelanced for who consistantly post my work on their websites and garner new clients based on my design work – but have rairly hired me to work on new projects. A sad but true state of affairs. I am very sensitive to giving credit where credit is due. I think that is important and good practices but unfortunately others do not follow those coded of ethics.

    • 02.25.2010

      Andrea, did you sign a work-for-hire agreement for that work? If so, then your rights of authorship/credit could vanish as well. Another important thing I’m curious about–who art directed those projects? Did they task you with managing the client relationship? Did that firm put together the creative brief for you, and hand down the direction? While the agency might not have done the actual design work, these other elements are huge in the lifecycle of a project, and sometimes play a part that is almost as substantial as the creative deliverable, imo. So, it’s my opinion that sometimes its okay that they don’t credit a designer on their site. Though, if the agency doesn’t allow you to display the work on your own site, that should be something you could fight for in future agreements. Thoughts from others?

    • andrea cutler

      Comment* In one case in particular, the client handed off the entire project including the creative brief, other than being the contact to the client I did all of the creative direction and design myself – off-site there were no signed agreements, I did get a 1099 at the end of the year though.

      Another situation was an agency who’s partners split up. The Creative director (one of the three partners) and I collaborated on most every project. She and I left, went on my own, the creative director and I remained friends- one of the remaining partners (media guy) continues to use the original company name – the 3 partners initials, even though two are gone.
      And shows all of the original work we did on the website even though the creative team (myself and my old CD) have been gone for almost 10years!

    • 02.25.2010

      It would be incredibly frustrating to know someone is taking credit for my work. While I don’t know what is legally right, it just doesn’t seem morally right to me. Future clients are being sold on a skill set that is no longer available. Andrea, do you know how the individual still using the company name and showing old work addresses this when clients ask? (If clients ask)

    • andrea cutler

      Comment* I don’t know Steve, if they are ever asked. I can tell you the work on their current site is anything but current….Some of it actually pre-dates me, and is my old CD’s work. We are still friends, but she no longer does design work, she is an art therapist now. She and I talked about this recently, that they don’t have nearly the skills and talent to provide the same level of design we did to their clients – yet almost the entire portfolio on-line is OUR work. We both desided karma will win in the end. We are still on speaking terms with the two guys who run the office. But nobody discusses the work. Anyhooo…

    • 02.25.2010

      Wow, Andrea. That stinks and has to be very frustrating for you–especially since it seems like the firm in question no longer has the ability to do creative work of that caliber. Seems pretty shady to me. It might be worth it to ask them to remove it. The other question is age of work–how old is the work people show? Our site is geared to be more historical, showing the depth and history of work we do/have done, up to the present–but we also try and replace old work with newer, fresher things. How do others do this, and is it less relevant in logo design work?

    • andrea cutler

      Comment*at the risk of pointing fingers and embarrassing the agency- I will say they are in NYC, The two principals have no formal training, and only hire freelancers, they no longer have national accounts, (we once did) and if they were to remove all of LG the creative director, and my work, they’d have nothing on their site. We are kinda over it. It is more aggravating in the case of the other indie designer (in NY) who farmed me the work and may be garnering clients that I could have competed for if only I had gotten the credit.

  11. 02.25.2010

    Interesting comments from everyone. Certainly as Tim pointed out, the designer is not the only one responsible for the outcome of a project — credit should be shared. It got me thinking about the other creative disciplines involved in projects. How often does a studio take the time to credit others, such as a writer when a client is shown a design portfolio? If clients are not asking who designed what, are they asking who wrote, illustrated and photographed what? Do you think they should?

    • 02.25.2010

      This is a great topic, and there are a lot of interesting comments posted here. Many of which I honestly haven’t thought too much about as a designer. I have been in many new business meetings and meet & greats at past agencies that I’ve worked for, and I can’t think of a single instance where credit was given for the individual parts of a project. Nor has a client ever asked. A former employer of mine’s website is 75% my work, and the way that the shop was run meant that you were your own island. Outside of invoicing you took everything from start to finish and their was no collaboration between the handful of creatives on staff. It’s only been 2 years since I’ve left, but they just launched a new site last year featuring mostly my work. I never really thought about the fact that they are selling a product that they no longer produce. However, I have been very cautious in the launch of my new company to include copy that says that some work was completed at a previous agency. Had there been more involvement in projects from a team perspective I think this wouldn’t matter, because I do agree with Tim’s comments about the research and information gathering stage. Thanks for opening my eyes.