It’s all your fault – and that’s awesome!

morning song by celandine, WIP

morning song by celandine, WIP

Hands up if you have at least one client horror story.

Should I go first? Alright. How about that time I ended up doing a bunch of full-page, full-color children’s book illustrations for the amazing fee of 0.00$. Or the time I didn’t sleep two nights in order to complete a SUPER URGENT illustration project that then got canceled. My reward? You got it – 0.00$. Maybe the time when I did nine rounds of revisions on a potential logo design, which the client then decided they didn’t really like. And they paid me…. yeah. You’re catching on fast.

I’m definitely not alone in these tales of designer woe. If you follow design sites and blogs, every so often you’ll come across amusing compilations of tales about Clients From Hell – the ones for whom the deadline is always yesterday, the ones who ask for dozens of changes free of charge, the ones who cancel projects when you’ve already done them and refuse to pay what has been agreed. Let us all hold hands for a minute and quietly hate those people now.

Ok, so now that’s out of our system, let me give you a change of perspective. Every one of those bad experiences was 100% YOUR FAULT.

‘But that’s completely unfair!!’ I hear you complain. ‘How can I control the behavior of other people? How can I gain the clairvoyance needed to tell who is going to honor the agreements we made, and who will turn out to be a royal pain in the butt??’

And the truth is, you can’t. That’s a pretty fair complaint. We can’t control the behavior of other people. The good news is – we don’t need to.

You, as the designer, are almost always far more knowledgeable than your client about how design work functions. You know how much time you need in order to produce the required amount of work at the appropriate level of quality. You know how much you need to charge in order for the job to be worth your while, covering your time and expenses and giving you a profit. You know what can and what cannot be done (I always remember my friend’s story about the client who provided a photograph and asked her to ‘turn the head so it’s facing more towards the front.’ Yeah, that is not going to happen, sorry. Photoshop is pretty awesome, but it’s not Hogwarts-level awesome.)

Chuckling at clients’ silly, irrational and downright unreasonable requests is one of the guilty pleasures of most artists and designers. But every time we go ‘Sheesh, what is this guy THINKING!!’ we really should be going ‘Sheesh, what was I THINKING when I let this happen?’

Because you are the one with the knowledge, it is your responsibility to transfer this knowledge to the client, in a manner that is professional, clear, and easily understandable even to someone who knows nothing about design. It is your responsibility to set up a system that will guide them through the process of working with you without leaving any room for ambiguity – because ambiguity is the space within which they can make trouble for you. It is then your responsibility to not let them make new room for ambiguity with their magical ‘evil client’ talents.

So what does this mean in practice?


Here are a few common artist complaints about unreasonable clients, with quick and easy fixes that make sure you never run into that particular problem again.

1. CLIENT WON’T PAY – this is by far the most harrowing and stressful problem, and it happens more than we’d like. The solution:

– Agree everything about the price upfront – the exact amount per illustration or pattern, the amount that will be paid in advance (this is non-negotiable. Anyone not willing to pay some sum in advance is most probably unwilling to pay ever. Doing the work before receiving any money puts you in a vulnerable negotiating position and makes the client feel less committed to the project, since they have nothing to lose by simply canceling it at any stage). Agree the dates on which the remaining payments will be made. The exact arrangement can differ from job to job, but discussing money before you start working is an absolute necessity if you want to prevent frustration, heartbreak and poverty.

2. CLIENT WANTS YOU TO DO SPEC WORK – Spec work is when they say ‘you draw a few versions, and then we’ll see if we like something’. Art competitions also fit under spec work – a ton of artists do the work and only one gets paid. There is no scenario where this is a winning proposition. The solution:

– I once did an illustration for an agency that was pitching the work to a corporate client. I was the sixth artist they asked to do a test illustration – the client had already rejected the previous five. Finally the client walked away from the deal, not satisfied with any of the six illustration styles offered, and didn’t pay a single cent – the agency had to pay all of us out of pocket for the work we had done. If they had been charging the client for the sample illustrations, I guarantee you one of the first three artists would have been chosen and the deal would have gone through – because the company would have felt invested in the project, since they had already spent money on it.

So what do you do when a client asks for spec work? You say ‘no’, in the kindest terms you can muster. There is no reason they should be asking for unpaid work. If they ‘want to see your illustration style’, that’s what your portfolio is for. Presumably this is why they contacted you. You can ask them which pieces drew them to your work, and try to apply that style to the illustration you do for them. If they don’t want to commit to the whole job at once, you can always have a smaller fee for the initial concept drawings, which is paid in advance, and after those are done they can either approve them and agree the fee for the whole deal, or say they’re not satisfied and move on to someone else. But YOU KEEP THE ADVANCE. Because nobody would walk into a bakery, ask for three different types of pastries, and then pay for none of them because they decide they don’t like them enough.

