Avoid design burn-out by limiting client revisions

limiting-client-revisionsBeginning a new design project is always exhilarating. You’re energized and excited about working on the project and creating something effective and beautiful. But have you ever had a project that, by the end of it, you just “want to get it done”? You stop caring so much about the design because you’ve been forced to change it so many times since the original concept, you don’t even feel like it’s your work anymore?

I’ve been there.

This article will attempt to help you find the root of this design burn-out problem. Here’s a hint: maintain control of your project by limiting client revisions. Don’t get me wrong, revisions are important and, many times, necessary. But limiting the number of unnecessary revisions will help you have a more effective design process.

A lesson from Chris Spooner

I was recently examining Chris Spooner’s personal design portfolio. On the contact page I noticed, among other tips for those who would solicit Chris’s work, these words:

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chrisspoonerDon’t ask how many revisions are included in the cost
This is my most hated phrase in the design industry. It seems to have stemmed from those cheap logo design websites that offer a ‘5 for $50 deal’ with ‘3 free revisions’. It gives me the impression that
the work the designer creates is ‘wrong’, and then needs ‘correcting’. I always create designs withreasoning behind the graphics, therefore I don’t tend to work on a revision basis. If a change needs to be made that’s not a problem, if I feel differently I’ll always offer my view, but as long as it fits within the proposed time quota it’s no trouble. However if the change creates additional work beyond the initial budget, advice will be given on any additional costs. (taken from spoongraphics.co.uk by Chris Spooner)

Chris makes a few great points here. Let me examine them a little more deeply:

Lots of revisions means little confidence in your work

“It gives me the impression that the work the designer creates is ‘wrong’, and then needs ‘correcting’.”

While you may not quite feel as experienced or confident in your design work as Chris, it is still important to understand what you are saying to your customer by allowing for countless revisions. Essentially what you are telling them is you do not feel confident enough in yourself to get it right the first time, so you will be counting on them to fix any problems you create during the design process.

Who wants to hire a designer who can’t deliver a good product the first time? No one.

Do your homework and be prepared to discuss your reasoning

“I always create designs with reasoning behind the graphics, therefore I don’t tend to work on a revision basis.”

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In a popular post here on Millo titled “7 tips on presenting logos to a client” we discuss the importance of making design decisions based on rational thought, research, and effective coordination with your client. As you design with the intent to meet the needs of your client (more than just make things look pretty) you will find that there will be less need for revisions and you won’t get burnt out so quickly.

Don’t Misunderstand–Revisions are okay

“If a change needs to be made that’s not a problem…”

Lest I have a lot of angry designers leaving comments on this post about the importance of revisions in the design process, let me say the following: Revisions are important. If the client needs something changed or adjusted, do it. It is important to satisfy the needs of your client.

What I am ultimately getting at with this article is the importance of limiting the number of revisions you allow your client to do–not get rid of them altogether.

What is a revision anyway?

The other problem with giving your client an exact number of revisions is in defining what a revision actually includes. Is it every time you send the document via email, is it every 5 times they have content changes, and what about if they just have a little thing to change–does that count for a while revision?

See the problem?

As I sat down recently with a group of management, we decided to replace the word ‘revision’ with ‘draft’. This helps the client understand that they should include all the changes they would like to make to a design in one consolidated document, send that to you and they can expect a subsequent “draft” in response.

So what should we do?

Burn-out in the design industry is a huge problem. Designers get tired of changing their designs for no logical reason. How can designers avoid this problem? Let me sum up this article in a few easy-to-follow steps:

  1. Work closely with your client in the research, planning, and designing phase
  2. Provide a solid design that fulfills the needs of the client as discussed in step 1 above.
  3. Strive to limit unnecessary revisions as much as possible. Remember, you need to work with the client, but discuss changes together.
  4. Avoid burning out.

What do you think?

After all is said and done, every designer’s situation is unique. What tips or advice can you offer to the rest of us when dealing with designer burn-out due to too many revisions?

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  1. I agree with the article. As owner of a commercial graphics company, I have employed several professional designers and see firsthand these struggles.
    Confidence plays a huge role. As a salesman, designer, and solutions provider, I find most people want to follow. And, (justified) confidence helps to reasure your client that you know how to make them look good.

    Finding a balance between my production manager, design director, and client is always a challange. Color seems to be biggest issue. Currently our process includes color introduction after a hand sketched concept and before the digital layout. To ensure output accuracy, we start with a signed customer color pallet or proof, then the digital layout and final proof. What are your thoughts about revisions to color ?

