Dealing with unprepared and unorganized design clients

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Recently I blogged about how to rock your first client meeting. In the comments, GDB reader Siedah asked this great question:

“[Do] you have any suggestions for a designer dealing with an unprepared client? I tend to run into a lot of new and existing business owners who are not prepared.”

You and me both, Siedah!

Let me share with you 3 tips I use to get my clients on track. And if there’s anything I’ve left out, let me know in the comments.

Be the educator.

Many clients are great at running their businesses but aren’t great at design (that’s why they’ve come to you).

They aren’t familiar with the design process or what you need from them, and often they don’t understand why.

For these clients, I become the educator.

I explain why knowing who their audience is shapes the look and organization of their website or how design elements such color and font change the personality of a presentation.

This is also a great way to upsell your services.

When your client needs a new logo, they’ll need new business cards and social media design. If they want a poster, suggest a complementary handout or an outdoor vinyl banner.

Make them a specific to-do list.

Ever had one of those clients that promises to send you files and never does?

For these clients, I make a to-do list specifying exactly what I need from them, when I need it, and what the consequences are if they don’t follow through.

Hi Marge, I haven’t received the following files from you to design your brochure: <insert list here>. I’ll need all of these by Tuesday to provide a proof as promised by Friday. Thank you!

Put it in the contract.

Be specific about what your client is responsible for, and what milestones require input from them before work continues. This way you can point to the contract when they ask why the project is a week behind: As discussed in the contract, James, I can’t proceed with printing until I receive a signoff from you.

(PS: A note from Preston – I’m currently in the draft phase of a brand-new book about contracts for designers. If you’d like to help weigh in on the process and have a chance to get a free or discounted book, join the GDB insiders group on facebook!)

Speak up!

How do you deal with unprepared or unorganized clients? What tips can you share? Leave a comment on this post and let’s talk about it!

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About April Greer

April is the content manager here at She’s also a go-to freelance designer with a rare combination of creative expertise and technical savvy. April is available for subcontracting and speaking engagements – visit Greer Genius for more information.


  • Brent Galloway

    I currently know of a potential client that could use my services, but I’m afraid to attempt to deal with him. He’s an older gentleman that knows how to run his business very successfully, but has absolutely no idea what branding, web design, or social media is / does.

    He wants it all (branding, website, social media and SEO), but has no idea about the process. He barely understands how emailing works, so I feel it’d be more of a hassle to work with someone demanding all of my services at a low price. He thinks everything should cost $8 an hour and asked for a logo to be finished in one day… He just has no idea about the process of branding a company.

    There’s a lot more details I could provide about this client… He’s an absolute mess! So I guess I’m asking – is it even worth attempting, since he’s like the definition of an unprepared and unorganized client?

    Thanks in advanced to anyone that replies! :)

    • Liam

      Hey Brent,

      In my experience, sometimes it makes the most sense to economize my time by being careful about what clients I choose to work with. That feeling in your gut that you may want to steer clear?… when it comes this early, it’s almost always right.

      Someone with this little knowledge, with entrenched habits and such a skewed perspective of expectation should probably be corrected – but that doesn’t mean you have to do it. If he expects to pay nothing and get his work on a rush, he’s the textbook difficult client. If he’s receptive to instruction, you could perhaps do him a great deal of good – but how much of your time are you willing to invest in educating him? I find that the most mutually satisfying client relationships come with clients who may not know the industry, but trust their designer. If you think you can get there with this client, it may be worth the effort. If you doubt it, you may want to pass this time.

      Good luck!

      • April Greer

        Great advice, Liam!

    • April Greer


      Usually those gut feelings know best.

      That being said, if you start with one small project and you’re able to educate him and get your money’s worth, then you might be able to expand it into a long-term relationship that is valuable for both of you.

      My personal experience:
      Early this year I was asked to create a trifold brochure for a very unorganized client – you should’ve seen his office! He struggled to locate his business cards. As I knew him through other avenues, I agreed. He was very gung-ho to get them done by a specific date, and to this day I haven’t heard back from him regarding them. I took my deposit and ran.

  • Alex Singleton

    Great article- I definitely need this from time to time!

  • Siedah Mitchum-Johnson

    Good evening April, Thank you so much for getting back to me and sharing this question with others. It is indeed something I’ve been dealing with for some time now. Your answer does indeed give me clarity and reassurance. I appreciate this.

    I look forward to more posts!

    • April Greer

      You’re welcome, Siedah! Glad I answered your question satisfactorily.

  • Jonathan

    If we’re having a conference call I make sure the last words out of my mouth are a list of things the client needs to do.

    • April Greer

      I think that’s a great policy, Jonathan.

      I always send a reminder email a day or two prior to the first deadline explaining how eager I am to receive the materials/information so I can continue with their project. It’s a great way to remind them without nagging. :)

  • Bill Lowden

    I’m moving to web design packages to prevent project scope creep. I will have different packages with any where from three to five upgrade or support tickets for the clients to use to modify the web site. Hopefully that will help. But, I believe that some people are just difficult to work with and there’s not much you can do if you don’t see it before you sign on to do the project.

    • April Greer


      Scope creep is tough to deal with, especially in web design. I have a lot of clients who believe a new logo is part of the new website!

      Creating web packages and shoring up your contracts should help! Here’s a recent post about how to handle clients that break the contract:

      Good luck, and thanks for sharing!

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