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InsightSept 06, 2022

Red flags designers use to identify difficult clients

Written by Katie Wilhelm RGD,, and Amanda DeVries RGD
Illustration showing a man and woman looking into the computer

Designers work with a lot of people and unfortunately, not every one of them is a pleasure to do business with. For this Business Perspectives article, we asked business owners what sets off alarm bells for them with prospective clients.

"For me, a client red flag is an email that starts with “I need a logo - I have a sketch, and am just looking for someone to draw it for me. It shouldn't take too long.” In this case they are looking for a digitizer who can simply execute their vision, and not a designer!" 

—Amanda DeVries RGD, Owner, Eye Candy Design

"One that comes up all too often is when there are too many stakeholders. For example, a project manager contacts you with a great project. But it soon becomes clear that this project manager commands little authority. Behind the scenes there is an army of stakeholders, often with differing opinions or demands. It’s important to identify that this might be a problem at the beginning and have parameters in place to ensure there is one point person who is able to coordinate and streamline all stakeholder input and feedback. If not, prepare for chaos!"

—Wendy Gray RGD, Creative Director, Gravity Inc.

"As an Indigenous designer, I am often asked to consult on projects for First Nations people. If the “why” behind the project is a performative act of virtue signalling, this raises a red flag. Another one is a situation where the client is late or misses our first meeting without communication. This raises a red flag of poor communication. Avoiding this client often means avoiding a headache."

—Katie Wilhelm RGD, Designer and Marketing Consultant

"One I focus on is an ambiguous decision-making structure. I try to understand who is responsible for final calls and whose perspectives I need to hear from during the design process. With that knowledge, we can make adjustments throughout the process to ensure we’re engaging the right people. This can even help some clients make decisions more easily. Without that knowledge, so many things can slide off the rails. Getting this clarity is one of the first things I aim for at the outset of every project."

—Tristan Marantos, Associate Creative Director, Frontier

"One of the key red flags we find with prospective clients is any signs of devaluing the creative process from the outset. Instances where an initial discussion leads to phrases like "we have to be scrappy" and "can we cut out the strategy phase in the interest of time" are often a red flag that a client won't be interested in following a methodical creative process. Cutting corners through this process typically leads to results that no one is happy with and can often create more work for everyone in the end."

—Zia Somjee, Co-Founder and Designer at ZAK

"When clients come with fully formed ideas that they need help 'finessing'. To me, this demonstrates a classic lack of understanding of how to work with creative teams and how to benefit from the true value that deep industry experience brings. You would never recommend a defence strategy to your legal counsel or give advice to a doctor regarding your upcoming surgery. Creative teams with decades of experience generate original thinking, differentiated ideas and, through solid, informed decision-making, dramatically reduce the risk of failure for the work they deliver."

—Nick Richards, Founder, Chief Creative Officer at Will

Below are a few red flags suggested by our Instagram community:
“They say I just need a designer to make things pretty.”
“They micromanage you and tell you how to design.”
“They ask for specific examples of something that you already have on your website.”
“They challenge a very accurate quote (and inevitably increase the scope later).”
“They try to haggle the price down.”
“Talking over you or around you, like you aren't there, while presenting. Not going to go well!”
“They call me for every little change instead of sending emails.”
“They require too many changes after final deliverables are sent.”

And the one that everyone unanimously agreed with...
“They won't sign a contract.”

Katie Wilhelm RGD

Katie Wilhelm, RGD (she/her), is an award-winning Indigenous designer and consultant based in London.


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