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How to fend off bad client ideas

Trust, clear project goals, and objective feedback creates an environment that repels stupid suggestions.

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Do you struggle when asked to implement bad design ideas from your clients?

You’re not alone.

An experienced product designer (we’ll call him “Dan”) contacted me with some excellent probing questions about this fundamental design challenge. It created a deep back-and-forth discussion which helped me uncover the tricks I use to stop bad suggestions before they derail my design projects.

Dan asked:

One thing I struggle with is when exploration turns into decision making. When it’s time to get the design approved, things too often descend into “how a web design goes straight to hell”. I manage an okay level of quality in the end, but have to fight hard for every pixel.

10% of the time my ego gets in the way, I’ll admit.
90% of the time it’s just bad client feedback.

I can wrestle clients back around to a better path most of the time. But is there a bettert way to avoid clients derailing their own projects, and me having to implement their poor ideas?

All of us, no matter what our level of design experience, are challenged by poor client suggestions. The difference between experienced and inexperienced designers is the way we deal with that feedback.

It may feel like clients constantly derail their own projects with bad suggestions, but let’s remember that they aren’t design professionals, and you are. If their creative ideas are as good as yours all the time, you’d have to question whether you’re still the design expert in the room.

Bad ideas don’t come at you like some uncontrollable outside force. You’re driving the design process. You have more control over them than you think.

The following tips will help you eliminate poor client suggestion from being expressed in the first place, and deal with them respectfully when they do surface.

Choose good clients

Some clients simply suck. Sorry for throwing shade but it’s the truth. There are personalities that are difficult to work with, disrespectful, or downright destructive. No amount of hand-holding and relationship building will overcome their deficiencies.

These clients are best avoided no matter how promising the project sounds. They are the ones who will be more stubborn in their bad ideas and refuse to trust your expertise when you try to steer them straight.

Are you working for cost-clients or value-clients?

Knowing the difference will mean everything to your freelance business.

A quick story about one of my only failed client relationships…

Years ago I worked with a husband and wife team starting a new side gig: a premium dog accessory brand.

Part way through the web design process they began accusing me of creating designs that looked too “templated” and “cheap” even though those two words are polar opposites to the type of design I create. There was obviously a miscommunication about what they were expecting. The style was in keeping with the visual inspiration they provided, yet they didn’t like it.

I invited them to meet me and hash it out in person so we could all get on the same page. My only demand was that both partners were present for the meeting (because I had previously observed that they disagreed with themselves a lot and I wanted to make sure the two of them were on the same page as well).

That single, polite meeting request soured the relationship to the point that they wanted to cancel the project and not pay for any of the work to date. Clearly, they felt effective communication was too much to ask, and would prefer I read their minds instead.

Needless to say the project was cancelled.

I later found out that they’d been through a similar series of events with previous designers, all with the same poor result of unravelled relationships leading to cancelled projects. They were serial bad clients. The kind to avoid at all costs.

When clients are that bad, you can usually recognise the red flags early and avoid the project. But sometimes they deceive and charm you at the start, and their true colours don’t show until later.

The other side of the coin is that your personal brand and marketing must be attracting high-quality clients. If bad clients stop coming to you, you can lower your red flag radar and focus more attention on effective collaboration.

Build reputation, trust, and respect

The more your client stakeholders trust your expertise and respect your opinion, the more likely they are to agree with your proposals and allow you to override their preferences when you have a strong case to do so.

Ideally, your clients come pre-loaded with this trust, because they’re repeat clients or come from word-of-mouth referrals. These are the best clients because your reputation has already built a trusting relationship.

Get more freelance clients by becoming “referable”

Referrals are the holy grail of freelance client acquisition. But they don’t come automatically, even for many experienced consultants. So, how do you get more referrals?

When dealing with fresh clients you have to use your initial communications to demonstrate your ability and build that trust. So when the time comes to make those decisions they are less likely to oppose you.

Establish trust through professionalism, dedication, honesty, and over-delivery.

Never underestimate the power of listening and understanding. If your client feels you’ve deeply understood and empathised with their needs, they will better trust to you to meet those needs in your own way.

