Do Graphic Designers and Clients always have to be at odds with each other.

By Andy Thomson from Thomson Design Associates Ltd
It is a common assumption that designers and clients see everything so differently that conflict is only a question of time. However, I’ve always said that I’m a different sort of designer. I try to work in collaboration with my clients who are all welcome to visit my office and see how things get done.

Just about everything a designer does is so far from the normal business processes that professional designers and their clients couldn’t be any more different. Those differences go to the very core of the relationship between the two groups and show why designers and clients will never be friends.

Or could they…

The witty animation above lists the things that cause the biggest disagreements.

So let’s look at some of the points from the animation and see if they stack up in reality.

Combat or Collaboration?

This implies that the client is some sort of check on the designer. That somehow the designer is running away with the project – and presumably the budget, as well.

All that’s needed is a good brief, up front, and a discussion about the scope of the project to avoid ‘mission creep’ and allow both sides to work together to achieve the desired and planned objective. After all, if the client doesn’t know what he wants to achieve how can the designer work towards a firm goal?

Perception or Technology

It used to be quite common that a designer would produce a layout, send it off via email, and the client would be unhappy with the colours. This was often down to the general poor quality of the average business computer monitor which was built down to a budget. A lot of designers also rely on the basic set up that comes with a Mac monitor, which is hardly any better. My monitors are colour calibrated and cost 10 times as much as an average office monitor. So if something is colour critical a client can either see it on my screen or I can arrange for a colour accurate proof to be produced.

These days the issue is changing due to the much improved technology of the average monitor, but older systems are still pretty poor at representing colour as it will appear once printed.

Colours are also very much a personal preference so getting to know what works for a client, and what will work with their identity, is something that all designers should do.

On Trend or Off Message

I’m sure there is a use for the Jokerman font somewhere, but if you want your text to be read easily then using something plainer is recommended. Legibility and suitability are the keys here and an inappropriate typeface will put the reader off without them even realising why.

Unfortunately type seems to be subject to the whims of fashion like a lot of things, but neither a client or a designer should be a slave to it as other practical considerations should take priority. If a client has Windows and Office then he will likely have access to about 650 different fonts (including bold and italics, etc.). I have nearly 5000 fonts so will always be able to suggest something to solve the most tricky of problems.


Clients are not typographers.

And why should they be. I spent 2 years at college learning about type and have been learning ever since as technology changes the way we produce it. The average client bought a Windows PC and was presented with a list of names and the ability to distort things at will, with no training what-so-ever.

The problem with distortion is that it is usually harder to read than the nearest equivalent type version and often the distortions are not recognised by print processes so get dropped; resulting in recriminations about whose fault the problem is. So it is usually better to use an appropriate typeface than one that has been distorted. A designer has been trained in this stuff, so use his skill and knowledge. After all, that’s what you’re paying for…

The Final Frontier?

White space is probably the biggest cause of disagreement between designers and clients.

You paid for all that space in your advert so you want to use it all…

Unfortunately there’s no single answer to this. But trying to cram too much into a space is often counter productive in the same way that leaving too much white space can appear to be a waste of money. It comes down to what you want to achieve and that involves working together.

Vive La Difference

We all know the old argument of Apple versus Microsoft. Or the fact that designers use strange apps when compared to the clients they serve.

However, there are some fundamental differences between the systems a designer will use and those that clients use. Programs like InDesign or Quark Xpress were built from the ground up with the intention of producing work that could be printed commercially. They have a steep learning curve as a result and deal with all sorts of stuff that clients simply don’t need to know about.

On the other hand programs like Word were designed to produce work via a desktop printer and as a result cause all sorts of problems when pushed to deal with commercial print. Simple things like inserting a logo will produce a poor low resolution result unless you do it in a specific way that is not the normal ‘insert’ routine.

So, yes, designers tend to use strange apps, but for very good reasons. However there is more crossover than ever these days and most things are easy to convert from one system to another or are universally accepted, like pdf files. The only program I caution against is Microsoft Publisher. Not because it doesn’t do what it was intended for, but because there is no way to convert native publisher files to anything that can be read on a Mac or in any other application.

Everybody Does It…

These days, finding an image for your project is as easy as typing into Google. Or is it?

Who owns the rights to the image you just found? Is it high resolution, clear and sharp, or a tiny low resolution thumbnail? Is it exactly the image you had in mind or just close enough? Does it reflect your corporate colours (for example) or stand out like a sore thumb in your project because of its background colour?

Photos are one of the most misunderstood pieces of content for your projects. It’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, so is the wrong photo therefore representing the wrong thousand words?

A simple Google search might get you something close to what you had in mind, assuming you can figure out the rights issue, and careful use of the on-line photo libraries might get something very close, but there will always come a time when you simply have to employ a photographer to get the exact shot you need. If you have unique products or services then there is usually no option.

I’ve seen plenty of designers as well as clients simply looking at random images hoping to spark an idea for a project. As far as I’m concerned, this is completely the wrong way round. The designer and client should work out what they are doing and have a clear idea of what images are required before doing any searching or deciding on what photography needs to be done.

Miracles Cost…

Photoshop is a wonderful thing and can often save the day, but it can’t perform miracles or rescue a poorly thought out photo.

So while we can do a lot to improve a photo and even fix a lot of mistakes, over use of Photoshop simply makes an image start to look artificial and can quickly run up a bill that is bigger than taking a new photo.

In recent years it has also gained a poor reputation for over use by the fashion industry. So while it is an incredibly useful tool it is not necessarily the answer in all cases.

Wrong Way Round?

It’s a cliché that designers are driven by ideas and clients by money, but I think this is actually the wrong way round. Because, what clients want are brilliant ideas and designers want to be paid for them. So does this end up a paradox or a virtuous circle?

Creative or Effective?

For some designers, getting an award is the ultimate recognition of their creative powers, but it shouldn’t be. A designer should be working to a brief agreed with the client, who presumably is trying to promote a product or service to grow his business. That goal should be what also drives the designer. If it produces award winning work in the process, so much the better. A win win.

So, do you want an effective campaign or an ego trip?

There are all sorts of awards these days, mostly from organisations you’ve never heard of. However, as far as I know, the same advert has never won a creative award AND an effectiveness award. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

I was once interviewed at an ad agency where the interviewer went on and on about all the awards they had received. I had just spent an hour sitting in reception looking at all the so called awards on the wall and hadn’t been impressed. So I couldn’t wait to get out of the interview as he was clearly going to be impossible to work for. And I felt sorry for the clients.

Don’t be fooled by a designer’s list of awards. They will use it mostly to justify higher prices with no guarantee of producing such allegedly brilliant work for you. In fact the larger a design company is the more likely you are to get a junior looking after your pet project.

A Different Kind of Designer…

So while the animation might highlight some of the differences between designers and clients, I think it is a cliché. It is a designer’s job to understand their clients and work with them, not despite them. Your relationship with a designer should be similar to the one you have with any outside professional. You trust them to do a job that you can’t do as well in house or don’t have the skills to do at all. The designer should work with you and take the time to understand what is required. You know your business inside out, so your ideas are going to be just as valid as the designers, which is where working as a collaboration is most effective…