12 Ways To Disappoint Your Design Clients

Tara Hornor

One of the most difficult parts of being a freelancer is dealing directly with your clients. If they are disappointed, it’s your fault completely. You don’t have a company or colleagues to fall back on to help you deal with clients. It’s all you.

This perspective can be quite intimidating to say the least. What’s more is that it can be confusing and very demoralizing when you seem to keep falling short when dealing with clients. You are not alone, however. Many freelancers accidentally disappoint their design clients without even knowing why or how. The good news is that most disappointments fall into one or more of the following 12 categories below.

To avoid disappointing your clients, simply take a look at the common ways to do so below. Simply being acutely aware of the dozen most prevalent pitfalls will have clients singing your praises and recommending you to colleagues and friends. And, I suppose, if you ever want to intentionally annoy a client, you’ve got the tools for that task as well!

This brings me to the need of mentioning a disclaimer: In any line of service work, and especially freelancing, you will deal with those clients you simply cannot please. Keep in mind that the following advice does not work for every single design client. Take every client on a case-by-case basis, keeping the following "accidents" in mind, and you’ll build a killer reputation for yourself as a graphic designer who’s not only talented, but personable and professional as well.

Promising the World…

One of the most important rules for dealing with clients is to be honest about what you can do for them. We have all been in those situations in which a client asks something of us that we are not quite sure we can deliver. Either be honest about possible difficulties or make sure you know someone that you can farm out the task to. This is also the reason why it is so important to get everything in writing, either within a formal contract, quotes that describe your services and cost, or even through a series of emails. Just be explicit.

…And Delivering Sub-standard Work

Similar to the mistake of promising the world, make sure you actually deliver what you promise. If you told your client that you would put together a brand identity package, don’t leave out the letterhead design because you ran out of time. This is your fault for underestimating the time required, not the client’s fault. In fact, to truly impress a client, go beyond the quality or quantity of work you agreed upon. If you are unsure that the client will even notice those extra freebies you threw in, add it into your itemized invoice with the rate and a $0 next to it. They’ll notice.

Invoicing Before You’re Finished…

Never invoice a client before you deliver everything you and the client discussed. This includes hearing back from a client on their satisfaction (or lack thereof) of a project. Imagine if you were seeking their services, and they sent you the work back, along with an invoice, but you had several changes you need made. Wouldn’t that be more than a little irritating? Time your invoices tactfully.

…And Not Delivering on Time

If you promise to have a website ready for launch by a certain date, then work around the clock if necessary to deliver on time. If you can tell ahead of time that you will not be able to finish in time, even with an all-nighter, then call in some reinforcements. And at the very least, let a client know (ahead of time if possible) that you will be late, how late you will be, and that you will be providing a discount or some other freebie.

Leaving Clients without Access…

As a freelance designer, you are hired for specific projects, such as creating a brand identity or a brochure for an event. Once your project has ended, it is only customary for you to hand over everything the client needs to add to or make changes to your work in the future if they so desire. For instance, make sure to leave them with the layered design files for a logo, the administrative login credentials for their website, or the font files for their brochure’s typography.

…And Using Old-fashioned Design Techniques

If you haven’t updated your skills in more than a few years, you should — and before you take on any new clients. Not only will using antiquated techniques give a client problems and short-lived design work, but it will also reflect badly on you as a designer. Few industries develop and change more quickly than the web design industry, but it’s part of your responsibility as the designer to evaluate and implement new design techniques and technologies. Complacency can quickly put an end to client referrals and leave you hunting for work instead of sorting through worthy, willing client candidates.

Making Yourself Scarce…

Be as accessible as possible within the hours of your work day. Make sure your client understands your schedule, and provide one way that clients can get a hold of you for emergencies outside of normal working hours. Nothing is worse than breaking a client’s website without knowing, and the problem is only compounded when your client can’t even get get in touch to let you know about it.