    1. How do you word this nicely to a client into an estimate/quote?

      “We provide 3 edit revisions per video and any additional revisions can be arranged at the follow half day rate.”

  2. What if a project has already started and no revision limits were set by mistake? Is it ever too late to set them to the client?

    1. James,

      It’s going to be much harder to implement them on the fly. If at all possible, if you can pin an extraordinary amount of revisions as “outside the scope of the project,” this is your ticket out. Maybe they’re asking for something you didn’t discuss during the initial conversations, or maybe they want to add a new feature that will take a lot of time.

      If that doesn’t work, when you get near the limit of what you consider a reasonable number of revisions (since you never specified up front, err on the side of generosity), I’d phone or email your client explaining your concern regarding finishing the project due to endless revisions and mention that you may have to start charging for additional revisions. They may resist and point to the contract where no revisions were specified, but they also might accept it.

      If they haggle, you’ll have to feel out the situation to determine the best resolution.

      Good luck (and don’t forget this important aspect next time)!


      Are you stuck in endless amounts of revisions right now or are you simply trying to prevent the possibility?

  3. For hose of you that are having issues where the work you have created has been revised so much, that its no longer your work… You are effectively becoming the mouse pointer or keyboard for these clients.

    Sometimes it’s not always a bad thing. However, the majority of the time these clients suck the life and creativity right out of you. Then they implement so many revisions that they have effectiy hired you to do “their work/opinionated changes” (for lack of a better description.) it may seem disrespectful or even out of context, but I’ve found tha reminding the client about your agreement and asking them to define why they hired you as a creative will stop them in their tracks with BS revisions. When it hits home that they could have typed out the content for a page, or brainstormed their own ideas without you brainstorming idiocy for them, they quickly realize that the hired a creative to create, not for them to waste money on silly tasks that any individual could undertake. They hired you for your professionalism, creative eye and skill and last but never least, to educate the client as much as possible.

  4. Thank you for the article. I’m actually a copywriter, but stuck with a job where the client wants endless revisions. I love the idea in this article about using the term ‘draft’. I’m totally going to start using that. I just feel like screaming about this job, Its for two product descriptions. Like 30 revisions later…..every time now, it’s like they want something completely different. (What’s worse is there are multiple people reviewing the content -too many cooks in the kitchen) If I wasn’t so hard up for work,….and for that last $80, they’re dangling over my head like a carrot, I would probably just drop them. But, at this point I feel like I’ve spent so much time on revisions that I can’t give up on it now. Agh! What’s worse….now that everything has been edited to death and mostly includes their suggestions for specific words, etc…..I’m afraid to change pretty much anything and let’s face it, there is no life or personality left in this content. Good grief!

  5. So, #4 on the list of how to avoid burning out is…avoid burning out. Hmm.

    Great article. Rethink that item on the list. That would be an appropriate time to do a revision. 😉

  6. Sometimes it seems like murder is the only option after a few too many revisions….

    The author’s right… too many revisions isn’t a problem so much as a symptom of a bad client relationship… i.e. they don’t trust you, and/or they don’t trust themselves, and/or they feel like their own boss is about to second guess the whole idea…. and/or they may feel like they’re going to be held responsible for the success or failure of something they don’t have much control over…

    …. and or you’ve simply picked the wrong client or boss and they really are full of shit, but I try to remember my own variation of conway’s law:

    “Never attribute to evil intent anything that can be explained by ignorance, stress, stupidity or fear”

  7. I don’t think there is any perfect advice for this common persistent problem. Every artist will eventually develop their own method to prevent the infinite revision syndrome. Sometimes the client/human is just indescisive and doesn’t really know what they want. Sometimes the client/human might be suffering with mental health issues. Sometimes the client is obsessive. The list is endless. I think that eventually we have to tell the client/human that we have simply had enough and life needs to roll on. I actually find that the larger clients are much less hassle. It’s the poorer clients that tend to want the works for free with endless revisions until the ultimate perfect image is finally created. Also, what the client/human thinks is perfect is often much much worse than the original design that the skilled artist created back at the beginning of the project. I work as an illustrator/concept artist and clients tend to want to cram as much visual imagery into a composition as possible, until there is no composition left – just a saturation of clutter. Plus I think that there is definitely a control issue at work in these cases. I am as enthusiastic as anyone can be but sometimes I have to tell the client/human that their idea’s are really really poor. This actually works for me as I suggest a much better idea which they usually agree on. However, they still need to put their little mark on the idea which is kind of silly if it detracts from the composition. Some clients/humans think that their revisions will make the project attract more customers but ultimately it won’t make even the tiniest of difference. No member of the public analyzes artwork to the degree of spotting a pixel that is a shade too dark.

