The biggest myth of graphic and web design

I’m not going to beat around the bush, the following is what I believe to be the biggest myth in the graphic and web design industry:
“Our job is to design what the client wants.”I know the old adage says “the customer is always right.” While I always strive to make the customer happy and create a design that they are pleased with, I would like to consider the following scenarios:

Let’s assume you’re not a designer anymore. Rather, you’re an accountant. Your client comes to you and says something like “I like what you’re doing with my tax return this year, but I think it would work better to …”. As an accountant, you know this tactic will hurt their business or may even be illegal. Would you do it anyway just because the client thinks it’s the best option?

Or imagine you are a physical trainer and your client says, “I know eating healthy and working out is preferable, but I’m thinking that it would be best if I had a few cheeseburgers this week. I would just be a lot happier.” As a physical trainer, you know the cheeseburger will hurt your client and reduce potential for success. Would you do it anyway just because the client thinks it’s the best option?

Seems ridiculous right? Of course it does.

So why do we, as graphic and web designers, allow our clients to sway our decisions with statements like “I think this would look a lot better in yellow”, “Why don’t we center align that instead of left justify” or “Do you really think that font will be the best?” In response to client issues like this, I have heard this phrase from dozens of designers multiple times: “I told him what I thought was best, but in the end, the client is the one who makes the decisions”.

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The key to success in working with clients

I would like to suggest two keys of success in dealing with this situation: the importance of educating and making yourself credible and the importance of educating your client.

Educate yourself and be credible

Let’s consider, once more, the scenarios given above. If your accountant had just been released from jail for embezzlement or your personal trainer weighed 400 lbs, would you be more or less likely to trust their judgment? More likely, right? It works the same way when your client hires you. If you are a complete push-over or you are unable to defend or justify your design decisions, what reason do your clients have to trust you?

They don’t.

Success is this area depends on how much you know and how confident you are in your decision-making process. Be respectful but defend your design decisions. When defending your decisions you must remember to do the following:

  • Always design with a purpose. If you don’t know why you did something, you can’t explain it to your client.
  • Be respectful. No one will ever want to hear your opinion if you are being rude.
  • Back up your design decisions with research. Add credible opinions to your defense.

Educate your client

I recently read an article on Brian Hoff’s The Design Cubicle that talks about the importance of educating your clients. It teaches the importance of teaching the benefits of certain design choices, using vocabulary that your client will understand, and more.

Another way to educate your clients is to manage a blog. You don’t necessarily have to post frequently, concern yourself with popularity, comment count, or page views. Rather, a blog is an excellent place to send clients to educate them. Write articles about effective design, gather links to credible design resources, and more.

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Busting the myth

I hate to break it to you, but the customer is not always right–at least not in the graphic and web design industry. When we take on the attitude that the client pays the bills so they make the decisions, we undermine our ability to design well and provide a high-quality service for our customers.

Share your thoughts on the most common myth in the graphic and web design industry.

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  1. Nice post sir,
    I got some ideas about graphic designer and than you for washing my brain.
    Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. I too found myself in the same situation. Sometimes being a designer is really a tough job but here we are loving this job more & more.

  3. great post, i enjoyed reading this thoroughly. I appreciate your approach and you provide well points.such a nice way to share information. this is very useful for me.
    website design mumbai

  4. Excellent article, and all of us have run into this problem. But I’m a little disturbed by the general inference that the DESIGNER is always right. As in every other field, there are good designers, bad designers and mediocre designers. What I have frequently noticed over the years is that designers are often very critical of the work of other designers. How can this be, if all are ‘experts’? There are certainly aspects of design that are subjective. Moreover, if I may use another analogy … would you engage an architect then just accept all his ideas, however impractical, or if you just didn’t like them? Isn’t he an expert too? (An aside: many a person has been ruined through taking the advice of an accountant.)

  5. 100% agree with this…some final projects leading by clients are the shame 🙂
    The worst thing: when the boss with no ideas and competence decide about final design works…

  6. Hello Mr. Lee. I really enjoyed reading your article. I have a few questions about blogging ethics, do’s and dont’s. I would like to start a graphic/web design blog but I’m a bit confused about what and how I should write there, since I’m not an expert in this field. How do I process the information learned from other blogs/tutorial websites? Can you point me in the right direction (articles, links)? Thank you.

