Why your client always hates the first draft (and how to get it right the first time)

I recently worked with a freelancer who was putting together a video for me.

The deadline was tight, the project was important, and I was relying heavily on him getting it right the first time.

But when the first draft came back a week or so later, I was pretty disappointed.

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It wasn’t at all what I was looking for.

In fact, I started to worry if we would even get the project done on time because, in my mind, we practically had to start all over.

Double Frustrating

Not only was it frustrating for me, but he was really down about all the changes I needed done.

After all, he had spent a good amount of hours creating something he thought I could benefit from.

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He thought he was doing what I needed.

He thought he nailed it.

But I hated it.

What went wrong?

As we talked about what could have gone wrong (how what he delivered was nothing near what I had imagined), he started saying things like this:

“Well, you never said you wanted this or that out of this project.”

“You never told me you needed it to be this or that.”

“You didn’t ever mention that goal or this goal.”

And for a minute, I really started to blame myself (the client) for not giving him all the information he needed to get the job done right the first time. And part of it was my fault.

But then I started to think about it…

He also didn’t ask me.

Should I have been more clear in what I needed to accomplish with this project?


But, as a creative professional striving to meet my needs as a client, should he have asked more questions? Should he have made sure he understood everything I needed out of the project?


Our job as creatives

See, our job as creatives is not to just sit at a computer and make pretty gradients or rounded corners.

It’s to learn the problems of our clients, ask them all the necessary questions to understand the problem or concern, and then we deliver a product that solves those problems. (A lesson I recently learned from Jonathan Wold during our video interview. Coming to the YouTube Channel soon!)

And if we haven’t taken the time to address every concern (even the ones the client doesn’t know they have), how can we possibly expect to get it right the first time?

The takeaway(s)?

First, listen more. We’ve already talked about that.

But understanding your clients’ needs is about more than just being a good listener. You also have to be a good detective.

Second, you’ve got to dig deep into the needs and concerns your clients face.

And the closer you get to uncovering the true needs of your client, the better freelancer you’ll be.

Questions to ask

So what kind of questions should you be asking your client?

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

“What’s the end goal of this project? Do you want more customers, need a brand upgrade, etc? When we’re finished with this project together, how will we measure if it’s a success?”

“We’ve talked about the general idea of the project. Let’s talk now about a few details. What should [fill in detail] look like?”

“Imagine if we did it something like this…is that what you’re envisioning? What have I left out? Is there anything we’ve not talked about yet?”

And I’m sure you can come up with even better questions that are tailored more specifically to your clients.

Be a detective

The real point of all of this?

Be a detective.

Don’t stop asking questions until you’re sure you can get round one right the first time.

Will there be minor changes and a few corrections here or there once you submit what you think is the perfect first draft?


But will you have to start over from scratch?

Not if you did it right. Not if you asked the right questions. Not if you were a detective.


Did I get it right? Is this the best way to get it right the first time? What else do you do in order to get the first draft right the first time? Share your thoughts with me in the comments on this post.

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  1. My account executives think Im crazy annoying for asking so many questions… but I usually nail it on the first draft. So even though my approach is correct people dont seem to understand my process. The way I see it you can NEVER ask too many questions. Even then, I will ask questions they never thought of and dont even have answers to… Guess I might need to share this with my AE’s

    1. Same here, it seems to annoy clients…it’s better to get it right though and make them happier for it in the end 🙂

  2. The most annoying problem I have faced is when you and the client think you are producing something ready for public consumption – And then you hand in your master piece – then the trouble starts. Client tells you he/she has a few changes -You initial contract did not specify what happens when alteration arise – changes run into almost total re-write of the whole text. But since you did not specify consequences for alteration you are tied (boxed). I have come to realize that the most important question to ask to minimize acrimony is: Is this the final edited text? Is there text or stuff from another department that we are expecting? Otherwise you may find that you spend twice the time on one project but not the same for income.

  3. Spot on, Preston. I’ve always found the more questions I ask, the less work I do in revisions and reworking.

  4. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the
    book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is excellent blog.
    A fantastic read. I will definitely be back.

  5. I am illustrator, doing package art. in my case i print plenty of my creatives (templates) in a gsm board & make it a box & keep it in showcase for the client view. (with id template code in each box to track the file in system). It’s really simplifies my work. Quickly i edit my template according to the client like. (I’ll remove the template after each creatives sold out)

  6. If I’m working for a client who is vague, even after some detective work, I try to get the first draft over to them ASAP, ideally within a few days. I sometimes also exaggerate certain aspects, this sometimes forces the client to come back to me with a clearer brief and description.
    I guess also my advice would be to make your first draft quite open and loose, so any amends mean you haven’t lost too much time, and then this gives you a good base to work from for your second draft, just make sure your client understands the first draft is very rough!


  7. Sometimes you get the type of client who begins with this: “I don’t mind really, just make it look good!”, then takes you through 3 or 4 revisions (usually complete re-dos). Finally they’ll send a blurry image of something that they like that they found on the web and want you to recreate it for them. I’ve learned from experience to be more interrogative with my clients, and hand them a brief sheet to complete together. In the world of extracting information from client, more really is more!

  8. For a website, a simple wireframe (hand-drawn or computer-generated) will help determine what a customer does and doesn’t want.

    For a video, I think putting together a storyboard would be important to reduce rework.

    And some negative feedback shouldn’t necessarily be viewed badly…it points you in the right direction of what IS right.

  9. Be a Detective — love it!

    I also ask my clients if their are any blurbs of text or images they want included ; do they have a particular background in mind ; are they partial to a color scheme?

