My design client “hates” my first proof. Now what?

True story: I was on the phone going over some proofs with a new client just last week and he starts the conversation by saying,

“I hate it.”

Those are pretty harsh words to swallow for any designer, especially coming from a client I don’t know very well. Part of me appreciated his honesty (so we could go about making something he does like), and part of me was, well, a little crushed…and scared I’d just lost a client.

My Response

I asked him what he didn’t like about it, and in which direction he’d like to go. His answer (condensed for relevance) surprised me.

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“Well, actually, I like the color…and the font. The text looks pretty cool overall. But I don’t like the center element. Maybe all of the elements should be the same height. Oh, wait, these companies that I like have different sizing…so maybe that’s okay. I think just the center element needs to be fixed.”

That’s a far cry from “I hate it.”

In my book, “I hate it” means let’s throw this away and start over. However, clients are people, too, and people don’t always mean what they say.

The Lesson

What clients say and what clients mean can be totally different (I’m sure you each have a zillion examples). Your reaction to their unpleasant criticism can either make or break not only the project but also your relationship.

Beneath that strong opening opinion lies valuable information about how to create something your client does like.

Good designers keep their emotions in check and gather that data. Narrow down what, specifically, they do and don’t like.


The font?

The colors?

Just one color?

The right-justify?

The orientation?

The placeholder photo?

Often times, clients can’t see the forest through the trees. They get hung up on one element of the proof they dislike and struggle to look past it. I think that’s what happened to my client. He saw the one element he didn’t like and dismissed the entire proof.

Through a little bit of perseverance, I was able to decipher his generalization and identify which element to improve.

(P.S. – The rest of our conversation was rather pleasant; we’ll be conferring again in a week over version two.)

How do you handle harsh critiques from clients?

Have you ever had a client criticize your work harshly? How did you respond? How did your response affect the project and relationship? Leave us a comment on this post!

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  1. I have recently had a very similar reaction.

    After asking what they did and or didn’t like, turned out it was really only the position of the horse and rider that they wanted changed, to represent a more specific movement – which was not clearly specified in the original brief.

    The rest they were happy with, and after a minor change, the design was complete.


  2. This is what i did recently, I needed to design a brand logo for a client. So i did my research on nutritional logos, i put together a word doc with all sorts of different logos and ask,which ones catches his eye. This gave me an idea of his taste. I did some rough sketches, total 10 and sent it to him, this narrowed it down a bit more.. Then did some final sketches and he like them, then went to the pc and put together some final design options. Then the client started to narrow down what he likes and dis-likes. Colours and less is more approach, we took a way some elements and he loved it. Job sorted. My client was over the moon ! Totally blew him away with my awesome design skills and this is totally original work! You can see the logo here: RAW GEAR BRAND DESIGN… & the final packaging i designed as well, Enjoy 🙂

  3. It looks like I am not alone experiencing crazy clients LOL. Recently I had a client requesting a few slides for PowerPoint presentation build in Illustrator – please make it looks nicer, he said, you’ll do a lot better job than me – that was the request, I thought this will be a no brainier, a quick buck. Oh boy, was I wrong. The first red flag was when he said that he has a problem with Illustrator – “help it doesn’t read fonts correctly”, so I explained to him that he doesn’t have that particular font installed on his PC (hehe). So after that test I started working on his project basically without any instructions “beautifying” his slides, which he hated, he said they don’t look anything like his old (crappy ones) “what you’re doing is really off”…so I asked if my creation missed a message he wanted translate to his audience and what he wanted me to do and if I can fix it, he didn’t answer and he said it’s not working out and just one slide “looks ok” and he paid only for that one. And than he suggested that I should install PowerPoint on my Mac and learn the terminology??! (I specialize in web design and I honestly hate PP) that was hilarious, I got a good laugh, but at first it was a little harsh how he snapped at me, because I still think I did a really good job.
    The question is… do we really want to work with these types of clients and want them to return? Where do they come from? LOL

    1. Eva,

      So true – are they worth it?! That’s for each designer to decide, but I always get wary when someone says “quick and easy” when discussing their project. Those ones never are!

      Good luck with nicer clients in the future!

    2. I had a client push me around & i fired him ! take that. Yes i lost a client, but these clients that are mean should work with idiots then and not waste my time, cut your losses, there is millions of nice people out there and some idiots.. Test the cleint and get some responses before you put hours in.. get a feel for their taste, it’s worth it to ask many many questions until, you are actually putting the power in their hands and it feels like they are the one who came up with the idea. LOL !