  7. I think the biggest myth I come across is that GD issued to “draw attention”, or to “sell” something – when in fact, I would say GD is simply nothing more than cultural communication. In my humble opinion that is a dangerous statement as we all work under such a large umbrella.

    An excerpt from my published philosophy, “Design is seen by many agencies as the only job. Too often, clear communication, brand science and holistic consistency are fleeting concepts due to the incredible pace and almost overwhelming accessibility of new markets via new media.”

    “I’m a #design ninja” “No, your not” “Did you see that?” “See what?” “Exactly”

    I think good design engages the audience without them even know in most cases.

  8. One particular time a client called me to work for them with regards a logo and I made the mistake of choosing to stay behind in their office to work. I got a lecture from the client on symbols and the likes, I was told to arrange and re-arrange which I obliged to. At the end of it all I was not paid shi-shi (a dime) except for my transport down to their office. I never understood until I called them twice and no response was given me.

    I learnt my lesson the hard way and now I live to tell the story. I’ll say it has become spec work for me and an added collection of logo’s done without an owner. Just part of my showcase. I will not make that mistake by the Grace of God ever again.

    Thanks for this lecture and what I’m gaining is that for whatever field you are in educate yourself so that your client will not educate you by making a fool out of you (me).

  9. Just found this great blog! Love this post but I have a question. I just did a poster for a client that turned out really well. I had told her my reasons for the design and how I thought it was effective. What I got back was “just add this photo – anywhere – and it’ll be perfect.” I explained that the photo wouldn’t be conducive to the overall design but she didn’t care. Her response was “It doesn’t matter, it’s just going up in a few places.” Now I don’t want anyone seeing the poster. How do you work around that? Thanks!

  10. Thanks for a great article! I agree it is important to be respectful and credible. Communication and the tone of it is very important, you don’t want to come off as arrogant but as a professional who KNOWS.

  11. So many good comments on a great post! I find even the most difficult client will listen to you if you listen to them. I stand up for and explain why I made certain choices, but am willing to try out a client’s ideas. With gentle guidance, the sum of both our ideas is always good. They end up with a good design, I end up with a happy client.

  12. The key is to provide an in-betweener of ‘what the client wants’ and ‘why we designed it that way’. This effectively gives the client the results they seek and we have total visual control over how to get that objective done.

    Great article and I enjoyed the bit on how we can further educate the client too.

  13. Hello creative world!

    I am a graphic Designer 2, and now i’m doing my MA in Design Education. I’m contacting a research in order to find out:

    “What kind of critical decisions do designers make? How do they feel about them?”

    Do you think that we can open a chat/topic with this subject
    in order to use the answers in my dissertation?

    I have done a research to a lot of universities based on that
    topic, but i think designers knows better!

  14. Hey Preston,

    Thanks for this great article. I really enjoyed reading it, and I couldn’t agree more.

    I’ve encountered this with my clients a few times, and just had to set some boundaries, when educating didn’t work – which caused either a better working relationship or losing business…there’s just no compromise when it comes to certain things, and I can’t compromise my integrity as a designer…it’s just not worth it to me.

    With design (and a lot of other things) the client is definitely not always right. It doesn’t make sense for someone to come to an expert and pay them, just to ignore their suggestions in favor of their own personal preference. I think that bugs me the most. I once worked with a male personal trainer who happened to love red, silver, and black, while he was trying to appeal to dainty women. He wanted us to create advertising with that color scheme, when it’s pretty obvious that’s not going to work for his target market. That was a tough nut to crack.

  15. As an illustrator once I entered the age of computers and the internet a whole new world opened up for me, and a whole new perception. With the advent of these new technological toys and the invention of programs such as Photoshop the Web was soon overrun by a plethora of bad designers (and equally bad designs). Something that had once taken me hours or days to craft on paper could now be done by anyone and in even less time. To me this was appalling. I’ve spent my entire artistic life not only creating things but also taking care to create them well and now here were these yahoos who hadn’t a lick of experience (let alone talent) raking in business left and right. The whole situation reminded me of a line from the movie Ratatouille where the lead character (a rat named Remy) says, “Yes, anyone can cook. That doesn’t mean anyone should.”

