It’s an established fact that graphic design isn’t the line of work that gets the most respect by clients. The Internet is full of websites that tell you the worst possible clients stories ever, and every designer will keep receiving his load of free work requests every now and then. With time, it can become very annoying. You’re a true professional after all. You have a solid set of skills, you pay taxes on your client projects, so why aren’t you getting the respect you deserve?
You’re probably not gonna like it, but I’m gonna say it anyway: that’s your fault.
Well, that’s not only your fault. It’s your fault, and the fault of every new designer who come into the scene and conform to the worst possible practices just because it’s what designers do. And I’m not even talking about graphic skills here.
Yes, graphic design is a relatively new kind of job, and it’s probably misunderstood and underestimated by clients. Yes, the amount of so-called “graphic designers” out there is exploding, and diluting the value of the profession. This evidently sets a bad precedent for all the serious designers as you and I who just want to do a good job, but let’s face it, this is only the emerged part of the iceberg.
Clients from hell stories are hilarious and terrible at the same time, but they almost always are the result of a series of mistakes made by the designer.
Let me draw you a simple, vicious circle: acting unprofessionally leads to attracting disrespectful clients, which leads to acting unprofessionally, and so on. In addition to that, you’re probably producing work you hate because you’re asked to revise it in the worst possible ways. Given that, you just can’t expect that the good, respectful clients are going to stumble upon your work and save you from this hellish situation. It simply won’t happen. The only way to attract the clients you want is to act the way you would if you already had them.
“There's no such thing as "Clients from hell", because only designers from hell take on those types of clients.”
Of course, people should be nice and respectful by default, but guess what: that’s just the way it is, there are bad, mean, disrespectful people out there. However, nothing forces you to deal with them.
I often hear people saying working with bad clients is what it takes: in the beginning, you just want to build your portfolio so you need to take on whatever work requests come at you and with time, you’ll be able to work your way up to the good clients. This is ridiculously wrong. You can’t do anything against stupidity but you can refuse to work with it.
You should refuse to work with it.
In fact, you should refuse anything you don’t agree with. Don’t forget that you are the professional here. You set the terms. When was the last time you went to the grocery store, or bought a car, or subscribed to an Internet service provider and said “we’re going to do things this way, and I want you to cut the costs to a minimum, oh and I’ll only pay in 90 days, and please remove that thing here…” ?
I get it. You’re a freelancer, you’re probably either young and feeling illegitimate, or older and lost in this world where success is supposed to happen way before you hit 40. I’m myself 24 and I know how difficult it is to build confidence in what you do, especially when you’re self-made and doing your thing on your own. Bad clients are more attracted by you because you’re an easy target: it’s way easier to intimidate the lone guy than the big design corp with their shiny offices and their army of lawyers. But this is nothing compared to confidence. You’re not trying to transform bad clients into good clients here. This is a cause you won’t win by yourself. You just want to stand up for yourself and never compromise on your values to make sure the person in front of you is on board.
You probably know the interview Steve Jobs made and where he talks about Paul Rand. If not, allow me to introduce you to this incredible nugget of creative wisdom:
At that time, Steve Jobs had left Apple (where he returned later) and founded a new company called NeXT for which he needed a corporate brand identity that wouldn’t take years to stick in people’s mind. He approached legendary graphic designer Paul Rand, who made crystal clear that he wouldn’t come up with options. He would solve the problem the best way he knew and get paid for it, no matter if the company decided to use his work or not afterwards.
Paul Rand told the former CEO of Apple to go ask other people if what he wanted was options. And of course, he was hired.
Paul Rand by Simpson Kalisher.
Was he hired for being bold or provocative? Because Steve Jobs was amused by his rock’n’roll attitude, his “tough exterior with a teddy bear inside” as he said? No, he was hired because in addition to being brilliant at what he did, he was uncompromising and unapologetic. He was unwilling to budge from the values that made him the legend he was, and that kind of behaviour conveys confidence. A beautiful mind like Steve Jobs wasn’t looking for anyone to lick his boots or bow to his whims, but for someone confident enough in his abilities so he could trust him.
“But I’m not Paul Rand!”
It doesn’t matter. You don't become Paul Rand by accident, you become Paul Rand by acting like Paul Rand. You fake it until you make it.
If you are confident in your abilities as a designer, if you know how to solve problems, you don’t have to prove yourself beyond what your portfolio and track record say. This often is where people get confused: they think you can only set your own rules if you’re a celebrity. In that case, the power balance is shifted to you and you basically do whatever you want and get paid insane amounts. Otherwise, you just suck it up and thank clients for choosing you among all the designers available.
