We’ve all worked with bad clients. Hopefully, we’ve all also worked with good ones. The difference is drastic.
The most important factor in a healthy work environment is your relationships, both with your team and with your clients. But what may seem like a great client relationship at the rosy beginning of a project can quickly and easily turn into a bad one. So it’s important to know how to spot a truly good client (or perhaps I should say "ideal client," as even good clients aren't perfect). And how, as a client, to recognize a good designer. Relationships go two ways and both the client and designer are responsible for a positive one. Here’s what I’ve found to be the key factors on both sides.
Trust & respect
First and foremost, a client should trust the designer. If that’s not the case, the relationship will crumble no matter what other positive factors are in place. I’m not saying a client should blindly follow without the designer earning that trust. If the designer hasn’t earned it (through their reputation, their work and their communication you’ve seen so far) and that trust doesn’t exist, the client should find another designer and save everyone time and heartache.
Respect goes hand in hand with trust. When a client trusts and respects their team, everything else falls naturally into place. Communication is smooth and straightforward. Timelines are manageable. Payments are made on time. Feedback is sent on time. Anxiety levels are low.
Respect and trust are different than simply that thinking you, as a designer, are cool. If a client’s hiring you just because they want to be pals, be wary. The fascination on their end will fade. Trust and respect should still be there when it does.
Designers: If you can afford it, choose clients that believe in you and seem to respect the work you do. Then fulfill those expectations.
Designers, you can’t expect all your clients meet your taste standards. They haven’t been educated in design. That’s why they hired you. But occasionally, you will have a client who just gets it. Who may not be able to create their vision themselves, but has the instinct. Find those clients and hold them tight.
In every other case in between, it is up to you to educate your client and elevate their taste. Share your knowledge freely and with passion. Explain the decisions you made and why you made them. Share inspiration often. You hear this all the time because it makes a difference. Educated clients are good clients. When those clients have good taste, even better.
"I have learned that you can't have good advertising without a good client, that you can't keep a good client without good advertising, and no client will ever buy better advertising than he understands or has an appetite for." Leo Burnett
A sense of humor
A designer or client that takes things too seriously is a drag on every project. You know, that frenzied person running around like the building’s on fire, storming out of meetings in a huff, emailing the whole team every 10 minutes with the president cc’d, starting every email with “per our conversation,” overcomplicating even the smallest things.
A good client cracks jokes in their emails. They have grace for mistakes. They remember a website launch is not the same thing as a heart transplant.
The same goes for the designer. Be the fun one the clients miss in meetings when you’re not there. Be the one that lightens the mood on radio-silent conference calls. Don’t be annoying, just evoke positivity and chill. Your client picks up on your vibe when you enter the meeting room. Set a good one.
Integrity & transparency
A good client/designer relationship is built on transparency. It may be a buzzword agencies list in their core values, but when actually followed through on both sides, the whole game changes. Budgets aren’t overblown because the client is straight up with you from the beginning, and you’re honest with them about how you’re pacing. Nobody’s surprised because expectations are clearly set the whole way. Nobody’s pointing fingers because there is room for mistakes and everyone is on the same team. When something goes wrong and that moment of panic arises, instant relief follows because you remember the answer is as simple as being honest. It’s freeing.
Tell-tale signs your client, or potential client, isn’t an honest one: They withhold information and release it when the timing’s convenient. They refuse to share their budget and demand to see your proposal first. They inflate the urgency and set unrealistic timelines. If I sense a client is going to be shady, I won’t work with them. (Which may be a luxury in some cases, I realize.)
Signs your designer or agency is dishonest: They write crazy-long emails to explain why they missed a deadline. They seem to know the answer to every question you ask (no one knows everything, no matter how skilled or experienced they are – at least not before consulting another team member). They promise in their proposal that they can accomplish every goal you set in the timeframe you set (any designer who is honest with you and themselves doesn’t overpromise).
When the designer/client relationship is straightforward and honest on both sides, trust and respect follow. And with those qualities in a relationship, even disaster projects are pleasant.
Organized & streamlined
A good client is responsive.
They designate one main point of contact for their designer and allow that person to run the relationship from start to finish.
They write one email with condensed follow-up, rather than looping in every other member of their team and assuming their designer will field feedback.
A good client sends organized folders of assets and doesn’t expect to you spend their budget hunting down photos.
They know when an email will do rather than a meeting.
They send coherent feedback rather than expecting their designer to ask clarifying follow-up questions.
Of course, even the best clients or designers have bad days. But if a client or designer fails on more than one of these standards consistently, I’d start looking for a new one.