    This is a good analogy of what was happening here; anyone could design, but that didn’t mean anyone should. A kid with a copy of Photoshop producing beveled buttons and drop-shadowed web layouts was not a professional. The problem is the majority of people seeking designers to make their web sites and logos are clueless about what constitutes decent design and therefore susceptible to hiring any Chef de Plúnge.

    So what to do? Well, the best recourse is education. Therefore as a designer I not only take the time to do an exceptional job for my client I also like to educate them on the proper aesthetics of the craft. Image is everything, after all. It isn’t just acceptable to do a job but also to do it professionally. This is important not only for your client but for the field of graphic design as a whole. Unfortunately, bad designers will always be with us, but the more knowledge we impart upon the masses the less work there will be for those who should not even be cooking in the first place.

  16. You know, I completely agree and I normally try to find a way around bad suggestions. Be it by making a better suggestion or actually giving them what they want so that they see how bad it was (assuming it actually was a quick change). But one thing I’ve been battling with lately is that I have a full site mock up from the customer to show me what they want. The mock up requires a lot of features and different templates and they really haven’t thought out a lot of things as far as how many templates are being used or the lack of consistency or cms. I’ve toyed with the idea of giving them what they want, but really, it’s my responsibility to educate them to some extant and give them my best work by “cleaning up” their design and “perfecting” it.

  17. OMG this is my approach, exactly!! I’m so glad to know that someone’s on my side–not JUST the client’s lol. I’m not even really a graphic designer, yet–I’m still in school–but one thing that’s always bugged me is ‘what to do if the client’s opinion kinda stinks’. The example of an accountant is excellent!

    It reminds me of the time that I was making a logo for my mom’s business. I kept the business theme in mind, and kept the logo clean, simple, and had one part that really highlighted the products. It was great. My mom hated it. She wanted something with a Papyrus font, a brick fill/texture and some grass and maybe a part of the product in the logo. This logo was going to go on a website, business cards, flyers and more. And her idea of a color scheme wasn’t really a scheme at all. So I modified the logo I made just a bit until she liked it, but still stayed within the concepts and ethics of “good design”.

    It’s a sticky situation, but I don’t a client would come to you if they didn’t think you as a designer knew a bit more than they did about that subject. They’re coming to you for a reason. I think if you stick to their concepts and ideas, but also within the parameters of good design, then it’ll be a win-win situation.

    Great post!! 😀 😀

  18. Well said. I’ve dealt with this more often than I can remember. Keeping current with the latest in the industry and continuing your eduction will help in the long run.

  19. My approach is usually, “Don’t do what the client says, do what they want.” The relative term is “want.” The client may say, “Make this red,” but what they want is, “make this stand out.” But maybe what they really need is “how can we make the site immediately communicate the important information and lead to action”?

    Thanks for your good thoughts!

  20. True, Preston. We get confused between customer and client. The two seem to have become interchangeable, but they shouldn’t.

    People who sell products have customers. People who provide services, have clients.

    The expression “The customer is always right” is based on those who sell products. When you buy something, you seek assistance from the salesperson. Sometimes they are the expert, but sometimes you already know enough, so you are the expert.

    Providing services is different. Someone seeks your service because you are the expert. You are the designer, they might know a little, but you know more, and that’s why they hired you. As the expert you should know best. And you should be able to provide the best solution.

    As the expert you will analyze the client’s needs, branding, ethos etc etc,and design something that fits all those. If the client is still not happy, then you need to ask if you got it wrong or not. Of course, some clients will always want to fiddle and put their touch on it.

    Hopefully though, during the analysis phase, you’ve already found out what they want and incorporated that if possible. If it’s not possible, then as the expert you need to explain *at their level*, why not.

    If they still don’t get it, you might have to pull out the examples you gave about accountants or personal trainers.

  21. Good point. The client did not study design, the opinions are important because they know the customer. But graphically they should believe in our knowledge.

  22. This is something I’ve tried to explain to both family and friends, that the customer is not always right. Every time I complain about a difficult client they always ask, “Why don’t you just do what they want?”

