Do Clients Deserve the Blame?

03.15.2010 / Author: Steve Zelle

It's My Fault

We blame clients too often. We blame them for not having an understanding of what we do as designers. We blame them for not meeting deadlines, and for being upset with additional charges. We blame them when a project doesn’t come together as we had hoped, and we blame them for not providing a clear budget. I am guilty of each of these thoughts from time to time but the reality is the client is my responsibility and sometimes I forget that.

We select the clients we work with; we have an opportunity before the project begins to evaluate their understanding of design, and their fit with our way of working. We have the power to inform them about our creative process, to clarify responsibilities, and expectations. We can outline the consequences of missed deadlines, and the cost of changes to design concepts. We can, and should do a lot to reduce the issues we tend to blame clients for.

The issue that I struggle the most with is when a client makes what I consider to be a destructive change to a design. A recent client insisted that no design was complete without a border — Oh really? I did what I could to influence her, to get her to reconsider, to see how ridiculous a border would be around every design, but I failed in changing her mind on the matter. So yes, there is a border, and yes, the client made me do it, but it’s not her fault. Should clients be expected to make only perfect decisions, or to trust a designer completely the first time they work with them?

Have a look at your portfolio and see if you are free of similar mistakes. Any bad design decisions or missed deadlines? Have you ever misunderstood your client’s business space, or exactly what they do and how they do it?

I enjoy the site Clients from Hell, and I can relate to stories of frustration regarding projects gone awry. I know there are some impossibly difficult clients out there but I also think designers are sometimes to blame for holding our clients to a degree of consistency, perfection and understanding that we ourselves don’t achieve.

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.

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9 comments, please join in the discussion

  1. 03.15.2010

    Good points Steve. I agree with you that because of the variety of projects and clients in our profession we must tailor the experience to each one. Tailoring is good but not if it means you forego some basic housekeeping such as clarifying approval processes or costs for a change of scope or author alterations, as you mention.

    That having been said some clients end up being much different during the process than they were prior to commencing. For those clients I’ve taken to using the old adage: “you can lead a horse to water but . . .” and try to take the request for changes I find difficult to implement with a grain of salt.

  2. 03.16.2010

    I’m a Web Designer and I think you’re definitely being a bit soft on clients.

    When it comes to design, a designer knows best. I don’t give a mechanic tips on fixing my car.

    Sure, I’ve made mistakes in the past and I’ll continue to make many more. But one of my biggest mistakes was giving clients too much power during the design process. If they can design websites, why do they need us?

  3. 03.16.2010

    Absolutely true Isabelle, sometimes clients turn into a different beast during the process. In my experience there has usually been some indication that this was going to happen, and I regret having not listened to my intuition. Thanks for your comment.

    Crea8ive, I am possibly being too soft, but I think you mistook my leniency as me advocating clients control the creative process. This should always be the designers responsibility.

  4. 03.16.2010

    I think you make a great case Steve, and Isabelle has a great point too. I’m of the opinion that clients should be engaged as equal partners in the creative process, equally sharing the success (and the blame) of the outcome. Design is one of the few professions where the client is NOT always right. I believe, although It’s not always possible, that it’s important to stand firm in those situations and frame it as being a detriment to the success of the current project (and their business). And if they are not willing to make the right decisions for their brand and their business, then maybe it’s time to walk away (or threaten to). After all, they hired you for your expertise and experience and they need to respect that or be called on it from time to time. Granted that’s not always easy, practical or even possible.
    I think at the end of the day it boils down to the fact that your clients are human too, people just like us who are trying to be successful in their businesses. We need to respect them as such, and not be afraid to lovingly slap them on the wrist and tell them “No!”
    Long story short, our egos are often too hard on clients, but we deserve just as much blame as they do.

  5. 03.19.2010

    Thanks for the comment Ryan,
    Ego is a big part of this conversation and I am glad you brought it up. Sometimes clients should lovingly slap the designers on the wrist and say “are you listening to me?”

  6. Anthony Italiano

    There is unseen knowledge in design, the customer isn’t qualified to lead the process. It’s designer responsibility to establish trust, without trust, it’s a dysfunctional relationship.

  7. 04.18.2010

    Such a great post. Thanks Steve.

    This happens so often in our industry yet we seem to continue to make the same mistake over and over again, instead of just owning up to it and making it work and if for some reason it doesn’t, then we need to asses that quickly and try to communicate it early on.

    I think it’s hard for us, designers to put our pride aside and add that ugly border to the website, but in the end, you have a happy client and though the design might be rough around the edges, there is nothing better than that client feeling very proud of the work that you’ve done and referring tons of people your way.

    It gets better with time 🙂

  8. 04.18.2010

    I understand the whole point , but as you said – some of the drastic changes they like to see in the design may actually kill it completely. The best way is to have a client who know which is a bad and which is good design. Thats the ideal case, as we all know 🙂

  9. 07.22.2010

    In truth much of the problems in the design process and deadlines could be avoided by clients, both at an individual level or at an agency level. Often clients stall on things like contracts, approvals, commenting on revisions, contributing to concept development, and another of other “little” things that cause delays in productivity.

    I also agree with Cre8ive Commando that people don’t tell mechanics or plumbers how to do their job. Yet people who don’t know the first thing about HTML or Design Applications have no problem telling designers how to do their job.