  8. I need help. I am the only employee at a small fashion label. The designer is super picky and changes her mind constantly when she has me work on creative projects. We recently started a re-branding process that’s making me lose my mind. I have done about 100 different logos and she is never satisfied, not even when I “fix” it exactly like she wants me to. A week later she’ll come back and change her mind about it and have me start from scratch again. And don’t even get me started on the website, I have done at least 10 different versions. Correct them EXACTLY like she wants me to and then again she changes her mind and wants to go in a completely different direction. I think it is easy for her since she pays me a salary and I can’t really tell her that I’ve had enough – I’m burnout by this process.

    Any suggestions on how I could talk to her and tell her we need to set limits for revisions? HELP!

    1. Just be thankful you are salaried. Mentally tell yourself that each “revision from scratch” is a totally new design job. It also sounds like you should be a little more assertive in defending your design work and demonstrating why YOU are the GRAPHIC designer.
      I would also suggest talking to her more about her changes, asking WHY, refusing to accept vague explanations, etc.

      If you are truly burned out and none of this works, then maybe you should start looking around for another job.

      1. I hear you on this!
        I had this problem once with a client except i was not on salary. This was about the third or fourth logo i had done for her which all had really short timelines so quick decisions had to be made. (logos for different parts of the organization) She did not like a couple of them but her board of directors did. She only liked one of my logos when a celebrity said he liked my logo and that is was a lot better than his business’s logo. Then the last logo project i did had a long timeline – she did not like the first attempts and then told me “exactly” what she wanted – still didn’t like it. Then she said she would get back to me and she went ahead and hired another designer without telling me and then refused to pay what she owed me. I had it in the contract that in the event she wanted to stop that i would be paid for time spent. She still has not paid me. She was a very wealthy doctor.

        Sounds like you are going crazy there but you cannot get out unless you quit. Maybe suggest that you do a small focus test with 3-4 people who would be similar to her customers to see what people like – fresh eyes. (Both of your have long lost your objectivity)

        I also had another client who i think had control issues and if we would not have cut her off it would have gone on for months (someone else was paying for the changes) I ended up suggesting to her to buy the app and design it herself (diplomatically of course) because this was not working. That really helped! Drove me nuts and i am “very” patient! When someone is really picky it literally kills creativity or stops it dead.

  9. Revisions are a nightmare on hand but on the other you need to keep the client happy and be a returning customer, spread the word about how amazing you are and how flexible you are willing to be, in terms of charging I m always upfront with my customers with costings and what i charge them beyond the agreed contract, I implement 3 revisions for free as part of the services, after that . I charge the client for each round of revisions, working closely with the client getting the input into what they require is important this will always reduce the amount of revisions. But there will be occasions where your stuck with client who doesn’t know what they want or your designing for a comity and the client isn’t decisive or headstrong on the direction they want to take, or you will get a client who will approve the job on the first draft. Every client is going to be different and how you approach this depends how well you can read the client.

    This article is really good guideline to follow and even for me its good to get advice from other designers and agencies on there working practices as this helps you improve your relationship with the client and it improves you as a designer with dealing with difficult situations.

  10. Great article. I agree to use the word “draft” instead of “revision.” Sometimes designers are frustrated with almost endless revision from his/her client. However on the client side, they are also frustrated because they feel that the designer don’t understand or deliver what they expect or want. It is important for designers to deliver satisfaction to their clients but one should also need to ask their client what they really want to avoid misunderstanding by both parties.

  11. revisions, especially in this buyers market, are tricky. often a client can make you feel as though a change (you feel is a revision) is either a) part of the original scope of work or b) necessary because of your lack of technical or creative expertise / project knowledge / understanding (pick any you wish).

    and while it helps to clearly state your position regarding revisions (often termed: changes or client alterations) in your original estimate, it does no good if the client is unaware (usually always) without you pointing it out beforehand. that’s a long-winded way of saying: put it in writing and verbally state it before getting started. it won’t guarantee that you will not encounter extra revisions but it will give you the confidence to discuss them in regards to the original budget while the job is in progress or when the work is completed.