3. CLIENT CAN’T MAKE UP HIS MIND – this is the famous ‘you keep drawing, I’ll know it when I see it’ school of commissioning artwork. The client has an image in his mind, which he cannot adequately explain, and you are expected to use those famous designer clairvoyance skills to figure out what he wants. In the meantime he’ll keep asking for changes, probably going back and forth between versions, until you want to strangle him with your mouse cord. The solution:

– In your standard contract (yes, you MUST have a standard contract! You can use the one I linked to there, and there are lots of other models online which you can adjust to your needs) you need to spell out exactly what work you will be doing for the agreed fee, and how you will charge for any needed work beyond that. So for instance you can say that you will include one or two rounds of minor revisions for free, and after that any further changes will be billed at 50$ per hour, which is a pretty standard medium designer rate. You should also specify the stages of approval, and mention upfront that once a stage has been approved by the client, any further changes to it will be billed at 50$ per hour. So once they approve the sketch, and you start laying in the colors, they don’t go back and decide they want to use a different sketch after all. That’s a whole new project then. They will do a lot less flip-flopping between different options when it’s costing them by the hour.

4. CLIENT WANTS IMPOSSIBLE THINGS – this mostly happens because of the client’s lack of understanding of the creation process. So they might ask you to turn characters in photographs to face different ways, like I mentioned before, or they might ask for the colors to ‘pop, but to also be really elegant and subtle, while also being energetic and appealing to the teenage audience’. Or they might ask you to ‘make the snow look warmer’, or some other apparently nonsensical thing. The solution:

– You need to be able to explain the limitations of the techniques you’re using in a way that is understandable to a layperson and that doesn’t come over as condescending or dismissive of their requests. This takes a bit of practice but it can be done. ‘Make the snow warmer’ sounds like nonsense, but if you think about it you probably understand what they want – they want the image to have less gray tones and to appear brighter and more sunlit. Try to limit the amount of technical terms you use with clients if you don’t know how design-savvy they are. Try to have an open discussion with the client at the start of the project to get a feel for what they’d want. Ask and confirm anything that is not clear to you, preferably by grabbing a relevant pic off Google and asking ‘is this what you meant?’

5. CLIENT WANTS YOU TO RIP SOMEONE OFF – this is the one where they come to you with a piece of art and they say ‘make it just like this, but different enough so I don’t get sued’. They might be asking because they can’t afford the original artist’s work, the original artist’s work is being used by their competition, or the artwork was a big seller for them in the past so they want to recreate its success. The solution:

– This is a judgment call. First of all, have a conversation with the client about what exact aspects of the artwork they like, and come up with ways to include those aspects into your piece. Make sure you openly tell them what you cannot do (rip off other people’s art), and if they insist it needs to be more similar to the original, tell them openly that you could both face legal issues and that you are not willing to take that risk. This will usually get them to see light.

6. CLIENT DEMANDS UNREALISTIC DEADLINES – they are tardy in providing you with references, approvals and other needed information, but demand that you produce artwork at extremely short notice. The solution:

– We go back to your contract, and your offer to the client, which should both include your optimal deadlines – both for your deliverables, and for theirs. Make sure you mention upfront that if they don’t meet their deadlines, you won’t be able to meet yours. If they start to run late, write or call them to say how that will impact the final project deadline. You can be flexible to a point, as unexpected things do happen and we do want to be helpful and open whenever possible. But don’t let them hem you into a position where you need to be pulling all-nighters to meet their ridiculous deadlines.

7. CLIENT DECIDES TO KILL THE PROJECT HALF-WAY – maybe they found a cheaper artist, maybe they scrapped the idea, maybe they ran out of time or money, maybe they didn’t feel you were going in the right direction – it doesn’t really matter. You’ve done a certain amount of work and the client writes to say sorry, forget the whole thing, we’re canceling. The solution:

– I’ve got some magic words for you – ‘Kill Fee‘. It’s not what you pay an assassin to take out a particularly annoying client – it’s the amount the client agrees to pay for killing the project before completion. This incentivizes them to focus on working with you to the best of their abilities, and makes sure you are at least partially compensated for the work you’ve already put in, and for whatever work you had to turn down in order to clear your schedule for this particular client. It’s easiest when the advance payment at the start of the project also serves as the kill fee, so if the client pulls out randomly halfway through, no more financial transactions need to be made.

Well, I’m sure there are more of these but this covers the most annoying ones I’ve come across. Let me know if you’ve had client interactions you weren’t sure how to deal with, and I’ll tell you what I’d have done in the same situation.

Can you think of any bad experiences you’ve had that you can take accountability for, and stamp out? Let me know in the comments! 

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5 thoughts on “It’s all your fault – and that’s awesome!

  1. Great article. A lot of it is relevant to other kinds of freelancing, too – in all fields I always advocate very clear briefs (to clients) and reverse-engineering a brief if necessary (to freelancers) – i.e. asking questions before you start the work until you have created what would be a clear brief (and sometimes it’s worth sending that to them for them to officially confirm and also suggesting a similar format in future to save time – in the nicest possible way). In publishing, I would say that some of the biggest issues (with schedules, with budgets and with quality) come down to bad briefing and lack of communication.

    • Absolutely. And very often the other side just doesn’t realize it’s not communicating clearly, because they’re not really aware of all the info you need. That’s why it’s our job to be crystal clear!!!

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