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How long should a designer fight a client about a poor design decision?

Table of ContentsUpdated May 16, 2011

If you’ve been designing for long, you’ve experienced a scenario like I am going through right now:

You’ve met with your client, discussed the details of the project, signed a contract, and made some major progress on your project. Now, significantly through your process, your client hits you with a request that just makes your teeth hurt.

It’s one of those requests that goes against everything you’ve ever learned about good design. Whether it’s auto-starting music on their web site, making their logo so big, there’s no room for white space, or using a myriad of different fonts in one project, you can’t stand the thought of doing as the client asks.

So you fight it.

You politely explain why that may be a bad decision. You show them examples of well-done designs that do follow the rules.

But they insist.

So what do you do? Today, I’d like to hear your opinions on how long you should fight your client on a poor design decision – before you just give in a do what they are asking.

A few days?
A week?
Multiple weeks?

2 opposing views

I’d also like to explore the two most extreme options I can think of which are

  1. to give in immediately when a client asks for a poor design change, or
  2. to never give in no matter the circumstances.

Giving up too easily

Some designers, after years of fighting against poor design, decide they are too tired to deal with the hassle of trying to convince clients of their poor decisions.

Designers that have reached this point give in to any request their clients make. They are more interested in avoiding conflict and getting a paycheck than they are about good design.

I think giving in to your clients poor requests is too extreme. Any designer who lives like this will only be happy for a little while because he/she will never be fully satisfied with a job well-done.

Never budging

The other extreme includes designers who never find a compromise between what they feel is correct and what the client is requesting. These sorts of clients are classified by clients and design snobs – and they’re proud to carry such a title.

Usually these sorts of designers don’t understand the business side of design as well as they should โ€“ they should read Millo more ๐Ÿ˜‰ โ€“ so they forfeit business opportunities on account of pride.

Somewhere in the middle

In my opinion, you need to find a good balance between giving up too easily and never giving in to your clients’ requests. I try to stand firm when I know a design decision will make or break a client’s business objective, but when it’s a matter of what I think looks good versus what someone else thinks looks good, I try to find a reasonable compromise.

What’s a good compromise for you? Do you give in quickly or fight it out to the end? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments of this post!

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Written by Preston Lee

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Preston Lee is the founder of Millo where he and his team have been helping freelancers thrive for over a decade. His advice has been featured by Entrepreneur, Inc, Forbes, Adobe, and many more.

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  1. Laura Gutierrez says:

    hahaha. I though I was alone in this bs of giving out crappy work, of their squared boring minds- “thinking creative” minds…. booo!, just for a paycheck… booo! :/, so frustrating

  2. Shan Shan says:

    I tried to fight and explain. But when they insist I will give what they want with heartache!

  3. I’m of the mind to voice my concerns and show evidence of why I feel I’m right. If the client is insistent on their requests…then as long as it doesn’t change the scope of the project, I’ll do it.

    I’ve had some claim I give up too easily, but I look at all of this as a job. Plain and simple. If the client’s request means the end product will be “bad” in my eyes, it simply means I don’t put their stuff on my own portfolio.

    I’ve watched some folks fight and fight and negotiate to death because they want every piece to be portfolio-worthy, and thus try to protect their designs. In the end, I notice how many times clients will fire those designers and replace them with “yes men”.

    This is life, and why you have to remember you provide a service. Just make sure there’s wording in your contract that you are not responsible for how their business runs. So their requests that ruin the ads/website destroy their business…not your fault.

    Call me cold, or even a mercenary, but for me time is money…and the more time you go back and forth fighting for good design is the more money you lose. Your four week job suddenly turns into six months, but you’re still getting paid for four weeks of your time.

    Pick your battles…and remember you’re a professional offering a service.

  4. Victoria Brown says:

    There are a number of potential “tugs” in each direction: artistic vision vs. commercial reality; the designer’s subject expertise vs. the client’s understanding of their business.

    If a good relationship has been established, hopefully the client will consider the designer’s advice carefully, especially if you are able to explain how your option may help the business.

    In my opinion, if the designer can present their point-of-view politely and dispassionately, they have discharged their duty – then it’s the client’s call!

  5. TELL THEM! the issues, still if they want it, GIVE THEM! .later if they contact you back and ask you to do it again, DO IT! with a smile. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Kristine Putt says:

    Funny, I’m in this situation right now!

