Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Amateurs Get Angry With Clients. Professionals Educate Them.

As most experienced freelancers know, sometimes we have to fire our clients, for their benefit and ours. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I used to think dealing with frustrating clients was just part of being a creative. But then I realized while, yes, there are frustrating parts of any relationship, frustration should be the exception rather than the rule.

There are certainly times when we want to turn into the freelance version of Donald Trump, screaming “You’re Fired!” at everyone we disagree with. But the truth is, we deserve the clients we get. Bad clients aren’t the result of some cosmic force working against us, they’re more likely the result of our own actions.

Frustrating clients are the result of some misstep we’ve made along the way. To do our best work and work with the best people, we need to be diligent in our relationship with our clients. Here’s how:

Have the guts to say “no.”

If it doesn’t seem like a good project for you, walk away before money is involved. Is that the type of project you want to be known for? Like attracts like, so if you’re filling your portfolio with work you aren’t interested in, all you’re doing is setting yourself up for more of the same (Jason Santa Maria gave a great Creative Mornings talk about the power and value of saying no to work). It can be scary, but think past just this one client. 

Walk away before money is involved.

Clearly communicate your values to the world.

The easiest way to do this is to blog regularly on the same website that your portfolio is on. Write honestly about the work you do. This immediately shows potential clients if their goals and values match up with yours and saves time discovering later that you and your client are out of sync.

Educate your clients.

Chances are, we’ve been part of more projects involving our craft than the person that hired us. We have a great opportunity to teach our clients what we’ve learned from all that experience. 

If a client disagrees with something you know to be right, don’t get bent out of shape. Instead, go into research mode. Show them using examples why what they want doesn’t work for your project. If they can turn around and clearly illustrate why their suggestion will work, you can concede (and learn something in the process). If they can’t you’ve squashed an issue while educating your client for (hopefully) many projects to come. Consider it an “investment” in a resource that you need for your career to be successful.

Interrogate potential clients.

What are their tastes in design? Does that match the work you’re interested in doing? There’s no point taking on a client that loves flashy bells and whistles if you like doing subtle minimal designs. Screening clients lets you pick the ones that are better to work with and provide you with the type of work you’re actually keen on doing more of.

Be clear on the project’s goals.

That way if there are disagreements, it’s not a matter of what they want versus what you want, which is highly subjective, it’s more a matter of what accomplishes the goals of the project in the best way. Put these goals in writing and refer back to the document when necessary.


It’s hard to say no to clients (and their money), especially when you first start out. But like any other creative endeavor, focus on quality early and your career will get exponentially easier. After all, good clients lead to us good work, which leads to us being more happy and fulfilled (and less complaining to our peers about how our clients keep making bad decisions). Creating a body of work you’re happy with can take a lifetime.

We are responsible for the work we put into the world, so why not make that work great?

How about you?

How do you filter for the best clients?

More insights on: Clients

Paul Jarvis

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Paul is a Gentleman of Adventure. He's also a web designer and author. If he's not in nature on some Thoreau-esque tangent (but with wifi), you can find him on twitter at @pjrvs.
load comments (178)
  • missmoonpilot

    before you get too excited by this guys apparent freelance successes, Please bare in mind the BOOKS! yes the ‘BOOKS’ he has to SELL lucky ol’ you!

    as if you weren’t out of pocket enough with your lack of decent paying freelance clients….. ugh

  • David Michael Moore

    I feel sorry for you and your clients, MissMoonPilot. Of course you’re going to be frustrated with the creative process when you make the client the enemy. What Paul is advising isn’t an exercise in positive thinking, it’s picking the right clients to work with from the start. Spend more time filtering and you won’t have to spend your free time finding creative fulfillment.

  • Anna Roberts

    Wow. I’ve worked on both the client-side and design-side, and there’s always room to learn from each other. You know design best, clients know their business best – a good design piece is generally a combination of those two things. If we’re listening to each other good things can happen. But if I’m a client who doesn’t feel like my designer is willing to listen to me, I’m going to get rigid about making sure business needs are met pretty quickly.

  • rayan

    I had clients who keep asking me what do you suggest when working on their website .. so I believe that some knows that you know better about design than they do.

    • Anna Roberts

      Absolutely you know more about design than they do, that’s why they hired you. So there should be moments when they ask ‘what do you suggest’. But they probably know more about their customers, their market, their business, their competitors. Those things should also influence design and designers should look to their clients to learn about them.

  • Ajith

    Great article,
    As a freelancer for the works i do money is the second thing the main goal is the satisfaction for both parties, love what we do and provide good quality works, the clients will come after you..