This is what differentiates designers who will succeed and those who will keep taking average work after average work with the bitter feeling not being treated as they should.
And you guessed it, the latter is the most commonly spread kind of designers out there.
Why don’t designers get respect? Because they don’t inspire it. They hope for it, instead of naturally imposing it. They’re so afraid of the competition, of not getting work, of not being liked, of not making their client happy that they basically become a doormat and slave their way to their paycheck.
Am I being harsh? Maybe, but certainly not as much as you if this is what you do to yourself.
Self-doubt is a natural feeling that all human beings experience. Even Steve Jobs, even Paul Rand did. I do, and I’m light years away from their level of expertise. This isn’t a feeling you should deplore, only something to work on throughout your entire lifetime. However, this is not something that is relevant in a professional relationship.
Professionalism isn’t only being thorough, delivering on time, knowing your craft and dressing the part when you’re going on a meeting. It’s inspiring confidence to the person who is willing to pay you for your expertise.
And that’s why you should charge more. Or, shall I say, more accordingly.
You’re not going to get respect if you’re charging 50€ for a logo design. Your “client” will certainly be very happy to legally steal from you, but you shouldn’t expect him to treat you well when you’re obviously acting out of desperation.
You won’t lose clients if you charge more. You will lose opportunities to work with bad clients. As I said earlier, compromising only leads to more compromising: you won’t get out of the vicious circle by magic.
Don’t be mistaken, good clients who respect you and pay you the price you set aren’t necessarily the rich ones or the most famous. They’re the ones who know how to invest wisely. They know the value of professional branding and how it’s going to influence their success, so they’re willing to invest in it. Chances are they will become the rich and famous.
Spend the time you saved from saying no to a bad project at practicing and mastering your craft: good designers who get hired by the good clients are the ones who have a portfolio that speaks for themselves and don’t need any further justification. Look at the work that the designers you admire do: this is what made you love them. I’m sure most of them aren’t necessarily famous, but you stumbled upon their work and fell in love. You would entrust them with doing your logo design without hesitating a second, because you know they’re good. That’s what happens when you’re focusing on your craft rather than on getting the most jobs you can to cover your expenses: you become so good and you produce so much that your work starts to spread like wildfire and people notice it. If you’re at the point where you’re still needing to prove yourself, you probably jumped into freelance work too soon.
Freelance isn’t easy. Many designers go full-freelance because they aspire to more freedom in their professional life, and misevaluate what it really takes to go down that road. Many of them become slaves, and nobody respects their slaves. Others settle with one client that asks for work regularly and that somehow covers their bills. That’s more or less being a remote employee, without any of the advantages.
I’m going to finish this article with ten bullets that sums it up and will help you get the respect you deserve:
- Be good at what you do. If anything, be that.
- Charge accordingly. And NEVER lower the price because the client asked for it (they’ll call it “to make an effort”). If you change a price you set, it means you miscalculated or overestimated the value of your work, and that doesn’t inspire trust.
- Don’t budge from your values. They’re the core of what you are and what makes your work as good as it is.
- Never work on spec. Your portfolio is more than enough of a proof of your skill level. A good client doesn’t make you the privilege to choose you, nor tests multiple options before making his decision.
- Don’t cold-call clients. Let them come at you. Of course, you should promote your work, go to meetups, events, enhance your Internet presence, but directly trying to make someone hire you makes you look desperate.
- Say no to bad clients. Don’t jump on writing an estimate out of the joy of getting a work inquiry. Take the time to talk, evaluate if the client is meeting your values and if his project is interesting. You’d rather have a long talk and decline a potential bad client than signing right away and get caught up in a hellish situation.
- Act the part. You’re not a famous designer that everyone wants to hire yet? Doesn’t matter. Me neither. Just believe you will and act like you are already: make yourself a dashing portfolio, adopt an incredibly professional process and decline what you don’t want to do even if you have no other projects right now. It doesn’t involve lying and making yourself look like a 10 people company. It’s adopting the mindset of the future version of yourself.
- Take responsibility. You will make mistakes. We tend to overthink what people will think of us if we publicly admit it, while it’s in fact very refreshing and reassuring to see someone simply owning up to what he’s done without trying to justify himself. Be true to your client and take responsibility for what you do while remaining dignified, that’s probably what will make him most respect you.
- Let others be mediocre. You don’t have to align with it or make excuses for the ones who are deliberately hurting their business. You should definitely push your friends at becoming more professional if you see them struggling, but don’t fall back in a self-indulgent mindset out of compassion.
- Believe in yourself. You have what it takes. You can become freaking big. I believe in you.