I just walked away from an $8,000 project.
“What, are you crazy?!” Is probably what you’re thinking right now.
Yes, I am crazy. Crazy enough to put my sanity and happiness before profits.
The reason I want to share this with you is to encourage all other designers out there that it’s okay to say “no” sometimes. In fact, the ability to say “no” is an important part of what we do.
But if you’re a people pleaser like me, that’s easier said than done.
Although my exact circumstance and decisions are not appropriate or applicable for everyone, I believe there are some key lessons we can all take away, namely in the form of recognizing red flags.
This all started when I got a phone call out of the blue from a PC (potential client).
We chatted briefly over the phone, she seemed very nice and enthusiastic about her project, which would be substantial (several logos and a couple of websites). We agreed to meet so I could more thoroughly go over the project brief with her and assess if this would be a good fit.
But there were things right away that didn’t feel quite right, and I ignored them. I would later regret that decision.
Here are some of those red flags we should never ignore:
Red Flag #1: The client knows exactly what they want.
This particular client had numerous sketches drawn out on several sheets of paper that she brought with her. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes it’s good to have a client who already has a rough idea of which direction they’d like to go. But these were detailed, specific sketches, and she seemed very attached to a certain, narrow visual interpretation.
For some designers, that’s A-okay; there are designers out there who are just good at taking orders and enjoy being, what I call, a pixel-pusher.
Red Flag #1: The client knows exactly what they want. Click To Tweet
Not me. I’m definitely more of the concept-creative-art director, who flourishes in the creative process of coming up with solutions. So right away this would not be a good match.
Red Flag #2: The client had been “trying out different things/thinking about this design” for years.
This is similar to Red Flag #1, but makes it even more potent.
Instead of just casually brainstorming some ideas, this client had been sitting on this for a long period of time, so she was prematurely married to her own version of the solution.
This would make it infinitely harder to persuade her that another direction might actually be in her best interest. It also meant that she had taken on the role of the designer, by “trying” different fonts and arrangements.
I’m sorry, but that’s my job.
Red Flag #3: The client starts to dictate changes, essentially becoming your puppeteer.
I cannot reiterate this enough: it is perfectly fine for a client to be involved closely with the designer during the creative process. In fact, it is encouraged.
But being involved and providing feedback is different from, “move that there and make this bigger.” Again, she was in designer/puppet-master mode.
Ideally, a client who isn’t sure about a certain design decision would be better served if they phrased things like, “Do you think this logo would appeal more to our audience if we chose a different color?” rather than, “Can you make it blue?”
See the difference?
Red Flag #4: The client won’t listen to your professional advice or input.
I’ll be the first to admit: I’m not always right. But at the same time, I assume that clients hire me for my skills and my expertise as a designer and marketer.
And part of that expertise is to get inside the minds of the intended audience, to suss out what would appeal to them the most.
So it’s up to me to alert the client when they are doing something visually that might not resonate with their market.
It really is in their best interest to at least consider what I have to say; ultimately, I do understand that, in the end, it is their logo/website/whatever. Yet oftentimes you can just tell when they’re making a grave mistake that will hurt them in the long run.
Red Flag #5: The client only cares about what “feels right” to them
In line with Red Flag #5 above, this ties in closely with the idea that graphic design is about meeting business goals, not making you feel good.
The ideological divide between designing for the client, and designing for the audience, is fiercely contested by both sides.
I happen to fall more on the importance of making the audience happy (can you tell?), because in reality, that’s all that matters anyway.
I frankly *almost* don’t care if the client likes the design; my main concern is what the audience thinks. Because ultimately, they’re the ones that decide. Not me. Not the client. Period.
So she ignored my repeated attempts to gently guide her in this direction, and remained stubborn. This client wanted what she wanted, and the audience was an afterthought.
Red Flag #6: The client expects you to be a mind reader.
This is related to the much hated common adage, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Nothing rakes on a designer’s nerves more than this unrealistic expectation. The sad truth is, no one can know exactly what it is that someone else has imagined in their head.
But throughout the process, even though I would make the countless changes she specified, it still wasn’t quite right. Which inevitably leads to frustration, for both parties.
Some of these warning signs came early on, before I even wrote up the project proposal.
But the rest came soon after, and I chose to ignore them in favor of the big paycheck.
But you know what? Eventually, it became too stressful.
After two months of working on this project, I started to dread sitting down and doing the edits. My heart sank during our meetings. I was completely demotivated, and it started to affect my other projects and clients.
In the end, I decided to pull the plug.
I offered her a full refund for the work we’ve done so far, and fortunately, we parted ways amicably. I honestly hold her as a person in the highest regard, and have no ill will towards her or the project; it just wasn’t a good client-designer match, and I take full responsibility for ignoring these red flags.
While I was lucky enough to be in a place financially to walk away, it still was hard to let such a big project go. But looking back I know I made the right decision, for her and for me. It really is a weight lifted off of my shoulders, which no amount of money can buy.
What about you?
Have you had any nightmare clients or projects? Can a project pay you enough to stay on even if you hate it? Should designers listen to or ignore red flags? Is having boundaries, given the slow economy, wise or foolish?