  • Brooke Bradford

    I had a client who got abusive and wanted to micro manage the project right away. I had to back out very quick, it was never gonna work. Unfortunately, the same trait that made me not want him as a client also made it so that he didnt take it well, I repeatedly responded with, “you dont have to pay me.” until he ran out of steam.

    • Paul Jarvis

      Outside of it even being work, no person should have to endure abuse. For any reason.

  • Fabiana Pigna

    Great Article! I was just in this situation with a client where I had to just say no, and it was SUCH a relieve. Fully agree that you have to do this before money is on the table, and be aware of red flags from the beginning!! will save you so many headaches down the road.

    • Paul Jarvis

      Thanks Fabiana!

  • Akexis

    I’ve personally found that I had a much easier time with my designs when I realized it was a collaborative process. Most of my clients don’t know what they want when we first talk, so it’s easier to take charge with them and sort of guide them to something they’re happy with. However, it’s still something they’re paying for and they’re going to have input. Designer ego is a problem. Occasionally I get a client who not only knows what they want, they’re extremely picky, so my advice?

    Just let go.

    In the end it’s their product and something they’re paying for. If they have a clear idea of what they’re looking for, facilitate as much as possible.

    I’m not sure about the advice about sticking to one style though. Designers, imho, need to be flexible and adaptable and that’s pretty much the exact opposite. I’d say, pursue the clients who are going to have work you’re more interested in, but you can learn a lot from other projects. I rarely get projects that I think, ugh, no. I suppose if you can live off of that kind of exclusiveness, all the power to you, but I don’t know anyone who can.

    • Paul Jarvis

      Agreed! Designers need to lose the ego :) Collaboration is where it’s at.

    • UtahRugbyGuy

      However, if you let go too much when a client is trying to dictate their “bad ideas”, this directly contradicts this article (that I happen to agree with). Yes, collaboration is fine, but keeping a client from “hurting themselves” when we as experienced professionals who surround ourselves with good design our whole lives, I’m sorry to say, a good amount of ego is not a detriment, but an asset to ourselves AND for our clients. I can’t tell you how many clients I have that I’ve flat out refused to do certain things they were asking for and not only do they continue coming to me for my designs, they thank me later once they’ve learned our business more and more. Sometimes we have to rescue them from making terrible decisions that will HURT their business and hurt our future work for them, should they go out of business.

    • Blake McGee

      Such a great point. If I didn’t know any better I’d say we both work for the same agency. Us small guys really have to be careful with this kind of project “screening” because we do have to keep food on the table. But, what I’ve learned is that sometimes it is better to let some projects go, especially if it means the creative team will have felt empowered by doing so. They seem to do their best work from a place of empowerment, and it helps the agency tremendously in the long run.

  • Lee Gilson

    Great article, but even with due diligence its difficult to get to know the client until the project is underway, one client I’m working with at the moment has become a complete pain but was very pleasant during the initial stages of the project. So you don’t always know what your going to get with some clients.

  • Michael71

    We need to keep our antenna up for successful people who are Functional Psychopaths and do everything in our power to sap them of their anti-social and destructive tendencies. Here are two stories on the same book released in 2012.

    Surprise! What jobs have the highest number of psychopaths?

    Why “High-Functioning” Psychopaths Rule The World

    You don’t need as much mula to make you happy as you think.

  • Laura Scholes

    Really great article, Paul. Though some days it can be hard to not scream into the phone “That is the lamest idea ever!”, I’ve learned over the years that collaboration really is key. Yes, they hire me for my copywriting skills, but that doesn’t mean they should lose their own voice in the deal. Thanks for the reminders.

    • Paul Jarvis

      Thanks Laura! I agree, I don’t even have perfect clients all the time :)

  • Kylie Cooper

    A great article, thanks Paul. I’ve been designing for approx 20 years and I still come across very particular clients that like to make endless modifications to a design before they’re happy to finalize. I agree with the comments above and ‘letting go’, and designing for the clients wants, as it’s their design & they’re paying for it. But I still find it difficult finding that happy medium between making endless modifications when I personally don’t like the changes they are making, and by cutting a project too short by saying ‘no, I’m not adding a purple bow because it won’t work’. I get tired of having to justify every stroke I make on a page.

  • bsaunders

    Far more often than I’ve encountered designers who “value their views too highly,” I’ve come across clients who don’t recognize when their ideas plain don’t work. They are like the patient who angrily demands a prescription for an antibiotic after the doctor who has diagnosed a virus.

  • Prasanna Gurung

    Thank you and i really appreciated this Paul. I do sometime snap and later on regret it! This is really been helpful and thanks once again.