    Ultimately, that’s what we’re stuck doing, if they don’t want to listen and we want to get paid, but luckily I find more and more customers willing to open up and listen to us professionals. 🙂

    1. @Alice, Thanks for the great post Preston. I love the Clients From Hell site, I have found my colleagues giving me funny looks for laughing at my desk! Brilliant!

  23. If I had a dime for how many times I’ve ranted about the consultative role of the designer and/or said something like, “would they question their lawyer or financial planner like this?”, I’d have quite a wealth of dimes.

    It’s long been a problem — the fight against clients’ distrust of “creative” disciplines.

    I keep thinking, with bookstore business section shelves packed with books on the power of “design thinking” the past few years, things would change. But it seems that a majority of business people remain disastrously behind that curve and mired in their old beliefs that only numbers, logic, “hard facts” etc. are truly trustworthy. For that reason, I think it’s important that designers who work with business people of this ilk learn to speak their language, and make a point of using metrics. The more you can quantify the ROI of design and branding, the more our left-brain business friends are going to get it.

    The most important aspect though, is definitely confidence. Don’t show 10 logo designs. Show 1 to 3. Emphasize that each is a viable, appropriate solution to their business objectives. Indeed, emphasize that with any design you show (and make sure it’s true!). Be ruthless about bringing the conversation back to the OBJECTIVE — how does the creative strategy solve the business problems? Whenever the client gives you subjective arguments (“but my wife hates blue!”), politely steer the conversation back to a higher level. Be able to explain why blue solves the business problem, too.

    It’s easier said than done. But set good precedences when you can, and walk away from clients who don’t respect you when possible. Nothing’s more irritating that being forced into doing bad work for a mircro-managing, art-directing business person and then not being able to put your name on it.

  24. It’s nice to see it written and published somewhere! 🙂

    I totally agree, and luckily so do the people I choose to work with when providing services to clients. I had a new client recently who handed me a couple of sketches of what he wanted for his site. I sent in the graphic designer for a chat and the final design (which has been signed off by the way!) looks nothing like the clients sketches!

    As far as keeping yourself educated I really could not agree more. This is where I already set my business apart from the local competition who for the most part are still working to 10 year old standards and practices! I allocate as much time as possible to keeping current with trends, technologies and standards.

    Thanks for a great article.

  25. You make some excellent points! This is something we struggle with frequently and like your analogies I have never understood why people come to a designer, yet don’t take their advice? It’s not like we started doing this yesterday and don’t know what we are doing or haven’t gone to school and studied for YEARS! Glad that we aren’t the only ones who deal with this!

  26. For me it’s a balancing act. In most cases the client knows his industry more intimately than you can ever hope to, so his expertise can be a valuable resource. If the client feels like they are part of the process, they will be far less likely to make arbitrary changes, and more apt to accept your judgement.

    1. Eric,
      I agree with what you are saying–that the client is the expert in his field. I would have to included, however, that the designer should also be an expert. As part of the design process you should research the company you are working for, their market, potential target audience, and more. Therefore, you should also be an expert.

      I agree that the client should be a part of the process the entire way as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter.

  27. Your post is spot on!

    If only all the clients would get it!

    [comment edited]

    Also when my creativity is suffering from pleasing everyone else I found another outlet, volunteer your design skills to a worthy cause in between stuffy projects, this way you get 100% creative freedom. Here is a link to something that I’m currently volunteering to, what do you think?


  28. I’m so glad someone has finally written an article on this. It may very well be my biggest pet peeve.

  29. You know you’re in trouble when a client’s greets you with the words ‘My daughter designed this logo’.

  30. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This should be made a part of every college designer course as it helps the integrity of our industry. I am constantly trying to explain this to people (clients and friends alike) who seem to think that because design is related to art that its all subjective. It’s not.

    Like any other service-based industry, most designers are well-educated and trained in their area of work and should be treated with the same regard as an accountant or architect.

  31. You make excellent points! It all comes down to effective communication – I particularly agree with your statement:

    “…Success is this area depends on how much you know and how confident you are in your decision-making process. Be respectful but defend your design decisions. When defending your decisions…”

    Educating the client is important, but too much information can be a problem in some cases, so one has to learn how and when to say the right things at the right time. One has to also be adaptable and learn to ‘read people’ accurately. This is because client A may not understand a given principle or design choice the same way client B may understand it, etc.