    It often results in a different look than what I got from their initial description and answers!

    Great article — thanks for offering specific questions to put into my arsenal!

  10. Yes I agree with this wholeheartedly. In my career as a designer (I own a start up). I have always felt that the more questions you ask, the more understanding you will gain, and the sooner you will reach your goals with your client.

    However, there will be those occasions when a client is just not accessible, does not answer your questions, and on the whole- behaves like a total ass. This is the client you must fire because all they will cause you is discorse within your firm, and lets face it, they end up wasting your time and giving you a headache!

    I believe that good clients are as important as good designers. Both need to be on the same page. Both need to have the same end goals in mind. And both need to have respect for each other. Without this, you might as well work in corporate.

  11. Great article. I started out in client service (ad agency) and production background (prepress) before I started designing full time. In 12 years I’ve only had clients dislike the first draft 2 times. But even then I ask them if there is anything they like and figure out where to go from there. My first rule is to keep my ego out of it. I don’t design pieces that I am in love with, I design pieces that my clients love. If we both love the final results great but I am not hung up on that. I try not to take it personally if my clients do not agree with me. I also remember that I am not designing for my portfolio or some museum. The pieces have to produce results for my clients. Lastly, I usually provide what the client asks for and a few options. We usually end up with one of the first choices and then we refine from there. Solid production skills can help you quickly render 2 or 3 ideas to present so you can avoid the all out rejection of one idea.

  12. Hi Preston
    This is a great post. I would just like to add something that really works for me. I am an illustrator. Since the picture in my head often does not match up with the picture in the clients head, I always work in small steps. I send the client a thumbnail sketch via email. Sometimes multiple thumbnails. After this I send a small detailed sketch. Since I work small it doesn’t take me long. Once this has been approved I go on to create the final art work. This way the client has a hand in the project right from the beginning. It also minimises the need for countless corrections later.
    Thank you for your posts. Keep them coming.

  13. Just when i’ve mastered round corners and pretty gradients someone like you comes along and says there is more to learn?

    Seriously, a excellent article!

  14. Hi Preston,
    I am a freelancer. I have devised a questionnaire to help me interview clients. I searched the internet to find questionnaires designed by other designers, such as; website questionnaires, graphic design questionnaires, logo design questionnaires, etc. Then, I came up with my own questionnaire. After using it a few times, I made adjustments to it until now it is very functional.
    I have three types of questionnaires for my business. As designers we solve a lot of business problems for our clients, but that is what makes our job fun and challenging. I encourage all freelancers to come up with effective questionnaires. Some of your questions may be re-phrased, (I am asking the same question using using different words) think about the many survey questionnaires that you have taken, they ask the same questions to make sure that you are expressing yourself accurately, I use the same methods for some of the questions that I ask, especially as it relates to these five issues: 1) goals, 2) vision, 3) target audience, 4)success, and 5) problems. It does not matter how many times I work for a single client, I use a questionnaire to get the core of the purpose behind the project.

  15. We always try to get something in front of the customer as early as possible, so we can correct any mis-conceptions before we run too far with things. “I know that’s what we asked for, but it’s not what we meant … ” is something we hear all the time

    I’m a developer, not a designer, but I think it still applies?

    1. Totally still applies. I think this is great advice. Too many creatives wait for it to be perfect before presenting to clients only to find out that it’s far from what the client actually wanted. Thanks for sharing, Leon.

  16. These are great tips that I will incorporate into my process. Something to also consider is that sometimes you DO get it right the first time and the client maybe cannot recognize it. What I find to be helpful with clients who I have not wored with long enough for them to develop a trust in the work, is to send the first concept while we on the phone. Then I get a very good idea of exactly how he or she feels about it (happy chuckles vs, silence) and I have direct influence on their perception before their wife or their secretary gives their 2 cents without regard to their target market. It also helps me to know what I need to change. If they are on the fence, sleeping on it can really give clarity for them. But, if you do have good ideas that are backed with data and good reason don’t be afraid to defend those ideas. Just make sure that it is in the best interest of your clients, not your pre-Madonna design ego.

    1. Some excellent advice, Mandi. I always try to be present (or at least on the phone) when presenting my projects. And you nailed the most important part: make sure it’s in the best interest of your clients. Thanks for sharing!

  17. I do believe that you need to ask a ton of questions before doing any type of design work, and listening to the needs of your client. I have 3 different types of design briefs depending on their design service, that ask my clients detailed questions on their project. The first most important question I ask is, how do they want their exiting or potential clients to feel when they see the final end project. I do a lot of branding and websites, so I express the importance of how something feels or is perceived rather than just pretty graphics. If some of my clients still are vague about what they want, I probe because I do remind them sometimes that I’m a designer and not a mind reader…although that would be awesome lol. I also repeat their requests to ensure we’re on the same page, creative mini vision boards, and I also have them create boards on pinterest. This really gets the client involved in the visual of the final end result of the project. Sometimes clients find it hard to communicate what they want, so I have them show me sometimes rather than tell me. But I do get the “occasional” I’ll know it when I see it types of clients in which contracts defintely come in handy. Awesome post as always!

    1. Fantastic use of Pinterest, Kimberly! I definitely have clients who are better at showing me what they want.

    2. I think using Pinterest as a way to create a visual board of what they like is brilliant, Kmberly. Thank you for sharing that awesome tip!

  18. Hey Preston – great advice. I’d point out that this is a good lesson for any designer (or video production person). Listen more. Be a detective. I like it!

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