  • Julian

    I have to say, there are a lot of truth, but on the other hand, the title is little mismatching. Amateur is somebody who make something more likely then professional. Amate – love. But clients are not our friend or family, they are clients.

    HAve a nice day

  • Singh Kulvinder

    great piece of information really liked it and your last words are really inspiring i am going to keep them with me if you don’t mind………. thanks

  • Carlos Djomo

    Great article, Paul. You give valuable information and present vital aspects of the service provider/client relationship. However, in my humble opinion, common sense can never be overemphasised. Because being too bold is as dangerous and detrimental as being frightened to say “NO”.

  • James

    “NO” is the best education you can offer a client and the market you work in. I like being creative… I don’t want meaningless money making crap to be part of 95% of my work(that’s a big chunk of my life). What do you need the extra money for, if your life sucks?. Creative stimulations don’t just live in hobbies.

  • DonSprouse

    I just experienced such a scenario. In the very beginning of the project I had this gut feeling to walk away; however, this was a referral from another client, so I felt this sense of obligation…”Bad decision.” The client took advantage of the culture I have set for my firm and in the end I provided a work that through countless efforts I could not educate the client, a project structure I knew would fail, and many wasted hours that exceeded the project budget. They say that getting paid is always a positive, but I assure you that if you are a new designer this is a temptation not to fall into. This article successfully communicates this.

  • João Barbosa

    I absolutely agree with you. I keep telling people to look beyond the day they are living. Yet, it seems an outlandish concept, to some. In the end those that were so eager not to be kept out of business are the ones that end up taking less and less.

  • dan

    Such an insightful article. Thank you so much Paul.
    I remember Jason LIttle was going the same path saying “Collaboration is Key”.
    He was also in sum talking about making your client some kinda friend where trust is involved.
    But when you’re working in an ad agency already dealing with difficult clients (you as an employee did’nt choose) and working on boring projects (you as designer would rather be glad not to work on) it seems to turn the equation into an intriguingly solid conundrum. What would then be the way out? How to apply this pearl of truth you displayed in this article to such a case? Thanks in advance.

  • Laura Lin

    It’s great, isn’t it? I’ve shared it with almost every single one of my friends in the creative field. Np :)

  • JCfromDC

    The “research mode” I have tried with at least one recent client to show why their “idea” won’t work universally. This is about logo design, where they INSIST on using a Photo of their building, while I stress that a graphic is the way to go. No DICE. So now they want me to “doctor” the photo for each application sot at it “can” or “will” work. I have stressed (to no avail) that can they show me ONE logo design in their field which uses a photo in a logodesign. They cannot, I cannot, but they insist on using it anyway. I also tried to stress that a lgog design is not so much what a few at the top “like’, but how it will appeal to their “buying audience”. Will they identify with a “generic looking” photo (color or BW) or will they be more likely to identify with a graphic representation? At my wit’s end.

  • Mary Jane Braide

    Oh boy! There is a fundamental flaw at the heart of this piece which is the assumption that you are right and the client is wrong. I’m sure you don’t mean for it to, but it comes across as incredibly arrogant. I always start my client relationships with the assumption that the they have to handle the harsh realities of decision making and that they know their business better than I ever will.

    The symptom of this flaw is the notion that clients need to be “educated”. Really? Also hugely arrogant. No one wants to be educated. My clients teach me more everyday about the art of the possible than I could teach them in a year. Sure, I will always share insight and intelligence etc. but in THEIR language and on THEIR terms. If you want to create pure ideas then be an artist. Otherwise, real life is messy and success means getting to the right place in the right way.

    • Santiago Restrepo

      I think you are either purposely or unintentionally misreading the article leading you make a controversial reply.

      The author states educating the client regarding your own area of expertise, clients can and often will give you valuable insights, knowledge about their business world and markets, about morals, leadership and personal values, even occasionally illuminated aesthetic appreciations and suggestions, however if they teach you constantly about design which is the service they hired you to provide, then you wouldn’t be very useful to them.

      For example if I go to an attorney or a doctor and I have to teach them about their area of expertise, they are fired.

      If you want to teach or educate a client it is obvious you need to speak their language a fit their terms, thats what great educators do. I think you might have been blinded by the title leading you to a very different interpretation of the article. I have been actively working in design for 7 years (graphic, industrial, interior and strategic management) and find great resonance in the statements made, not arrogant at all, I find them to be about humility, empathy, self-preservation and common sense.

      Best regards from Colombia.

    • Paul Jarvis

      I see how you can see it as arrogant, but you’ve misinterpreted my whole point. Projects are collaborations and I learn just as much from my clients as they learn from me. Anyone who doesn’t want to be educated seems like a horribly closed-minded, narrow person. Everyone is a teacher, everyone is a guru.