  32. Very well written post. There is a thin and fluid line between meeting/exceeding a client’s needs and doing what is best for the project as a whole. As you mention in your post, we should first always make sure that our design decisions are sound and what is best for the project at hand (and not simply what aesthetically appeals to us). When you do so, you are no longer defending your choices, but explaining how they benefit the project itself.

  33. I have been involved in so many discussions about this recently. I believe you have made a clear (and true) point, but my question would be regarding how solidly you put your foot down. In other words, let’s say you have told the client their idea is not in their best interest, given them credible examples, opinions and research to back up your recommendation, had others share their educated opinions in agreement with you – let’s say you have given every possible proof that your recommendation is the right one. What if they STILL demand what is quite obviously a detrimental decision? Do you refuse and turn down the project, or refund any moneys already paid? Or do you buckle down and do what the client wants regardless of your own thoughts? I have been faced with this a few times and I am always curious how others handle it.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking and well-written post!

    1. Brian McDaniel,
      That’s a great question, Brian. I would open it up to the rest of the readers as well -> How would YOU ALL handle a situation like this?

      As for me, I like to help my clients understand from the beginning that I am as much a design and advertising consultant as a designer. But, I won’t lie, I have given in many times when the client just won’t get it.

    2. Having been faced with this situation before, it became apparent to me that the client had stopped caring about the design and the disagreement had become a showdown. He didn’t respect my skills and knowledge as a designer, he viewed me as someone who “knows adobe programs.” In my experience, working with clients who feel this way never turns out well because in the end, no matter how satisfied they are with the design, they feel that they are paying too much for it. These are clients to stay away from. Big early indicator? Prospects who don’t much care to see your portfolio bit simply want to know what programs you work in. They aren’t interested in your expertise, just your grasp of the software.

  34. Very true! It’s always hard for me to swallow a change that makes the design and functionality worse, even if it makes the client happier.

    I think the key to avoiding these scenarios is to be armed with a lot of data and information. Just like an accountant can cite the law, or a trainer can cite medical research, a designer needs to be able to cite usability statistics and user research. The danger of our profession is that people think it’s subjective. We need to give objective reasons for why we make the decisions we do.

    The other thing we need to remind our clients is that design is not about making things look pretty according to someone’s subjective opinion, but rather, to make it function properly to accomplish a goal. Good looks are only part of it.

  35. Nice article. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dealt with this. In the beginning of my freelancing years I was very passive. But with knowledge and experience you know what needs to be done. Educating your client is an invaluable trait to a designer. Kudos, sir.

  36. What I usually do in such situation (when the client is clearly not right) is I ask the question: “how will the change that you’re proposing benefit the target audience of your website, and why do you think that it will be the better solution?”. 9 out of 10 times they don’t have a decent answer, and drop the idea.

    1. Karol K., Jordan G., Steven, & Allen,
      Glad you liked the article. Thanks, also, for sharing a few of your ideas with the rest of us.

      I’ve been a “softy” in the past as well. One thing that helped me was to change my mindset as to what my profession is. I’m not just a designer–I am also a consultant. I try to help my clients understand that I am their design and advertising consultant.

      Cheers to all, thanks!

      1. I find that one of the toughest times is working for family. Yes, the designer has more insight, but family ties are more important perfect design. Still, I keep trying…

        1. @Allen P., I couldn’t agree more…especially when family members feel like they have a little too much freedom in the way they can treat you. After a traumatic experience like that, I’ve decided to keep family out of the mix to preserve the relationship…

  37. Very nice article Preston! I’m always using analogies to describe what our job is and isn’t, and i might just have to borrow the ol’ physical trainer or accountant one. A nice article about not compromising about what you believe your role is.

  38. So true. I often find myself a softy, and have trouble actually explaining to a client that their idea may not be in their best interest.

    Great post- now to put it into action…

  39. Wow – thanks so much for this article, Preston! I surely needed it, and I bet most freelancing designers do, too, even if just as a reminder.

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