Guide the feedback process towards objectivity

You try to frame the discussion around business impact and project goals. Client goes “yeah that’s nice, I still want [insert annoying request]”. What do you do?

That one bad decision could open up the floodgates to others — wave upon wave of bad follow-up requests. Is there some soft skills sneaky persuasion technique to avoid this?

Manage feedback expectations

When it comes time to present a design for review and collect stakeholder feedback, it falls on you to set the right expectations and ensure your client knows what feedback is useful and what isn’t. That means:

Read more on giving and receiving great design feedback:

How to give and receive great design feedback

A comprehensive guide for designers and their clients to provide frustration-free feedback and create better design outcomes.

If, after properly directing the critique process, you’re still receiving suggestions from clients that don’t align with your vision of a successful design solution, go back to the basics.

Align project goals

First, make sure you agree upfront what the goals of the project are — these legitimise all ideas considered for implementation. If they cannot connect their request back to one of those project goals, it has no place in the discussion. If you’re both on the same page is very easy to dismiss bad ideas in a way that’s not disrespectful or personal. Everyone has the best interests of the project at heart, and can allow that to overshadow their egos.

Second, your client isn’t their customer/user. As harsh as it sounds, their personal preferences are nearly irrelevant. Does what they want match what their user needs? Do they have any analytics or research to support that?

If the project goals are user-centric it makes it difficult for bad or subjective ideas to enter the picture.

But even if bad ideas align with the right goals, you don’t have to implement them. Come up with a better idea that satisfies the same underlying concern.

Buy yourself time to craft a good rebuttal

I struggle with face-to-face meetings. Sometimes stakeholders will throw such a weird curved ball request that you don’t even know how to react. I get overwhelmed by the stupidity of the suggestion and don’t know how to reply on-the-spot. In the meantime another two people chipped in saying how great that feature would be and then suggesting another two extensions to it. All while below the table my legs start shaking nervously while I watch the project derail in front of me.

Via email I have enough time to respond. In person I choke. I’m an introvert and I naturally try to avoid conflict and disagreement.

I hear you Dan. That’s why asynchronous communications (like email) can be far easier to deal with than live discussion, even for those of us who aren’t introverts.

Defer awkward decisions

When you get put on the spot to respond to a bad idea, defer the decision until later. Say that it’s an idea worth exploring, but you can’t assess how well it will work until you’ve had a chance to go do some design exploration. Stay polite and open-minded — put your best poker face on — even if inside you’re about to lose your marbles. Then you buy yourself time to compose a good rebuttal.

The more people involved in the conversation the better it is for divergent thinking (generating ideas) and worse for convergent thinking (evaluating those ideas and deciding on the best). So when talking face-to-face with a group, stay in the divergent mode and don’t stifle exploration, but make it clear that you will need time to assess those ideas before deciding which ones are worth pursuing. Don’t allow questionable ideas to expand too far unless they have unanimous support from the group, yourself included.

This strategy of deference is useful for all kinds of other essential client communication. Don’t allow yourself to get put on the spot when asked for a price quote. Buy time to compose your estimate the next day.

Any time you’re asked for a decision that you feel underprepared to make, there’s no shame in saying “I don’t know for sure yet. Give me a day to think about it and I’ll get back to you.”

That’s always a better option than blurting out the painful truth on the spot.

Don’t be afraid to stand firm and assert your expertise

I’ll sometimes say “look, it’s my professional duty to steer you away from that decision because [logical reasons why it’s bad]. But given that you have your heart set on it, I can implement this for you”. I find this works. Most people back off. But that doesn’t leave the best vibe, so I use it sparingly.

Just like Dan, I fight hard for quality, and I use a similar line when I have to fend off bad ideas. Don’t be afraid to use it more than sparingly so long as you keep it polite and respectful.

Stand your ground for the right reasons

Standing your ground shouldn’t be about ego. It isn’t “I’m right and you’re wrong” because I’m the design expert and you’re not.

That may be true. If a client is paying you for your expertise, they’re only getting top value out of you if they allow you to use that expertise with some level of autonomy. But…

You stand firm when any idea is doing a disservice to the goals of the project. You stand firm when you’re asked to do something that’s harmful to the end result. And you better be sure you’re right.