…And Complaining of Additional Work

There are clients who request an surprising amount of changes to your work, which you should really charge extra for. (Hopefully you have a clause in your contract for such a scenario.) But there are those clients who keep asking if you can provide quotes for more projects while you finish their first. This is a good thing, and it’s important to make the distinction between the two! Clients interested in more work are favoring you, and you should favor them respectively. If you are too swamped, then politely recommend a fellow freelancer. Never take on the work and then proceed to complain to the client about how swamped you are.

Not Listening to Client Requests…

Creating the right expectations goes hand-in-hand with excellent listening skills. Make sure you know how to interpret client requests accurately. Listen carefully when the client is talking, offer more articulate summaries of the requests if needed, and refer to your past experience to translate subjective client preferences into actionable design work. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and make sure to take meticulous notes. You might even want to provide those notes to the client to secure an alignment of understanding.

…And Responding Defensively to Complaints

We all hate to hear criticism of our work, but it’s very frequent and very necessary. Learn how to acknowledge your frustration, embarrassment, etc. (silently, to yourself), and address each critique. Listen closely to what the client is saying; how you handle the latter waves of changes and requests is what separates you from a plethora of average designers. You may have to prompt or probe with questions (surprised?) to find out precisely what is bothering the client. Sometimes a client will only be able to throw out a vague criticism (It’s just ugly!), and it’s up to you to dissect, elaborate, analyze, and interpret the feedback. Often it may be as simple as changing the color scheme or adjusting the positioning of content.

Lacking Interest in a Client’s Success…

Nothing makes a client feel more neglected than a designer with little to no interest in their vision. A client comes to you to help them put their dream into visual form. Make sure that you show them you are interested in contributing intellectually. One way to do this is to proactively ask them about their goals and vision. Another is to recommend design features (without being prompted) you think would really help them achieve these goals. Listen carefully when they tell you their back story; it’s far more important than it may seem.

…And Never Owning Your Mistakes

We all make mistakes. It happens. And a courteous client will understand this… unless you handle it poorly. Don’t blame your mistake on software, scheduling, or any other external factor; firmly hold yourself accountable. The “blame game” will never work in your favor. apologize, take responsibility, avoid frivolous excuses and do whatever you can to appease the client, namely, to do it again the right way without extra charges.

Have you ever accidentally disappointed a design client? Be sure to share your experience and any lessons learned in the comments below.

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  • Tuke Lully

    “Invoicing Before You’re Finished…” says that you should not invoice before you’ve finished everything for a client, then contradicts that statement with “time your invoices tactfully”.

    Invoicing at the end of your project is a good way to work for less than minimum wage, not get paid at all, or simply not be able to support yourself throughout the timespan of the project. It’s not an appropriate suggestion for many progress based services such as design.

    • Mario

      I second that, I have 55,000 in uncollected revenue from the past 7 years.

    • Mike

      I agree. A serious client will have no problem with paying 25% upfront. Also, set milestones and send and invoice after each milestone is reached.

    • Tara Hornor

      Tuke, I agree that often a design project goes on and on. I’m sorry I didn’t make this more clear. As I said too briefly, don’t invoice before you finish “everything you and the client discussed.” I should have added that often with design projects, this may mean one piece of the project, such as the logo.

      I have never invoiced half at the beginning of a project, as many say they do in this article, but my husband and I do invoice at the completion of a section of the project for which we provided a quote. For instance, we may invoice once we finish the logo, and then again when the basic website is set up, and then again when the client wants to add a slider, etc.

      Thanks for helping to clear this up. :)

  • Siebert

    The yawning lion says it all…

  • Subrato Paul

    Design is not a product that it could be resold to someone else. I take my design fee in advance, and keep my commitments. I give my clients complete knowledge base of ‘Know your Website’ so that they are able to maintain their websites as per their own wish.

  • connie

    Normally I charge 50% at the beginning, the other 50% on delivery. This is also often favored by my clients, because they can pay in 2 smaller amounts. Besides this it cuts the risks for the customer and me – and my customers never have to pay their last 50% until they get everything their contract provides.

