Having patience with your not-so-creative clients

It happened to me today. I was talking to a client who didn’t understand the difference between “design” and “layout.”


In fact, I don’t think a day goes by without a client asking what we in the creative industry might consider to be, nicely put, an “uneducated” question. (There are no “stupid” ones, right?)

Such as:

“If you’re designing my website, why aren’t you writing the words for it too?”

“Why does designing a logo take so long? Don’t you have a program that does that for you?”

Want more? Have a listen.

“What do you mean, ‘The photo is too blurry’? Can’t you just Photoshop it?”

Let’s face it — when it comes to the business of creativity, there’s often a disconnect between what we know and what the client knows — or rather doesn’t know.

Unfortunately, we as the ones performing the creative services don’t always recognize that disconnect. And in failing to see this difference, we put our projects and our business relationships at risk.

Yes, I’m saying “we.” This situation is not the fault of the client. It’s our fault. And as such, we have to fix it.

An example of how we fail our clients

Back when I was married to my first husband, we co-owned and operated a photography studio. He took care of the photography and dealt with the customers. I worked in the background, helping with the financial end of things and also assisting during photo shoots, while I also ran my own creative business.

But then the day came when I realized that one thing in that arrangement was going to have to change.

I answered a call from a client who was clearly upset about pricing — in particular, our sitting fee. After talking to her for a while, it became evident that she didn’t understand the process.

“Well,” I explained, “There was a fee you had to pay when you came for the shoot itself. That’s called a ‘sitting fee.’ That’s literally a fee to sit for your photo session, and that’s non-refundable.”

Keep in mind, this was back in the day before digital photography, when photographers had to cover their initial expenses for film and developing — just in case the customer walked out and never came back again.

“And then,” I told her, “The proofs will come in. You don’t get those proofs. Instead, you use them to decide which photos you will want to purchase.”

“That was never explained to us,” said the customer. “Why didn’t your husband tell us?”

I wondered the same thing. So I asked him that very question. His response: “It’s a photography studio. Of course they have to pay a sitting fee. They should know that!”

I’m afraid that, much too often, that’s how we creatives treat our own clients: They should know! Duh.

But no, they don’t know. And they really shouldn’t know — not anymore than we should know how to run their businesses.

Interestingly, this woman did not mind the process nor the pricing. What she did mind was not being informed.

After that, I took over as the Studio Manager, which included the responsibility of acting as a liaison between the photographer and the customers, to ensure that they always did know the process and the pricing at the studio — because I would inform them, upfront.

An unreasonable assumption

It might simply be human nature at work, but it seems that we creatives forget that we know way more about creative services than most of our clients. We assume that everything that comes out of our mouths is fully comprehensible, and as such, we make no attempt to educate our clients.

It’s a horribly unreasonable assumption. But despite that, we then have the audacity to roll our eyes when our clients don’t understand us or what we do.

Perhaps you work in niche industry that is already heavily populated by other creatives. Maybe you freelance for a publishing company, for example, where the terms and processes of creative production are already well known. I provide freelance services for such a company, and yes, that makes communication much easier in many ways.

But many of us freelancers have clients with various business backgrounds. And what we fail to remember is that these business people that come to us for help — the new entrepreneurs who need business cards, the new startups who need websites, the new and maybe-not-so new companies that need logos and branding — are not in creative industries.

While they need our services, most have no clue how those services are rendered.

Nor should they.

These clients are plumbers, doctors, business coaches, musicians, accountants, attorneys… and the list goes on and on. They don’t use Photoshop and InDesign. They don’t know what pixels are. They’ve never heard of serial commas. (Is that anything like serial killers?) The Chicago Manual of Style is not on their bookshelf.

The extremely important things our clients do know

It’s true. They don’t know our software. They don’t know our lingo. But they do know a few things — things that are extremely important to me and you.

They know what they need. They need a brochure to market their services. They need fliers to advertise their next big event. They need an online presence to grab hold of a social media audience. They need a book that they can get self-published.

And they know enough to seek out us — creative freelancers — to give them what they need. They know enough to know that they don’t know enough about all things creative. They know they need help.

That is an important, and extremely intelligent, move on their part. It’s what makes them excellent business owners: They know their limitations, and they know what to do to make themselves — and their businesses — stronger.

Start with empathy

So how do we bridge this gap in knowledge between ourselves and our clients?

Start with some empathy.