As the famous quote goes:

Strong opinions, weakly held.

Stick by your convictions, but stay open-minded. Offer opportunities for other stakeholders to disprove your idea and convince you another way is better. If you show them that courtesy, they give you the same in return.

Backup decisions with data

I can be very direct when telling my clients that one of their ideas isn’t going to work. But I give that weight by backing up my position with research, analytics, best practices, or at the very least an explanation of the logical design process I took to dismiss the idea.

When I have a visually oriented client who has to see something to believe it, I show them a mockup of their bad idea presented side-by-side with my preferred design solution. More often than not, they come around to agree with me once they’ve compared the two rationally.

A quick story about “showing not telling” what better design is

I have a long term client who I’ve been partnered with for 10 years. The company’s entire business is based around its website and it generates millions of revenue annually. We’ve had an awesome, trusting relationship, but it’s had a few trying moments too.

Six years ago we were designing the last version of their website, and things got off to a rocky start. Our egos were clashing. The client was frustrated because they thought I was ignoring their requests.

In fact, I wasn’t. I was considering every suggestion seriously and often experimenting with them in my designs, but then dismissing them internally if they didn’t pan out. I was presenting a better alternative to my client, but not the original request. They couldn’t picture things in their head the same way I do. They couldn’t agree with why I dismissed their solution without seeing for themselves.

So I did a 180 on my design process. I started showing them every suggestion they asked for (no matter how small or bad it was) and presenting my preferred alternative solution alongside it, with some justification for why I thought one would work better than the other.

In all but a few occasions, they sided with my proposal after comparing the two.

After a while, that process gained their trust, and we fell into a rhythm where I no longer had to mockup each suggestion. They trusted my alternative solved the underlying problem more effectively than their initial suggestion.

The process was frustrating for a few weeks, but we came out of it having a stronger relationship with more mutual understanding and trust.

Clients will appreciate you sticking to your guns and respect you more if you do so, as long as you demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about. I’ve had clients comment that my stubbornness for good design is one quality they like best about me, even if at times it led to creative disagreements.

Smart people like working with others who stick by their convictions.

Choose your battles

If an issue is really fundamental and will have negative ripple effects across the whole project, I won't back down until we find a resolution that everyone is happy with.

If the issue it small and isolated, I’ll stay firm on it once or twice, but back down if they persist. Move on to more important decisions. There are always higher priorities worth your attention.

Use creative disagreements as an opportunity to get everyone on the same page

I’ve had to tell clients “look, I’m not comfortable implementing that because it lowers the quality of this project and I am dedicated to my craft, and I don’t push out low quality work”. I’ve always have the client give in, but that only buys me a bit of time. It doesn’t fix the problem.

It shouldn’t be just buying you time. If you have a disagreement that big, use it as an opportunity to address the larger underlying problem. Get you and your client on the same page before you continue any more work.

You should only have to go through one or two large disagreements like that. If you haven’t been able to find common ground by then, the client is worth dumping (or you’re worth firing — are you sure you know which it is?).

Remember that most of your clients have never been through a design process like this before. They may not understand that their communication style isn’t productive until you tell them. The moment you realise you have a personality clash, or simply a disagreement over potential design solutions, address it head-on. Find out what about your current process isn’t working, and revise that workflow to optimise your client relationship and collaboration.

We all want what’s best

Clients just want the best result for their design project. When they make suggestions, it’s with good intentions. But intentions aren’t enough. They need the faculty to produce good ideas, yet they may not have any expertise or training in the creative problem-solving process. They want to be involved as much as possible, but they haven’t been taught the most useful ways to contribute. They revert to blurting out their preferences so they can feel like they’re in control.

As designers, it’s up to us to guide clients through the process, building trust and respect along the way. If we can make small course adjustment the moment we realise we’ve headed astray, we can avoid conflicts, inflated egos, and misaligned preferences.

If you find yourself continually working for “bad clients” with “bad design ideas”, chances are your process is to blame. Are you marketing to the right people? Have you set clear boundaries for communication? Have you set the right expectations for productive feedback? Have you even agreed on the right project goals?

Get your house in order, and you’ll find it becomes a fortress of trust that repels bad client ideas.

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

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