  • Michel

    Ask 50% upfront
    Ask 40% when technically finished
    Ask 10% when they have delivered content

  • Michel

    Oh, and put the site live after 100% has been paid.

  • Anonymous

    Some good advice here. But giving the client the layered design files? nope. *Vector* logos, yes, for convenience in printing/rendering to every format. But layered files, no.

  • Angry Designer

    I am struggling with my current policy of completing the work and then sending a final invoice of 50%. I’ve done that for many years with the occasional problem. Idealistically clients should pay on time and in full. The truth is that they don’t always do this even when they want to. This can cause me financial stress if I am counting on the funds to pay bills. I just finished a logo, website and postcard for a client I like very much. She should as I spent a lot of extra hours finessing it. She loves the work I did for her but I invoiced her 50% upon completion and she has not paid more than 10% of that bill in the last 2 months. She is struggling and won’t get a loan to pay me. The energy that goes into collecting is frustrating. I am charging a $15 late fee and a 5% finance charge each additional month it is late. But its possible that I may never get paid. My mother says I should take down her site. But I don’t think that will help her make money to pay me not to mention I question the legality of it since it is half paid for. My father suggests that I invoice a smaller percentage upon completion and maybe do a progress payment of 25% so it would be 50% deposit, 25% progress payment and 25% upon completion. Personally, I want to charge the last 50% when I am half way through the project but I am afraid most new clients wouldn’t like that. Essentially this client broke our agreement and I am not sure what I can do to get paid other than take them to court. Any ideas?

    • Peter

      Dear Angry: Realistically, you may have to count this as your tuition to the School of Hard Knocks. You may never get paid. You might put her on small regular installments (with a finance charge perhaps) and because you said you like her, perhaps think about non-time-consuming inexpensive ways to help her business so she can afford to pay you…introduce her to new customers, say…at least as long as she continues to pay you.

      For the future, for new projects, as Phil alluded, set milestones with appropriate percentages of the total due as they’re met. That’s what construction contractors (among others) do. Ideally, you’d have at least 90% of the money at completion. Leave the last 10% for “punch-list” items–final revisions, tweaks, etc.–but set a mechanism to resolve those issues quickly and get the balance.

    • Peter

      Assuming we’re talking about creative output, I’m not sure, because of the copyright ownership issues, that I agree with Tara on handing everything over to the client at the end. That tends to set up a work-for-hire scenario, which is fine if it’s agreed to at the outset and the creator is appropriately compensated. I think freelancers typically are exploited over this because they find it hard to have that conversation with clients.

      As both a creator and buyer of creative, I see both side of this…and am conflicted myself,

  • Leon Pesticcio

    Being honest, sloppy article.

    • Dave

      Being honest, sloppy comment.

      If you’re going to comment negatively on an article you could at least say why you don’t like it. Is it badly written? Badly formatted? Is the advice given wrong? If so, which part of the advice, can you point out why it was wrong, or suggest some better advice? Is the advice just something that everyone knows anyway?

      A little explanation is all that is needed to turn your comment from useless into useful.

  • Cindy

    Fresh spin on common mistakes made by freelancers and new designers. Communication is key, contracts (and retainers) are required, and tact… it always helps. :)

  • Albert Hoogendoorn

    Some open doors, but interesting article overall…

  • Phil

    @Tuke Lully … well, to be precise the article says “Never invoice a client before you deliver everything you and the client discussed” and that would include a more milestone like approach. This is what I do and I never ever issue an invoice before not both sides are totally clear, that this milestone (contractually agreed upon of course) has been reached and that the invoice will come now.

  • Michael

    I agree Phil, project milestones or scheduled dates/ deliverables ensure the client is protected but also protect the service provider from nightmare scenarios in trying to obtain payment in full at project end.

    Angry Designer:

    I can appreciate your position having faced similar none payment when I was naive and thought everyone was honest. I now ask for an initial payment of 33% followed by staged amounts with a final payment due on project sign off.