  12. I believe that you have written your article from the point of view of the Freelancer. And I agree. However, in an agency, especially one that’s Client Service tilted, it’s they who should take a call. AND THEY NEVER DO. Believe me, they never do. The only reason I see is that they really don’t know what is to be delivered and they do not have faith in their designers. Isn’t it a good idea here to share the creative brief with the client and get a fix on it before the creative is even briefed? If that sounds like logic, I wonder why it has never struck the Client Service…

  13. This obviously also stikes a chord with me on a daily basis as an illustrator too.

    I always start by explaining to anyone enquiring that, although I’ll sketch something until they’re happy, as soon as they give the nod for me to take it to the computer then any major revisions will be charged for as they take longer to rectify after this stage in the design process.

    I always ask new clients for an upfront deposit aswell, which is almost never a problem. It also shows that they respect my time and have confidence in my work based on what they’ve seen. (Which is why they are wanting my service in the first place i assume!)

    I also agree with Lindsay in the fact that it is extrememly important to fathom as much information as possible before even starting to put pencil to paper as it always saves alot of time on revisions in the long run.

    Regardless of the commission though, providing a design serivce professionally will amost always encounter revisions on every project in some capacity. We are the visual artists, where the clients (usually) are not so unless we are mind readers it’s unlikely what we draft from our minds will be 100% first time. At the end of they day, they are paying you so should be given what they want.

    If they are clearly taking the p!ss and being exceptionally difficult then i would be tempted to remind them of their own deadline peerhaps, before cutting my losses and either offering them thier deposit back as a gesture of goodwill (If it is MY decision to terminate the contract) or just learn never to accept work from said client again after the commission is (Finally!) complete. Live and learn! 😛

  14. Nice article.

    If you’ve done a good job of getting your client involved at the beginning before they even see a design then your likelihood of getting significant revisions is greatly reduced.

    If revisions are a chronic problem then I would examine how well you are engaging your client first and foremost rather than trying to solve it entirely with contractual clauses.

    The client that wants revisions isn’t necessarily a bad client. The client that won’t help you understand their needs probably is though.

  15. Fully understanding the clients wants and needs is foremost important. The fact is you can express and give your opinion until you’re blue in the face, however in the end … the client calls the shots.

    With that being said it’s up to us as professionals and designers to explain our ideas, methods and reasoning’s thoroughly to the client so that they fully understand why and what we do.

    No designer enjoys revs—I hate em, but it’s all part of the process. What really gets me boiling is when client provides feedback or revs with out fully understanding why or what they’re doing.

    Bottom line is know the client and know what their needs, desires and wants are. If after a few meetings and client still doesn’t know what they want, or cannot provide feedback etc …

    Get a new client. 🙂

  16. I am an architect (the kind who designs buildings) in my own small practice and while my experiences might be a bit different from a graphic designer or a web designer, there are some parallels. I agree with the axiom that one must meet the expectations and the basic pragmatic parameters the client has provided. In the world of buildings, the thing has to work for the intended use. While I also do not limit the number of design revisions, I find keeping the design process fluid, heard by listening to the client during the preliminary design discussions and incorporating their ideas. if their ideas do not work in the design solution, explain why they were not incorporated. One must be prepared for some hurt feelings and try to assuage them tactfully.

    Give in sometimes. While their idea may not be the best, give in to a small idea which will not sacrifice the design, but will allow them to feel they are part of the process. While sometimes this is a power play, sometimes just marking their territory, it engages the client more. This method can also be used successfully by stating that your design idea was from a comment or an idea they had. You just developed it further.

    Many times, I have to keep my design ego in check. While I approach every design from the beginning as a potential “masterpiece”, I do know that it takes three people to execute the design: the Architect, the Owner and the Builder. Each brings his own expertise and desires to the project. Only experience can separate the ego from the good ideas.

    1. Nail. Head. Hit.

      I’ve always felt that the best designers were the ones who listened to their clients and were able to pull out logo ideas just from certain words or phrases the clients used in the first meeting.

      Going back to the subject at hand… revisions are an integral part of the design process, though I agree that putting a limit on it definitely helps avoid burnout.

  17. A phenomenal philosophy by Chris and a great breakdown by Preston. It seems to be a thin line that we as designers tread between supporting the professionalism of our work without being accused of having an “artist’s ego.”