Put yourselves in the shoes of your clients. Ask yourself the question, “What things do I know that might be so unique to what I do, that others might not know?”

Think about things like processes, as well as the terminology that creatives use in relationship to those processes.

Then, be mindful of those things, and as they come up, proactively educate your clients.

For example, rather than just saying to a client, “I need a photo of you for your website,” say instead, “I need you to provide a professional headshot of yourself — cropped from just above your head to just below your shoulders — and tell the photographer that the photo has to be at least 576 pixels tall by 863 pixels wide, set in RGB mode, and saved to a JPEG format.”

By communicating this way, your client knows exactly what to tell the photographer so that you get exactly what you need from him or her, the first time.

Being clear and communicative not only helps the client — it helps you as well.

An educated consumer is our best customer!

Here in the Chicago area, we used to have a discount clothing store that used this tagline in all of its TV commercials: “An educated consumer is our best customer!” I think that sentiment applies to our creative businesses and clients as well.

Always welcome questions from your clients. The more clear a project is for them and the better they understand what’s going on, the better it will be for you as well.

If you are going to assume anything, assume that your client doesn’t know, and explain to them as much as possible.

Err on the side of explaining too much.

They’ll be sure to tell you when and what they already know, but they won’t ever know when and what they don’t. And most will greatly appreciate the education.

I know that some creative providers give a “Welcome Package” to clients embarking on a new project with them. You might want to go on a further limb to create and provide a small glossary of industry terms or an “industry guide” that could help educate your clients before a project even begins.

Learn to have patience

Muster up some patience with your clients. This information is all new to them.

Think about that time in your life when this was all new to you, too. You didn’t learn how to do what you do for a living overnight.

Hopefully, you are still learning and growing in your knowledge about creativity and improving on your skills every day!

Give your clients a chance to learn what it is we do, and continue to communicate, explain, and answer questions along the way, as cheerfully as you possibly can — knowing that, what helps your clients also helps you.

Yes, dealing with clients who know absolutely nothing about creative marketing, publishing, writing, and design can be exasperating. It’s frustrating to have to explain over and over again concepts that you know inside and out.

But explain them we must.

Patience is a virtue. It’s also the means to successful, communicative, long-lasting relationships with those clients that don’t know how to perform creative services.

And the truth is, if they knew how, they wouldn’t be coming to us in the first place. So maybe that’s not such a bad trait for them to have after all.

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About Patricia LaCroix

Patricia LaCroix has had a career in marketing and publishing for longer than she cares to admit. But, despite that it reveals her age, she’s willing to say that she’s been working a creative business from home in some way, shape, or form since 1986. Her creative skills run the gamut and include expertise in both visual and written forms of communication. Patricia’s entrepreneurial yet giving spirit drives her to help others learn how to work from home and create their own “lifestyle” careers.


More about Patricia’s business: LaCroix Creative is a full-service creative business in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Patricia leads a talented team of associates who assist her in creating effective graphic design and written content — in print and online. Decades of experience — partnered with caring, personal attention — make LaCroix Creative especially well equipped to serve solopreneurs, start-ups, educators, coaches, healthcare professionals, and self-publishing authors.


  1. Haha welcome to my world 😀 Maybe 1 out of 10 actually understands how much work is involved in design process Thanks for sharing Leszek from worcester Web Design

  2. I think we all forget, that as we’re so wrapped up in the world of design, that our clients aren’t all designers!

    I have a client constantly referring to “icons” as “infographics” – and I’ve just learned to tune into what he means by that.

    I’m not sure whether to correct him, or let it go.

    • Hi, Tony! I think there’s a point when we all start to speak our client’s lingo.

      Personally, I would correct him. It would help him as much (or more) than you to understand the terms more correctly. And he’d probably appreciate it.

      “You know, Joe, those are actually called ‘icons.’ An ‘infographic’ is a group of images and text that is used to communicate related facts and convey a message. Infographics might include icons, but they aren’t icons, in and of themselves.”

      If he says, “Ha, ha! Yeah, I know… I keep forgetting!”, then I wouldn’t bring it up again. You did your part. 😉

  3. lol! True, Leszek. Sometimes, the time and work involved even shocks me! 😉 But since that’s so, if at all possible, we should try to gently educate our clients. Any increase in understanding can go a long way to improve the working relationship between the artist and the client. Thanks for reading the post and for your comment!


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