  4. I had a similar situation myself recently, he was hard to work with and provided very little input as to his needs…regardless of how much I tried to get some details, the first copy I sent…he hated…then I made a few modifications, all of a sudden it was not 10 percent, not 100 percent but according to him 1000 percent better…go figure…as that old song goes PEOPLE ARE CRAZY….lol thanks for your words on how to deal with people who use such harsh words to express their own likes and dislikes…such is art I think.

  5. I just had a client tell me that the design didn’t look professional. It was a flyer for a mass mailing, I asked her why she thought that and she said “People won’t know to bring this in for the discount because there isn’t a starburst that says so, and there is also no dotted outline for them to cut out so they know it is a coupon.”

  6. You can either be a coward and walk away or you can take up the challenge, find out what went wrong and fix it. The decision is up to you really. Remember, you need to balance your emotions and logic to go far in this business.

  7. I usually get that a lot. But after a few, I managed to turn that into good luck. After my client gives off the HATE aura, I work along a certain preset lines to grab his attention as to what is needed to rectify. And 5 minutes later, I get this 8 lined passage outlining the changes. But its just like you said, no matter how many times I get to hear that HATE word used against me n my designs, It still hurts quite much. But at times, if the client has an understanding persona, then using that HATE as a motivation to bring out the best from the client could help you end up with a very proud n profiting project.

    1. Deepesh,

      Definitely, perseverance is key to salvaging a “hated” proof!

      Thanks for sharing!

  8. yes. i responded positive because clients give us business. later on we had to agree on how he/she wants the design thereafter our relationship was cordial.

  9. if you expect a problem with a client, before he start making trouble …..i’ll make the comparison with music….there is music you instantly will love but will make you bored very soon and diagonal to the other side of the scale there is music what will take the some time to understand and to appreciate…and after a while you realize you never get bored because you ‘ll again and again discover new levels and interesting details.
    so conclusion: really good stuff sometimes takes a little more time to understand and to discover the true value.

    1. Alexander,

      I really like your comparison about needing extra time to appreciate the finer things. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing!

  10. Jaleesa,

    I feel that in your case, the client want only a good technician. They might not see the value of you creating something unique for them. Find the one who will and it become a great experience.

  11. Igor: first be calm and listen. Bite something if you have to. LOL
    I like to got back and really see if I really mist my mark. In any case it’s as per your example. In other case if it truly goes wrong the key is communication and the designer’s responsibility to ask the right questions. Often by asking questions to remedy the issue, the client may realize how to talk to designers and us find a way to maybe read between the line of their real needs.

    Happy design to all.

    1. Guylaine:

      Love your comment regarding missing your mark. Such honesty with yourself and your client is refreshing and a great trait to have!

  12. Once, after I took the client from a small local shop through a branding process, I’ve sent him a sketch of an ad. He called me telling me he hates it, and any second year design student would do better stuff. I lost my composure and shouted on him for 20+ minutes, telling him that he was nowhere without my work & talent. In the end of the call he said “I’m sorry”. I fixed the color from bright to dark but no change in anything else. Sent it to him. He approved it immediately. After that he asked my forgiveness another couple of times.
    So you don’t have to always take it! Depends on your confidence in front of the client.

    1. Igor:

      Wow – interesting to hear how that worked out for you! Goes to show us that different methods work for different people.

      While I don’t know that I could pull off your scenario, I certainly agree that you shouldn’t be too eager to please. If you designed something a certain way and you have reasons to back up your proof, be certain to let your client know why you believe you’ve come up with a good solution.

      Thanks for sharing!

  13. Wow. I’m still struggling to break into this business, but the few clients I’ve had so far were very specific with what they did & didn’t want. So I guess I got off easy but I’ll definitely keep your advice in mind, just in case I ever find myself in your shoes one day. Thanks for sharing this April, I always enjoy reading your articles 🙂

    1. Jaleesa,

      We designers need thick skin, that’s for sure! Glad to hear your first clients have been great to work with. Not every client is harsh (in fact, this is the first client I’ve ever had that’s so brutally honest). I’d rather hear their complaints rather than have them live with something just because they don’t want to hurt my feelings (see Darla’s comment above).

      Good luck to you!

  14. I love this article because it is so honest and true. I always say, I promise you that we will get to a point where you will be happy, these discussions are part of the process. Thanks for using the word perseverance, it is a reminder to take a deep breath when these meetings are taking place!