    I think the answer to “how long” really depends on the type of deign we are doing. My particular design project is an entire brand development (branding communications and design). If I give the client what they are specifically asking for, their brand will undoubtedly fail – pure and simple. And my reputation as a brand designer goes down the toilet. If I were designing a mailer or a print ad, that’s forgivable, because it would be forgotten by the next publication. But an entire brand will forever be the mark of a poorly designed business and whether or not I ever put it in my portfolio is of no consequence; I will still be forever associated with a badly designed brand. I don’t want that haunting me. So I’m preparing to walk away.

    What I’ve learned from this mess is that I need to present myself with more confidence at the initial stages, and state very plainly, “I’m a professional and I need to know that you trust me; if you can’t trust me, I can’t work for you.” I think pre-framing for this scenario will make it much easier to deal with the difficulty if and when it does present itself.

  7. 51 Website Design says:

    can you give an example of a “reasonable compromise?”

  8. One consultation to try and change their mind, with an example of how their request might be turned around into a positive design change. If they still insist their change must be implemented as requested, I’ll do it.

    Yes, they’ve hired me for my expertise. But, it is ultimately their decision about their company. I am a service provider, and far be it for me to strong-arm them into a decision they don’t want, or away from one they do want.

    Although, some carefully constructed questions from me can sometimes reveal what it is that they really want to achieve…they’re just not sure how to get to it. And that’s where I can do some problem solving to address their desires and mine.

  9. Katia Jannin says:

    Well, there are efficient ways to solve that problem:

    1ยฐ I ask the client WHY they want the change. It’s really important as this way you don’t go against him, but with him, and then I propose another better solution. Or a compromise.

    2ยฐ Always try to explain your opinion as mostly there are objective reasons for what you’re saying, that the client will understand.

    3ยฐ I tell them that they hired me as I’m a professional, and they should rely on my experience.

    4ยฐ I remind them that what they like may not be want the client wants. (I doubt that at Barbie’s they love pink, but it’s relevant for the target)

    5ยฐ If the client insists I make 2 designs: one the way they want, one the way I think it’s relevant.

    6ยฐ If nothing works (happened once in 4 years), I give in and don’t put it in my book.

  10. JhonnyBoy says:

    Hmmm… the “I’m the artist-you’re my pencil” client situation.

    It’s funny how people pay for a professional; but still doing all those silly interventions, and to be honest; the “cheapskate” clients are mostly having this sort of mentality. I mean, they really think that their money will worth every dime of it if they can influence as many as they can on the “product” they’re asking for.

    First day, they ought to say “we want to be stand up(!) from the crowd.. it should be POP out the canvas, you know? We don’t want those boring same-ol’ designs, etc-etc…” After the first proposal; they went “this is great; but…unusual, don’t you think?”

    Then… After many-tiny-winy touches; we (designers) should find out that this kind of client just want to look exactly as their competitors are; but, with their logo & “Microsoft Word/PowerPoint-masterpiece” on it, of course.

    My method? I quickly gave EXACTLY what they wanted… and just (ironically) smile on how it made them happy so much. Spoilers warning; even if it means you have to buy those cheap & everyday looking/perhaps free templates… just do it!

    It’s just a very wasting of time to help them see that “what you want is not always what you need”…

    BUT, don’t even think this kind of clients will give us a slightly better links per se. Instead, they usually bring another (even worst) type of clients and/or project! Trust me on this! So I’d say, “take the money” ASAP and be “silent” on it! LOL…

    Sad but true; but, until we have great clients… we ain’t getting any better portfolio; and we ain’t yet a better designer. It’s just, they can pay our basic food, bills & time for becoming one. That’s all.

    Just like in any other kind of businesses;
    a happy client is always a good business!
    Good business doesn’t always filled with good stories.

  11. Candyce Mairs says:

    No contract should end in a losing situation for either party if you can help it as it does no one any good. If a designer is having trouble with this issue, they might want to consider the professional cost to causing a conflict with their client. Client relationships are like any other relationship, they must be based on mutual respect. If you explain to a client why you wish to do something other than what they want & they do not respect that, then you must decide on the total cost of arguing with them. This is not just a financial cost.

    We all have client’s whose work does not reflect our exact wishes. It is a give & take process, and those are the design pieces you just do not put in a portfolio since it does not reflect the designer’s capabilities.

    I do think it is a designer’s responsibility to try and screen their client base to minimize these types of conflicts. Not that you can always avoid it, but coming up with some type of screening process has really helped me narrow down my client base. If a client is not willing to provide me the information for a questionnaire I send them upon first contact, then I know that is not the client for me. Since I implemented this process, I have had far fewer issues with clients.

