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How to easily spot difficult design clients

Ask anyone in the design business about difficult clients, and they’re sure to have a few impressive stories. Find out what red flags to look for so you can avoid the same frustrations.

Difficult clients are unfortunately a fact of life, no matter what industry you work in. When you freelance in a creative field such as design, it’s often even harder to handle them because the work is so often subjective. The key is to spot difficult clients ahead of time so you can either turn away the work or understand what kind of relationship you’re in for before you start.

A few key factors can warn you that you may be dealing with a client that’s not-so-easy. They tend to fall into one of these groups:

The negotiators

These are the people who don’t know why you charge what you do and think that the work should be cheaper. After all, it’s just a design. They’ll often ask for a discount or want you to give them a breakdown of exactly what they are getting for the price.

Essentially, these clients know they need you, but they don’t want you to know that. They want you to think that you need them to build your portfolio or have the privilege of associating with their brand.

The non-specific brief givers

This is a bad situation to be in, to have a client who doesn’t know what they want. It’s even worse when they say things like, “I’ll know it when I see it.” This vague brief is a recipe for disaster because the client can change their minds and the direction of the project without paying you any more for your time and effort.

Some clients will come with a non-specific brief and then tell you it’s your job as the expert to expand on the idea and make it work.

While it’s true that your expertise is what they are paying you for, it’s not your job to run with an idea. You could easily run in the wrong direction without the client’s input, wasting time and money—yours, not theirs! These clients don’t always realize that a design job is often a collaboration between you as the expert in design and them as the expert in their brand.

The employers

Sometimes, you get a client who sees you as an employee rather than as a contractor. There is quite a strong difference between the two relationships, and it will color your interactions. If the client thinks they are your boss, they will feel confident bossing you around and making you dance to their tune. If the client thinks of you as an equal, the relationship will be more collaborative and friendly.

A client who thinks of you as an employee will want to set specific timelines and feel that they can check in on you at any time. They will probably make it difficult for you to complete the project to fit in with your working methods.

How to deal with these clients

It’s not always possible to spot these types of clients ahead of time. You may not be able to turn down the work, even when you recognize a difficult client before starting a job.

When dealing with them, you need to be steadfast in your skills, experience, knowledge, and tools. You are the expert. They have come to you to do the work.

Know your rates

It’s important to know what you are worth as a designer. It’s also essential to have that worth set in rates that you know you can charge. If your rates are based on your level of experience, your skillset, and the industry standards, then you should never have to question if you are charging too much—even if a client does.

If a client comes to you with a specific budget in mind that is lower than your rates, there is no reason you can’t negotiate. However, you need to feel that you are getting enough out of the deal, especially if the client turns out to be difficult.

Set a specific brief and scope

Once you have set a price, you need to set the brief in stone. If the client is unable or unwilling to do that, you need to look at what they can provide and set out a brief and contract for yourself.

Spell out precisely what you will provide the client with, whether you’ll include a mockup of the design, and how many rounds of revisions they get. Also, determine what the expected timeline is for the project. This needs to be agreed to in writing by the client before you start any design work. It will protect you from scope creep on the project and from a client changing their mind.

Don’t be afraid to be firm on this. If the client asks for you as the expert to run with the project, you can tell them that this set brief is you doing exactly that.

Walk away if you have to

When dealing with a bad project or a difficult client, the hardest thing to do is learning when you need to draw a line in the sand. Firing a client is scary, especially if you don’t have other revenue lined up to take their place. However, if the project is taking forever, making you miserable, or not worth the money, there is no point in sticking with it.

This is where setting a firm rate and project brief ahead of time will help you. It will show what you have done and if you are in your right to keep any deposit paid. It will also give you leverage to say if the client has not kept up their side of things. Whatever the case is, make sure you do things professionally so no one can tell you left the client in the lurch.

Wrapping it up

Spotting a difficult client upfront is a skill that any designer will benefit from. While it isn’t always possible to avoid working with them, it’s possible to manage the situation, take control, and ensure that your position is clear.

Doing this will help mitigate any potential disasters and help you reach the end of the project with your sanity intact, leaving the client happy with the result.

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Deniz Öksüz Fer
Deniz is the Head of Communications & Brand Strategy at Ruul. She's been serving as a solo linguist, writer and editor since 2011. In 2020, she teamed up with Ruul to tell their inspiring story.

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