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You pay me, but I don’t work for you

Who do designers serve?

Mike Monteiro recently shared some poignant thoughts about design ethics and who designers really work for. While his article goes on to compare design to other professional industries and discuss the ethics around avoiding harm and including diversity, his opening statement is what struck me most. Mike tells each of his clients this before they agree to work together:

You may be hiring us, and that may be your name on the check, but we do not work for you. We’re coming in to solve a problem, because we believe it needs to be solved, and it’s worth solving. But we work for the people being affected by that problem. Our job is to look out for them because they’re not in the room. And we will under no circumstances design anything that puts those people at risk.

You don’t work for your client. You work for their customers.

While I’ve never communicated that intent to my own clients as directly as Mike does, fiercely representing my client’s customers has always been a integral part of my design philosophy. My clients have business goals, of course, but blindly striving for them without intimate connection to their customer’s needs is always a mistake.

If a business goal doesn’t align with a user need/problem, something is so fundamentally wrong that it’s way too early to try to solve with visual or even UX design. It’s back to the business strategy drawing board.

I think most of my clients understand and expect this — at least the best ones do — because this user-centric approach to design is becoming the standard. But of course there are still those “I’m paying you so you will do what I say”business owners who don’t quite grasp the purpose of hiring a professional designer. We try to avoid these client, but some of them may slip through without a red flag detected.

I applaud Mike for being so direct with his clients about this issue, and it inspires me to do the same. He says that most client respond very positively with an “Awesome. That’s exactly what I want.” Only a few clients are lost as a result of this ultimatum, but that’s a good thing. Those probably would have turned into nightmare clients anyway.

We should all strive for this approach already, but putting it diligently into practice on every single project is a constant commitment. The important thing is that you genuinely believe and accurately communicate that stance to your clients, while remaining polite and respectful. Mike explains:

When you hire me as a designer, I do not work for you. I may practice my craft at your service, but you haven’t earned the right to shape how I practice that craft. One, you don’t want me designing at your level, you want me designing at mine, which means you don’t get to pull the strings. I do. Two, you’re hiring someone who performs a service, not a servant. There’s a difference. I’m not there to do your bidding, I’m there to solve a problem or reach a goal that we agreed upon.

Reach a goal

Those are the key words here. Your client wants to achieve something, and they can’t do it alone so they’ve hired you to help. Hopefully they have clearly defined what that goal is already (and it’s a S.M.A.R.T. goal). If they haven’t, help them define it!

Your job is to produce the best possible outcome to achieve that goal (for both your client and their user). If you allow your client to micro-manage the design process, they are doing a disservice to themselves by making your design problem-solving more constrained and less efficient.

Some people like control, and they have trouble giving it up. But if they’re paying you thousands of dollars for your service, they should be wanting the best value they can get for their money. The best clients realise that letting you do your thing is how they get them most value.

After all, they aren’t designers. If they could have done this themselves, they wouldn’t need you at all. So they might as well take full advantage of all your expertise and experience by allowing you freedom to use it.

“People ignore design that ignores people.”

Frank Chimero said that, and I love it. If you allow your client to pull the strings, it’s inevitable that the user experience will suffer because your client isn’t the user experience expert that you are. The result: people will ignore the product, and you’ll be no closer to the goal you agreed upon. That’s poor value for your client, and a frustrating experience for you.

Stand your ground

The best scenario is that you have the privilege of working only with clients who understand and respect the necessity of this user-centric design approach. If you find yourself in a situation where it’s become obvious your client doesn’t quite get it, nip this in the bud as early as possible in the relationship.

The case for allowing you, as the designer, to do your job on behalf of your client’s customers — rather than their personal whims or misguided business agendas — is actually extremely logical and makes for smart business, better outcomes, and money saved. If your client can’t see this, dump them.

Not surprisingly, if you let your client dictate the design, they’ll end up with exactly what they expected and no more. If they allow you to do your job, they are more often than not elated when you exceed their expectations at every step.

It’s your obligation as a designer to make sure the experience you create works as well as possible for as many people as possible. Never sacrifice that to please a client’s request that’s misaligned with their ultimate goal. That starts by never accepting a project who’s goals are ill defined, not agreed upon, or you simply don’t believe are worthwhile or achievable.

Now revise your client onboarding process to make sure your next clients will be more than happy to pay you, while you continue NOT working for them.

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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 20 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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