  12. I’ve been both agency side (account guy) and client. Also done some freelance design, believe it or not.

    From the client perspective, I would always ask the agency to bring me what I asked for AND their own ideas (assuming their ideas will be better than what I have in mind). As long as they bring my version, I’m good. It also helps me understand the value they bring as an agency – i.e. taking what I think I want and turning it into what the brand truly needs.

    As far as standing your ground, it depends on the relationship. But at some point the client should say “I don’t care what you recommend, we are going with my idea and that’s final.” At that point, stop arguing, give in and move on.

  13. Melissa Chrisemer says:

    I read your whole issue and have to tell you I’ve been in the same situation. Unfortunately I had to give in. The old saying “the customer is always right” may not always be true in a graphic design standpoint but they stick to it.

    I ended up doing what the customer had asked and doing what I was planning to do. I showed them side by side for her so she could get a visual of what I was trying to say. She took a class in high school in graphic design and assumed she knew how to do my job. She ended up liking her idea anyway simply because it was her input on the job.

    In the end remember that they are paying you to do a job but if they want something bad enough sometimes you just have to give in. They’re cutting the check and know it.

    Do all you can to convince them that their idea isn’t going to work in the politest way possible. After you’ve done all you can, if they still want to do it their way, I think you may want to give them what they want. There’s only so much you can do before you start to go crazy. Believe me; your sanity isn’t worth their fixes and bad taste. Give your two cents until you’re satisfied with your argument so you can sleep at night knowing you did all you can to save them from awful design.

    Make sure you put your design in your portfolio. ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Alicia Rudzka says:

    David Ogilvy used to say that he’d try to persuade a client to “do the right thing” three times. Then he’d give in and say if the client was hellbent on wasting money, he might as well waste it with him (Ogilvy).

  15. It has been my experience that when clients ask you for a very specific design change, they are trying to give you the solution, instead of telling you what they don’t like, or are having a problem with. Immediately giving a client exactly what they ask for when when you know it’s a bad decision that looks terrible turns you into a short order design chef, instead of guiding the client through the experience.

    Instead, dig a little deeper to get the conversation going {ask good questions and LISTEN to the answers} so you can find out what the real issue is, then you can suggest a better approach to solve the problem. This helps to put the designer back in the driver’s seat, where we can make recommendations based on our training and experience…which is what clients are paying us for in the first place.

    Client input is valuable. They need to be heard, and we need to collaborate with them successfully. In the end, it is their project and it is our job is to help them as best we can. Occasionally this means giving them a design that we wouldn’t want in our own portfolios.

  16. I think the hardest part of a terrible suggestion offered by a client is that, as designers who have a gift of visualizing things, we need to understand that most clients can not imagine what something will actually look like. A designer will take a suggestion and immediately translate it into an image in their mind and know instantly that the outcome will be far from fabulous, am I right? Clients can’t always do this.
    So, nine times out of ten you just need to whip up a quick mock up design (preferably a poorly done mock up) to give them the ability to visualize why it’s a bad idea. If they have any sense of visual appeal they will steer clear and respect your opinion more so afterward.

    This is the exact method that got me out of designing a giant dog bone with a dog head in each corner of the bone all with page links written across their collars for a freelance website project…beat that.

  17. I feel that I need to figure out FIRST why they need the change. Why you wonder? The reasoning might not come from the person who asks. The more you dig, listen to the client in a friendly while keeping an open mind you get to the root of the present reality of the demands.

    In that scenario – a compromise is always the best results. Explaining the dos and don’t on a specific issue helps the client, you provide value and expertise. From there you get to do what you said which is very important. Often I’ve seen issues improve from the last design fix.

    The second option is to agree with the client that you will do as they ask and add another version for comparison. Clients in general or the least experienced ones need something to compare, otherwise how can they make and enlighten decision and explain it. They feel also that you provided more and it benefited both parties for future situations and some education to the client. The latter makes the next project go quicker, if the same kind of issues come back.

  18. I try to refrain from saying “No, your idea is terrible!” Bottom line is, they are paying me to do a job. Yes, I’m the professional creating said job, but they still are paying me. It’s hard to find that happy medium. There are two very specific instances I can think of.

    1 – I ask each client to fill out a design brief. In the brief, I ask them to give me 3 words that would be describing their end result. In this instance, after reviewing the logo concepts I sent (which matched their 3 adjectives), the client asked for a completely different logo. They described it to me and it was the exact opposite of what they asked for, and what would fit their target market. I was able to explain to them why one of my original concepts would be best; because it gave them the outcome they were looking for, and fit their target market. After a few revisions, they picked one of the original logos I designed.