    If the client won’t accept these terms, I politely suggest they find someone else to do the work.

  • Anna Mellerick

    It is the law that the copyright belongs to the creator. The paragraph “Leaving clients without access”? Naturally you will allow them the CMS. In relation to layered files this is a separate issue. I am dumbfounded that you have even written this here. A photographer will never release high res photos so the client always has to come back for a reprint. An established Graphic Design House will never release such files either. I feel angry and frustrated you expect freelancers to release such files.

    • Tara Hornor

      Anna, I’m very sorry to have angered and frustrated you. I assure you this article is simply my own opinion, and you certainly have no obligation to take it on. :)

      The difficulty in writing an article this in-depth is covering all of the bases. I understand that “design clients” is a very broad term, within which there are many, many niches. So, as I said in the disclaimer in the introduction, take these tips with a grain of salt, look at your own niche and each individual client, and ultimately make a decision based on what you know works best in that situation.

      I agree with you that there are times when a photographer shouldn’t release high res photos, but I have worked with some that will do this for a hefty price. It all depends on what you are comfortable with/ what your policy is. In today’s digital age, it is becoming more of a common practice – for the right price, of course. :)

    • Jake

      I agree with you. If I could ask for your opinion on a related manner – would it be appropriate to include these exact words where your prospective clients may contact you (i.e. website, facebook page, etc)?

      • Anna Mellerick

        I have at the bottom of the invoice “Design fees do not include copyright” and I have this written in my contract. My contract is a 2 page document where the client writes his/her details at the front, and my t+c (including the copyright) are on the back. If later they ask for the files, I politely inform them it wasn’t part of the contract from the beginning, it’s the law and if they want to fill out my copyright form I’ll discuss a fee.

        • Jake

          Precisely. Being a Pre-Law graduate, I am quite familiar with contracts. My inquiry is more for the business aspect. I have close friend who happens to be a designer and she has abit of an “ego”, so to speak. She has taken it upon herself to publicly state that “freebies or T.Y. (Thank You) is not part of the obligation of any designer”. I agree with her all too well. Just that publicizing it on social media sites under her name is, IMHO, bad for business.

        • Jake

          Or simply unprofessional.

          • Wynne

            Agreed.

      • Wynne

        Yes Jake, in my opinion your contract or email or whatever “written” communication method you use should include a well-defined deliverable. My proposal/contract states explicitly what the client should expect to receive upon completion, e.g., web site of 10-20 pages, newsletter signup form (1), email addresses for web domain (5-10), contact page with form generating email to xxx@domain.com, etc. The more explicit I am, the less room for any misunderstandings during the process. The same document also states the amount due up front (30%), the amount due upon acceptance of comps or prototypes (30%) and the final amount after acceptance of delivery (40% plus expenses) … with a 30-90 day maintenance period at no charge. (It is also important to clarify the difference in “maintenance” and “change request” … :-)

  • Wynne

    My proposal/contract explicitly states all rights of ownership, as many clients do not understand the tip of the iceberg when it comes to copyright and trademark laws.

    The rights provided for designing a corporate identity are much different than those for a convention (one time use) design or signage or a web site. When I have a client who wants exclusive use to whatever I design, I politely explain copyrights and leasing rights versus owning. If they are still persistent, I ask them to ad a zero just to the left of the decimal point on the total invoice.

    Using the same contract, one of my first gigs was a conference logo. It was to be used on all sorts of clothing, mugs, and jewelry; however, the jeweler was used to recreating the conference designs in future years for those who may have missed out on the original. When I discovered this, I politely sat down with the conference management staff and showed them the “one time use” clause in the contract. Although they were most unhappy as they did not see that in the contract, they made sure the jeweler never used the mold for that conference year again.

    That was in 1994, and still wear the medallion around my neck on a gold chain today. It is a regular reminder of my first design gig and a lesson in how to explain rights of use to a client.