    What you guys have managed here is lay out a a rational way in which we can both support the quality of our work and remain flexible to individual client needs. I will definitely go forward with this in mind for future projects. Thanks so much!

  18. Thanks for the feature in the article, glad to see it’s helped share some tips.
    As you’ve already mentioned in the article some revisions are definitely good, I’ve worked on a few projects where a client’s change has improved the design for the better.

    Having this kind of statement on your website does help flush out the ‘I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know when I see it’ types of clients. I think everyone has experienced those jobs, where it goes on forever.
    If they know up front that they don’t have X number of revisions available, they’ll often make a more conscious decision about what they want before the designs are started.

    1. @Chris Spooner,
      Thanks for the contribution, Chris. Good to see you here at Millo. Best of luck to you in all.

  19. Amber.. its probably for the best that you stopped offering design services.

    A graphic designer that feels bad because they don’t want to stick the client with something that they hate is not a very good graphic designer.

    When you sit down to design something, you dont just ask teh client what they want and start going at it. You really delve into what the client’s likes and dislikes are as well as what their target audiences’ likes and dislikes are. You work on rough concepts and make sure that you have a working understanding of what they need and they have a working understanding of what you are going to do.

    Then you design.. and you better design with a purpose because if you design something because it “looks pretty” you will never be able to stick to your guns. I have gone into many client meetings where the clients questioned certain parts of my design, but because they have a reason, I almost always walked away with a complete project and no revisions.

    There is and will always be a little bit of a power struggle between designer and client because, depending on the client, people seem to think that they know good design when they see it.. but most dont – or they know it when they see it, but when it comes to their business they are entirely blind. Having a solid reason for doing what you did makes you look like you know what you were doing and makes the client confortable with your choice.

    1. @Lindsay, I agree. I also wonder what Amber means by “development.” Programming for software/web? I don’t see how that’s any better. I build and code as much as I design, and whenever you’re making anything for someone there will be “project creep” and revisions. If she closed Photoshop and opened a code editor and hasn’t had revision-nagging thrown her way since, she must have found some magic clients.

      1. Programming and sys dev. has more of a definite answer. “Not blue enough” is not something you arbitrarily will get form a client when doing development. You either have it working or not…if they want Another feature that is different.
        Also, many…many designers have a too high opinion of their ‘unique grid work’. It is just a matter of taste and, after all, you are hired BY the client do work FOR the client and satisfy their taste. Otherwise, you are just looking to find someone to sponsor your tease and you call them ‘good clients’ in return. Wake up and put down your favorite high-school sketch book as nobody will pay for your doodles. Companies have an agenda and a reason for their direction, designers are barely a piece of a puzzle.
        Revisions are necessary so account for them and have them in contract. Done.

  20. This is one of the reasons I stopped offering design services. I’d feel bad about giving a set revision limit of 30 minutes, and then trying to charge the client after that. It made me feel bad because I didn’t want to stick the client with something they hated, but felt like I needed to be compensated as well. Development is so much easier bc as long as its done correctly, there’s very little revisions involved.

  21. I usually give clients a certain number of revisions and anything over that I start to charge an hourly rate (if at a fixed project rate contract). Although I hate to say that I am all in for the money (cause I am not), let’s not kid ourselves. We are doing this for a living and getting paid does motivate us somewhat. A reward is always a good reason to motivate ourselves and keep going. That’s how I see things.

    1. @Chris Takakura,
      I would definitely agree, Chris. The truth of the matter is, a lot of times people think we are in it to build a portfolio or get experience or exposure. While that may be the case sometimes, we also have to make some money, right.

      Thanks for your comments.

  22. OK here’s the thing. Revisions, however you define them, need to be in the contract. I do my revising with the client either via phone, email or video conf on Skype before I put a single pixel on the screen. By the time the work begins the client and I know with some degree of certainty what the finished product will look like. If they insist on making changes after that it’s in the contract and it’s not inexpensive. There is an analogous concept in the building trades called a change order. Clients who ask for it pay for the service. Spelling this out in your contract puts them on notice and I think discourages the revisionist. If they get pissed and walk from the project I would hope you have a cancellation clause. We all know that everyone differs in terms of how they manage clients. You have to be comfortable with your own policy and stick to it. The worst mistake I ever made was doing it differently for two different clients who happened to know one another and compared notes. Best of Luck. Gerry

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