Design insights & tutorials.

Telling A Client “No”

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You’re the expert, right? You’ve spent four years in design school and have a few years of real-world experience, right? You obviously know all there is to know about design and clients are just dumb and uneducated. You force your brilliant design decisions on every client because you have the degree and portfolio to back it up. The client is simply preventing you from making your mark on this world.

Or perhaps you’re just the lowly designer who can’t say no because clients are the ones with the cash? As the Golden Rule goes, “The one with the gold makes the rules.” So who are you to say no when a client waves your next paycheck in front of your face right after they ask you to “make the logo bigger” or “make it cooler”?

Both of these extremes are bad and exhausting ways to live your life as a designer. You need balance (duh, right?). Well most of us play both of these roles at different times, but you need to find a comfortable in-between zone and you’ll find yourself much happier and successful as a designer.

To live in that happy medium you’ve got to balance being informed and articulate with being charismatic and nurturing. Here are a few tips to help:

Be nice and inspiring.

If your voice or email is blunt and without tact, you can really turn off a client. It depends on who you are dealing with of course, but in most cases clients are easily offended when their passionate ideas are judged, criticized, or stepped on. If something isn’t working, let them know in a way that shows you understand and care about them.

Preface your words with positive remarks like, “I think that could be a good idea, but I really recommend doing THIS for this reason.” You won’t win friends by making people feel stupid or less educated than you.

Learn the language.

One sure fire way to increase your ability to say no to a client is to simply read up on the history of design and typography. Understand why certain typefaces work well in certain situations. Understand how people interact with a website and be able to articulate it to a client.

A client doesn’t have the same “eye” that you do, so they might not see what you see. If you can articulate clear and sound reasoning in a comforting and respectful way, you’re gold. Back up your decisions with evidence, not just “because I think it looks better.”

Show, don’t tell.

Sometimes the best way to get a client to understand your reasons for saying no is to show them. Do your idea AND their idea and present them with both options. Tell them you went ahead and did their idea but “here are reasons why my solution works better for you.”

If you don’t have the time to do both concepts, then show them unsuccessful or other anecdotal evidence. A client of mine really wanted to use the Bleeding Cowboy font, but it’s widely recognized as a bad font. I wanted to tell them no and show them links to articles that describe why it is a bad choice. That did the trick and they felt comfortable knowing that I am “up on the trends” so they don’t have to be.

Balance

As a designer, it’s your job to educate and help a client understand the value of what you are giving them. We don’t want you to get walked on by your client, and we don’t want you to come off as a know-it-all that makes the client feel dumb.

Here’s the trick: It’s not about being right or making the client say yes. It’s about building a solid relationship of mutual respect and friendship. Clients will be saying yes to your design decisions all the time if you can balance knowledge and charisma.

Do you have any advice for telling a client “no”? Let us know in the comments section below.

About the Author, Jeff Finley

I'm a partner at Go Media, a Cleveland web design and development firm. We also specialize in print design and branding. I started Weapons of Mass Creation Fest and wrote the book Thread's Not Dead, teaching artists and designers how to start a clothing company. In my spare time, I write songs and play drums in Campfire Conspiracy. I'm a happy husband and an aspiring b-boy and lucid dreamer.
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Discussion

We want to hear what you have to say. Do you agree? Do you have a better way to approach the topic? Let the community know by joining the discussion.

  • Simon H.

    Haha, that sounds like what we talked a bit about at WMC Fest.

    After a few bad experiences, I'm a huge fan of the “Show, don't tell” approach. It sometimes double the work but it really helps to show that you know what you're talking about. Gives you credibility. And it can help to convince the client that they should trust you.

    One of my webdesigner friend has a paragraph in his agreements he makes his clients sign: “we will argue with you”. I'm thinking of adding that to mine.

  • Jake Stevens

    I often use the “if/then” approach to a client's bad idea. Like, “Yes, we absolutely could use Comic Sans, but by using that particular font you would be associating yourself with a class of businesses that really doesn't ad any value to your law firm.”

    Sometimes I'll have support that statement with a bit of show and tell. I do a bit of quick research and pull up a multitude of really crappy designs. I avoid actually making their piece piece with their choices as well as I can. Almost every time I go and create their piece, they'll insist on going with it.