    2 – The client wanted to use a horrid font. Personally, I don’t think this font should be in existence, but I know that someone designed it, so I will leave it nameless. The font didn’t match the feel of the print design at all. The client was instant. Not wanting to continue arguing, I gave my client 2 versions of the design. One with the font my client wanted, and one with the font that I thought fit best. I further explained what the feel of her font was versus the feel of my font. After viewing them both, she went with the font I chose. Had she not picked that font, I was not going to use the piece in my portfolio.

    I think if we approach it with an open mind, we are more likely to “win” the argument. I think it’s best to arm ourselves with explanations that we’ve learned from experience on why we designed it the way we did. It’s worked for me…so far! ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Nick Toye says:

    Well personally I would perhaps build into the contract a clause that stipulates that if the client decides to ignore your expert opinion after the project has been taken on, then you can walk away from the project with deposit non-refundable.

    At the end of the day the work you create is your work, and can be judged by anyone. I would not want my name attached to something I really didn’t want to create, and have recently informed a client that I won’t be working any longer on a project because I felt the direction they wanted to go in was compromising the rest of the design (which was 90% complete).

    Then again it does depend an awful lot on your own personal situation, and whether or not you can afford to walk away from jobs.

    Saying all this though, majority of my clients recognise my expert opinion and generally go with any decision I make, but I know some clients dig their heels in and say things like – “Well it’s my website and I want it looking like that”, to which I generally respond with – “well it’s not about what YOU want, it’s what your users/customers want”. Something that some people forget when designing/developing web content.

  20. We always try to show our point of view and make the client get the best design and whatever meets his needs, but we avoid conflicts, if he stands by his decision, we do as he wants.

  21. I’ve been thru this many a time. And sometimes the client doesn’t have specifically bad ideas, just ideas that clash with what my idea of good design is.

    I never completely balk and tell the client no, mainly bc he’s playing for my work. But I do try to provide options, suggestions, reasons and examples for him to think about. And many times, I’ll implement his design, then give him a 2nd version integrating SOME of what he wants, but with my good design poured into it. Many times, he’ll go with my 2nd version, so at least there is some measure of compromise.

    When there is no swaying the client, and I end up spending more time going back and forth than doing the work, I’ll do what he asks, finally accept that it won’t be a piece I can show in my portfolio, and then mark him as a client to never work with again.

  22. I try not to take it personally, but there are a few ways you can go with this scenario.

    #1 – You signed a contract to do the clients site. Refer to your contract, if you have any stipulations on revisions, stick to the contract and try to keep them on track.

    #2 – The client should get what the client wants, even if its ugly. Some might say it is a reflection of your own work, and to an extent it is, but if the client is satisfied, then they should give you a good reference and hopefully referrals.

    #3 – Your craft is also your art, and as such, you should insist on not doing things you feel reflect poorly on your portfolio. You can turn down the work, but this is something I would usually consider BEFORE starting the project. example: If you were a tattoo artist, and someone brought you a design too small to make legible, or looked horrid and was something you felt was in poor taste, you would turn the person away. You can’t however do that half way through the tattoo, so both the client and you are stuck with the design.

    Luckily, with websites, its a bit easier to fix in post, compared to a tattoo. Having an open dialog with the client might help ease them into seeing things your way. If you have to, make it both their way and your way, and show them screen shots side by side. Maybe make a 3rd proposal, just to offset their idea from your original, and see what they say. If anything, they might pic the third, and it has the potential to be better than your first idea.

    Depending on the client and your relationship with them, sometimes its just best to do what they want, and move on to the next job. In the future, you can stipulate in your contract, drastic changes halfway through the project will need reevaluation, and as such, there may be an additional charge for starting over since the time you invested is valuable to you and your other clients, and as such doing twice the work requires twice the pay or you would lose money from time not spent on your other clients.

    Live and learn, but above all, remember, its their site, we just give them what they want. If they want ugly, they get ugly. I personally have done some sites I would like to go back and clean up, but the clients are happy, and it still brings me referrals, so keeping it professional and not taking it personally can help ease the pain of knowing you could have made it better in your own mind. I would voice my opinion and make it heard, but if they insist on garbage, well, I can front end load that pile right at their doorstep. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  23. Timothy Whalin says:

    Ultimately its up to the client. They get what they want. Its okay for the designer to steer them in the right direction, but fighting with them will make you get fired or loose them as a client. Sometimes its best to just do what they want, get paid, and get out. Its also a good idea to explain to the client up front that you have the degree and experience in design so you don’t get caught in the middle of the project with them trying to be the designer. They are paying you for what you know and can do. But they also know their customer’s better than you do and know what they want. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Timothy Whalin