In the decade and a bit that I have been a designer, I have experienced my fair share of bad clients. Clients that email, then text, then call. Clients that question my fees or control my creativity. It happens, but it’s important that you learn from it and apply that learning to the next client, and the next, and the next. Here, I have listed my top 6 red flags that I have experienced, how I would handle them and what to look out for.

It is common when working with clients for the first time that you find differing styles and differing ways of working. It’s a balance; over-communication can be too much, at times that are outside business hours, multiple different platforms. This can get confusing, relevant information can get lost and mistakes can be made.

The other end of the scale, under-communicating. Not saying what they think, saying “you’ll work it out”, or they fall off the face of the earth and you don’t hear from them for months at a time.

Both are just as bad for the design project as the other. Finding that communication sweet spot is something that is developed by exactly that; communication.

How to solve

When you onboard your clients, communicate your expectations clearly. How do you like to work? What are your hours that you are accessible? If they want to organise a call, how should they book? (I use Calendly, I set my meetings to be available a few hours a day and send them the link to book it themselves. Game changer). Remember, the client and yourself are both human, it’s up to the both of you to find a way to work.

Everyone has a different hourly rate, or a different way of billing. *Link to billing styles blog*

Some bill by the hour, the project, the value or the outcome.

I have had in the past where clients compare what their experiences have been with other designers and placed that expectation on me. I am not them.

Tell me if you have heard this: “Oh, the last designer did it for $x, can you match that?”. Unless you really need the job, you can say no. That last designer may have undercharged and regrets it or has passed on it because it had scope creep or a difficult client with unrealistic expectations. You don’t want to start off a relationship feeling undervalued, so set that expectation for both yourself and the client.

How to solve

Knowing your worth as a designer/creative/monkey trainer is an everlasting battle. It’s not meant to be easy, it’s putting a dollar figure on your self worth. That shit is hard. But it does get easier the more you do it, and you realise its about finding the clients that value you for the same worth you place on yourself (plus tax).

*HOT TIP* It can sometimes tempting to discount or lower a price when we are about to send the invoice or quote. STOP! You have no idea what their budget or value they are placing on the relationship, and sometimes pre-emptive discounting can do more harm than good!

There was a pic that has bounced around the internet which had a price list of I design = $100, You watch = $150, You direct = $200 etc. When a client basically has their hand on the mouse/stylus/pencil, they become controlling, micromanaging and a nightmare to work with. This can be a killer for the creativity that comes from solo experimentation and play in a design.

Being the professional creative in the relationship is a position to be held on to, you need to remember that you are the creative they hired for your expertise, not as a vehicle to execute their exact vision but with the ability to operate the software. A client that gives you no creative freedom, that is a client that doesn’t understand the relationship they have stepped into.

How to solve

Set your boundaries and expectations and stick to them. Stand your ground. If a client comes back and asks to do something you have tried and it didn’t work, tell them. The more you communicate, the more they will (hopefully) see you are the professional they have hired and are paying the big bucks to.

UGH dreaded scope creep. This refers to changes, continuous or uncontrolled growth in a project’s scope, at any point after the project begins.

It happens in a lot of projects, sometimes from the client, where they have misjudged the amount of work, or from the designers end, where they have discovered partway through that it’s more complex than first thought.

Sometimes clients will try to be cheeky (Can we just add xyz? Oh, can we have both designs?) and this is where it’s time to put your big designer pants on and set what’s ok and what’s not.

How to solve

Respond to creep with common sense. If they ask to add something, respond with “sure, I can either requote or just add the additional work to the final invoice?” This puts the decision back in their court. Also, giving a client an update partway through a project is a great way to communicate how the project has progressed, and anything you can see will cause creep or issues. In most cases, they will see that you are trying to help and will hopefully want to find a solution together. Negotiation is key.

“We really like this designer, can you do this exact design but with our words?” No.

“We got this pic off Pinterest, can you paint it on our walls?” NO.

“Can you photoshop the logo/watermark off this image? We don’t want to pay for it” NO NO NO.

There is a huge difference between taking inspiration from other designers and artists and straight out copyright infringement. A client who asks for these sort of things is a massive red flag. Firstly, they don’t place value enough on the creative they are trying to steal, because that’s what it is, theft of intellectual property. Secondly, they are asking you to do something that is morally wrong and making you the one to do the dirty work. Not ok.

How to solve

Ask them why.

Ask the client why they didn’t use that designer or why that behaviour they think is ok? Because really, if they are willing to attempt dodgy behaviour with that situation, they may do the same with your work.

A client who has no idea of what they want, who “will know what it is when they see it” or had 842 rounds of changes is a pain in the neck! This is the other end of the scale, the creative freedom is there but they aren’t clear on what it is they want. Whilst it is not uncommon to have a client unsure of exactly what the finished product is/looks like/feels like, they need to have at least 80% of it clear. When you do venture into the territory of multiple rounds of changes, be honest about it, that the rounds of changes have exceeded the scope. But also make sure you have specified this in the brief/onboarding section of the project. Standard rounds of changes are 2-3 rounds and its common to request these be communicated in a particular way eg marked up pdf, written form etc

How to solve

Ask leading and specific questions. Interrogate them to the point that they understand what it is they want, then produce them with a reverse brief and have them agree to it. Questions like “What problem is the design trying to solve?” and “How will you measure the success of this design?” can help lead the client in a direction that is a solution-based outcome, which should help with clarity.

At the end of the day, creating a relationship that works between you and the client is the best thing for both you the designer and the client. Creating a relationship that has good communication and trust will only lead to future work and maybe even recommendations to other clients. Set boundaries, be professional and believe that you are the creative in the relationship that is there to solve the problems. And remember, every client is a learning experience, good or bad, and they will only add to your story.

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