Nine warning signs of a difficult design client

Most designers will, at some point, work with a client who is difficult to please. Even if you work through all the challenges and frustrations and somehow manage to satisfy the client, the final design often ends up being worse due to the client’s micromanagement or ill-advised preferences.

What if you knew in advance that a prospective client would be difficult, so you could spare yourself the trouble of meeting their unrealistic expectations?

Well, in many instances you can, if you look for these nine warning signs:

  1. The client has gone through more than one designer already, and blames the designers for the lack of a successful outcome. Sure, it’s possible that the client picked some bad designers, but a trend of dissatisfaction does not bode well—especially if the client isn’t willing to share some of the blame, for example by saying that they failed to communicate the scope or expected outcome.
  2. The client seems inherently distrustful, or dumps his or her problems on you. This often goes hand-in-hand with the first warning sign, because it indicates a client that shifts blame and is not willing to work to overcome challenges or resolve differences. In other cases, it simply demonstrates a lack of professionalism, especially if the client makes comments that are awkward and unrelated to your work (e.g., something insensitive relating to politics, religion, race, etc.).
  3. The primary decision maker is not your point of contact. It’s not uncommon for organizations to appoint a committee responsible for hiring and working with a designer, but if there’s a key decision maker who is not actively involved in the process, this can spell trouble.
  4. The client’s design preferences are conflicting or unrealistic. We once had a client on a tight budget give us two lists of websites they liked. The first list consisted of clean, simple websites belonging to companies similar to theirs. The second included ornate, sophisticated designs for sites that were unrelated to their industry, and were fundamentally different in style from the first list. Even if it were feasible to mix the two styles, it was clear that the client’s expectations far exceeded its budget.
  5. The client seems to think that the design is far more important than content/message (and functionality, in the context of a website design). This is usually accompanied by the belief that the success of their design rests squarely on the designer’s shoulders, and an unwillingness to step into the shoes of their customer in order to solve the customer’s problem, which is really what they should be trying to do.
  6. The client has strong opinions and preferences, but defers to you when you ask for information or clarification. The phrase “You’re the expert” is a common one for people like this. If the client thinks your request for feedback is an attempt to get them to do your job for you, it means they probably don’t understand or care about what exactly it is that you do.
  7. The client is in a hurry when he or she wants something, but doesn’t respond to your messages in a timely manner. This can indicate that the client is too busy to pay adequate attention to the project, doesn’t respect or understand the work you do, or lacks the ability/willingness to listen to you.
  8. The client takes a very long time to commit to working with you, sometimes going weeks or months without following up. A client that’s indecisive about selecting a vendor, or pursuing a project in the first place, might very well be a perfectionist who will be indecisive about a lot of other things, including your design work.
  9. The client sends you unnecessarily detailed mockups, and awful ones at that. In my experience, a wireframe from a client can be a very helpful tool, but when that morphs into a crude design, it could mean that (a) the client is trying to pinch pennies by having you do less work, (b) the client is a control freak, or (c) the client doesn’t fully understand or respect what they’re going to be paying you to do.

Of course, not everyone has the luxury of being picky about the projects they take, and in many cases, a challenging client can turn out to be a great client, especially if they are cognizant of the extra effort you give them in comparison to other designers they’ve worked with.

Have you turned down a project based on some of the signs above? What other warning signs have you encountered?