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5 ways to improve toxic client-designer relationship

I did a lot of recollection of what went wrong with the client and designer relationship, and here are a couple of things I came out of the project with.

A photo of two people wearing LED masks depicting toxicity.

When I was freelancing, I was once working with a client (let’s for the sake of story call him “Charlie”) who was rather creative in terms of how he wanted to build his mobile app. He wasn’t a big fan of how mobile phones were limiting in terms of how much information you could show in a screen. He firmly believed that a user should be able to see everything (by everything I mean EVERYTHING) without clicking, tapping, swiping or scrolling. Oh, that man hated interactions!

As a result, after spending almost 4 months with him trying to build the app, we saw that we hadn’t really made much progress and we were going round and round in circles. We did what he said: because by this time, the project had already entered an “autopilot” mode, where you stopped thinking and did whatever Charlie wanted you do to do. Client education really did not work with Charlie because he already knew everything according to him. He already had this idea in his mind and he just needed to start building as soon as he could; and us; the designers were just creating bottleneck by asking too many questions.

Charlie suggested we shut up and finished the app.

The app was finally completed after five and a half months of intense rigor. It wasn’t something I was at all proud of, but Charlie loved it! He had found his baby. As a designers, I was very very disappointed — the app lacked basic standards of interactions: buttons did not look like buttons, everything was crammed to fit into this iPhone 5 screen and navigation tabs were not really tabs because they worked like popup buttons. It was a disaster. The top action bar space was wasted to show a logo (space that we would use to place navigation buttons and title) because Charlie believed we needed to show the logo on every screen otherwise people would not know what app they’re using.

I affectionately called it CharlieOS. This was not iOS, and this was not Android. It simply was a bloated, confusing re-imagination of an app by a person who did not understand apps. Charlie had never stopped and tried to understand how apps on his iPhone worked. He never paid attention to interaction states; yet he was super adamant about how he wanted to build his app. He hated native component styles: he thought designers were being too lazy to “copy” the designs directly from Apple and threatened us to use creativity because he was paying for it.

You get the idea; it was a disaster. The day Charlie said we were done, I sighed in relief because the last couple of weeks had been a treachery. I was not comfortable working with him; he didn’t listen and did not give a chance to speak. Our 45-60 minute Skype calls would just be him criticizing how the designs did not look like how he had imagined and all that.

Clients really need to trust the designer’s intuition and let them do their thing

I have heard similar stories from a lot of other designers who had to deal with clients like Charlie. We have this phrase in design industry “clients from hell”: meaning clients who are extremely hard to work with. And I think they’re correct to label clients that way; but what is the solution to this? How do we make clients come from heaven and not hell? What is this concept of heaven and hell anyway? How do we build a non-toxic and productive relationship where both parties trust each other?

Charlie really helped me open up my eyes and understand how the client-designer relationship works (or doesn’t). Hadn’t I worked with Charlie, I would not know how relationships could turn bitter. I did a lot of recollection of what went wrong, and here are a couple of things I came out of the project with. I hope these are helpful pointers for you. Here we go:

1. Assess the client-designer fit before embarking

Many designers say “yes” to projects without doing enough background check of the client. They take any and every project they can find, as a result, they end up working with a variety of clients where not everyone shares the same vision or passion. This ultimately leads to friction and confrontation, which can be entirely avoided if we understand who they are before jumping into it.

One good way to move is do some background check, see some of their past work which they’ve commissioned, check out their website, see how open they are. Also, talk to them — just talking and exploring their perspective will raise a lot of red flags. If you see any of those red flags, that’s the good time to politely pass. Just say thanks no thanks and move on.

2. Show them what value you add

A client will treat every service provider the same way until they know who they’re dealing with. It’s unlikely any client will come looking for you; if they do then that’s great. But most of the time, when you’re working with someone for the first time, they won’t know how good (or bad) you are without working. So it is very important to position yourself in a way that they know you’re good. When you start confidently, there are chances they will let you do your thing, but if you come off as submissive or an order-taker, they will start shoving orders down your through.

Always stand on the higher ground and show what value you bring: eg, success stories in similar projects, assurance that you undetstand the business and so on. It really helps when you show them that you know what you’re doing and they will start trusting you.

3. Play by your principles, but respect theirs too

As a designer, you should know what you will do and what you will not. Learn to say “No, I’m not doing that because of so and so..” Have your ethics in place and learn to live by it — however, also respect theirs. Everyone has their own perspective on how things should be, and it’s their right: do not demean or confront them, but be very consistent about what you say and what you do. If there is a gaping difference between two principles, time to part ways and move along. Do not scold the client, or get into a fight — be very polite and tell them this isn’t working and we should not continue.

4. Client is not always right

If we were selling them a kilo or sugar or a packet of biscuits, probably the customer is right. But we’re not selling them stuff. We’re helping them build something. We’re working on something that has a value which cannot be seen or measured. These highly specialized solutions need years of learning and intuition to build. We know what we’re doing because we’ve learned it through years of schooling and years of practice. So it’s important to let clients know we know this better. Yes, their ideas are welcome, but we are the ones doing the execution.

5. Involve the client in the process

Imagine you work in your den for two weeks, no communication nothing for two weeks and suddenly you’re done and now you present your designs to the client. Boom! Client has 173 comments. That’s very natural because the clients don’t know (or haven’t seen) what you were building until you showed it to them. When you showed it to them, you probably skewed away from the original idea, did your own thing or something changed while you were working in your den for two weeks.

All this could be simply avoided if you had updated the client with your progress frequently. A PSR (project status report), a small digest of updates at the end of the day, or an open way for clients to see and understand what you’re doing looking at the designs in tools like Figma. It’s a good idea to fail early than waiting for two weeks to fail. A client can immediately help you understand a change in the process if you talk to them. You don’t need to show them complete work all the time. That’s why god made WIP – make use of it, a work is progress is easier to fix than a completed work.