  • Guru

    The only thing I disagree with in this article is: “Do your idea AND their idea and present them with both options.”

    If you give them the option or ability to make the wrong choice, they will.

  • Jaimeradar

    having a client who wants to do something stupid (no softer way to put that) is a horrible spot to be stuck in. i usually tell them something like “i see why you would like that, but it really wouldnt work because of etc etc etc.” sometimes they just dont care though, and they end up with a great layout, topped off with that damn BLEEDING COWBOY font… ive had to use that font for a band that didnt understand how bad it was TWICE this month alone. please share the links to that article haha!

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  • Jake Stevens

    Totally. You end up getting the famous line: “See, I told you that it would look good!”

  • Seana

    It's so hard to be the one who knows better. :-) Everything a client says, I give him the impression, I will seriously think it over. And I try to give him the feeling of real teamwork. If it's not possible to use all of his ideas, I try to pick some less horrible parts and integrate them. As you say, each client feels like a passionate designer when it's getting to be creative. ;-)

    Most of them will trust in you and your decisions as long as they feel respected and seriously heard.

  • http://www.gomedia.us Jeff Finley

    Here are two links that talk about Bleeding Cowboy and others:

    http://blog.echoenduring.com/2009/09/12/more-th

    http://emptees.com/posts/12262-bleeding-cowboys

  • http://www.facebook.com/ajheinen Aaron Heinen

    Good advice! Gotta love the golden rule :) I like the doing two mockups rule because if you just ignore the clients request and make something you think they will like, they may just move on, but if they see that you are listening to them, yet at the same time critiquing their vision, then it's a win win situation. Constructive Criticism is so key in building long term clients.

  • joeventures

    Might be a good idea to have a separate, independent focus group, especially if you're going to go the route of trying to show the client both your approach and their approach. It's essentially A/B testing that needs third parties to simply say which one they like better.

  • Ahmet

    Telling A Client “No” – Graphic design tutorials, freebies, & advice by working artists and designers. | GoMediaZine http://www.filmdiziizletr.com

  • Victoria Blount

    This is a really great article, i think the last point about balance is crucial and also educating your customer and making sure you advise them and explain why you think certain choices would benefit them, if you have a good level of communication and have built up a relationship with your customer they should trust your judgment, but there are those occasions where the customer “wants what they want” regardless of your opinion and you have no choice but to follow their demands.

  • Fern

    LMAO! I hate that font, more than I hate paparus!

    When in doubt, Helvetica or Futura ;)

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  • http://www.pariuri-x.ro/ Pariuri

    It's important to be polite.When I have to say no , I tell them directly but right after that I try to explain why in order to make him understand that it's a mistake what he wants.

  • http://twitter.com/3tspsofrawsugar lilliam

    I have one client that tends to frustrate his partner and me all in one fell swoop. I took over from another disgruntled, far more established designer that originally branded him and after a few months of working with him, understood why he'd jumped ship. Most of the work I do for him I can't get him to budge on, so I tend to put my original idea in my portfolio (which is usually not far from the implemented idea).

    I do the whole mock-two up for him: his idea and mine. I keep ALL my original files because more than once, right before the deadline, he tells me I was right all along and goes back to square 1. Exercise in patience…

  • Brady

    I once did this web design that at first went very smoothly until the client started getting extremely picky (he was a product designer) after the site went live (even after he gave me the green light). We had gone a couple days over his deadline when I finally got fed up with his indecisiveness and had to write him the following email:

    “You're previous email made the impression that we were good to go live and that you and your colleagues are pleased with the final product. Adding more changes is prolonging your deadline and costing you more money. I will fulfill this final request but this change, and any additional changes past our deadline, will accrue on your final invoice. I hope you understand.”

    He replied a while later, agreeing to the terms and asked for no further changes.

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    Brady: Despite the fact that your e-mail achieved its desired effect, your credibility is undermined when the very first word of your message is misspelled.

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  • http://www.klavisnurs.com Klavis

    This is a really great article, i think the last point about balance is
    crucial and also educating your customer and making sure you advise them
    and explain why you think certain choices would benefit them, if you
    have a good level of communication and have built up a relationship with
    your customer they should trust your judgment, but there are those
    occasions where the customer “wants what they want” regardless of your
    opinion and you have no choice but to follow their demands

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