    1. Thanks, Eileen! This week was particularly rough on me because 3 of my projects are in the proofing stage, and while (thankfully!) not all 3 clients were harsh, all of them had changes – no surprise there. I say, next week it’s going to be great to hear how wonderful my second round of proofs are!

      I really like how you explain to your clients that “this is normal.” Often they have no idea how working with a freelance is “supposed” to go. We are coaches and teachers as much as we are designers sometimes!

  15. It happens… rarely of course 😉 but, when it does my first response is “well, now I know what you don’t like” then we discuss the bits that offend the client so I can decipher what they are actually wanting.

    1. Elliott:

      Rarely, yes! Thank goodness! 🙂

      Isn’t it interesting how few people can really thoroughly explain themselves well? It’s such a valuable tool, yet we often get vague responses. Often I start with questions about what clients DON’T like in an effort to narrow down what they do like.

      Great comment!

    2. What a great suggestion, Elliott the designer! I am waiting for feedback from several clients on the 1st round of web designs and will definitely use your suggested first response. Thank you so much and all the best!

  16. Great article Aprll! It is sometimes hard to remain business-like when a design you’ve put your heart into is rejected. You are very right about how it usually isn’t the whole thing. Most of my clients I deal with completely via email. And the first thing I ask is “what exactly don’t you like” and “what do you like” — it helps a lot. I’m like you- if they say they hate it – I automatically think “do-over” – but it most cases that is untrue. When you have worked with a lot of clients you will find those more emotional ones that will say “I hate it” – that is just part of their personality. The opposite is the folk who don’t want to tell you they don’t like it, and are just going to “live with” something – which is even worse. If I get even the hint of that I always remind that type client that if it’s not the way you like it, let’s get it right. anyhow.. good article. More young artists need to read.

    1. Darla:

      Thank you!

      I 100% agree with your point – I’d rather be told ‘I hate it’ and create something they’ll love than be finalizing the design and hear that they’re living with it. I try really hard to be approachable while giving my honest, tactful opinion.

      Working with different clients sure exposes us to a lot of different personalities, doesn’t it? That’s an unseen and often overlooked challenge in freelancing — figuring out the best way to ‘people manage’ for so many different character types.

      Thanks for your comment!

  17. Taking a page from Steven Pressfield here – but I think it’s important to separate yourself from your work. You can’t let your ego or emotions get involved when dealing with clients.

    I think you handled the situation very well, though. Great advice on taking a step back to deal with the situation.

    1. Josh,

      Thanks for sharing the name – and thanks for the kudos – I’ll look him up. We really have to act the professional and adult or our reputations will sour quickly.

      I’ve heard many of my clients talk about the “awful designer” they worked with before, and they’re already on the defensive by the time I get to work with them. I work really hard to foster a relationship with them and make them comfortable so they realize not all designers are bad.

  18. Same thing happens in education, especially at Parent-teacher conferences. You eventually find out the truth of the matter and it’s usually something very easily solved!

    1. Yep, be polite, act like an adult, and kill ’em with kindness. Otherwise the conversation could quickly turn into an argument, and no one wants that.

  19. Well, I never had a client say they hate it, but they have asked to see if in a different color, text, etc… which is part of the revision cycle. I do my research, also I check to see if they have done other marketing materials before I start with the design. I only provide one design, if by any chance the client does not like the design, then I offer to do another one free of charge but remind them that anything after that will be billed extra. One important thing that we have to remember is that we are designing for the client and not for our portfolio. Also some clients will give you total freedom to design others have it all drawn out and want it pretty much their way. Do what makes the client happy.

    1. DesignFacet:

      I totally appreciate your comments, here – these can go a long way to NOT getting to “I hate it.”

      However, sometimes you’ve done your research and you’ve been given guidelines and despite all of it you still get that – and as I’ve mentioned in the article, often times the client really doesn’t “hate it,” but they fail to provide a good explanation of the elements they’d like to see differently.

      Thanks for sharing!

      1. Then I would tell them that the information and message they conveyed was not accurate and their vision has changed. Specially if they provide sketches and want us to do it as they see it but later they changed their mind.

        1. DesignFacet:

          That scenario sometimes happens, and thanks for pointing that out.

          I think, though, we’re straying from the main idea in the article, which is how to handle yourself appropriately when confronted with a situation. We’re starting to get into what led us there, and that’s an entirely different post. 🙂

          Great input!

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