      It’s not arrogant to feel like I know the scope of what I charge money for. Just like it’s not arrogant for clients to teach me how their business works.

      Maybe approach reading articles without such negativity and closed-mindedness and you might actually learn something? ;-)

      • Mary Jane Braide

        No need to get nasty Paul. Debate is a wonderful thing. In my experience people don’t generally want to be “educated”. They want to learn, but that is a very different thing.

      • Paul Jarvis

        Hey Mary—there wasn’t any nastiness. To me education and learning are the same thing.

      • Miguel Monteiro

        MJB, let me PISS (Put It Stupidly Simple)… ;-)

        I’m a presentation designer with more than 25 years of experience with computer designed dynamic presentations, (long before PowerPoint) and with an internationally recognized presentations portfolio.

        Am I beeing arrogant trying to teach a first time client, who calls “powerpoints” to his poorly prepared presentations and “ppts” to what he should be calling “slides”?
        A sales guy who uses words like “rendering” about a simple info-illustration and constantly saying “it’s just” while referring the work he wants from me, in a “I called you because I don’t have the time to do it, otherwise I’d do it myself, because I know how to work with powerpoint” haughty attitude?

        When this happens, to keep their feet in the ground, I use to say: “We all have pencils and paper… but just by having them, no one becomes a designer or an artist.”

    • James Babb

      I’m with you Mary Jane, relations with a client are more about mutual respect than declaring who is “right” and who is “wrong”. I think Paul is trying to make the point that clients often want to (and perhaps should) learn about what they are asking the designer to do, but to suggest that a client who “disagrees with something you know is right” needs to be corrected, that does seem arrogant.
      I do agree with Paul that sometimes it’s best to back away from a client, or a project, that you sense is not right for you. Better that, than to get in deep and wish you had never started!
      Design is an enormous field, and I’ve personally dealt with hundreds of different clients from all kinds of industries and walks of life. The education they’ve given me has been invaluable, and some have been with me over 20 years. Treating each client with respect, and yes, expecting the same in return, is to me the key to successful relations.

    • Philip Illum Thonbo

      If you walk into a meeting as hired consultant, with feeling that the client probably knows more than you about the field, in which they hired you – you might want to find another job… – of course there is always the matter of 2-way communication but there is a clear line between arrogance and educating – even educating and simply guiding – its always a good idea to start your sentance saying “in my opionion” a frase that will keep you from stepping on peoples fragile toes…

      But then again I know clients that will fire you, just because they feel you are not giving enough consultance for the money (some clients will even turn down your offer because its too cheap) big clients want to be taken seriously.

      It is also an issue of being too invlved or being too careless – simply speaking the words or the client will often get you nowhere and the smart client will often sens this very quickly – so you might need to ask yourself – are you the kind that do the work the client says, pays and forgets or the kind that helps solve unforeseen problems and open potential new possibilities and ends up being spoken about… and if you feel this sound like something taken out of a ferytale then you have undiscovered land ahead of you –

      giving what the client pays for will end up getting both parties happy
      – for some people its what they where told to do
      – for other people its what the client could not imaging them selfs

      it cant be hard to see wich one is the right path to success even seen from the clients perspective –

      and yes the right path to success, do sometime involv suggesting, guiding and educating in that written order.

  • Lyndsay Cabildo

    Honestly, I’m still learning…but I realize that your good intention would not always taken as a good deed but will be taken as an opportunity to get you taken advantage of. I realize upfront deals and even a simple contract should resolve it. Then again, if simple agreements like it were taken advantage and was used as a loophole to get more out of you instead of sticking with the agreement, I guess that would make a bigger problem in the future whether or not you have a contract. I think, Values, Virtues, and Communication are the priced trait we should have in dealing with business no matter what. Unfortunately, its not always the case.

  • Kim Le

    Great article. “Have the guts to say no” is always an interesting debate.

    I’ve been in client services for 8+years, and having recently left a digital agency to join a start-up, the type of projects we take on will absolutely vary. We do our best to balance projects we’re truly excited & passionate about, with others we take on b/c it’s a good opportunity or beneficial to the company financially.

    And when we’ve committed to a client/project, it’s the last resort (in my opinion). I struggle with the thought of throwing our hands up if a client disagrees with something we’ve put in front of them, dilutes an idea or starts manipulating creative… otherwise, they’ll never learn. We’re at the table for a reason. They’ve hired us for a reason. Trust comes with time, but you also need to earn that trust.

    Communication is key, presenting options, providing compelling arguments to back up our choices, getting to the root of the issue (b/c how often have any of us worked with clients who are crystal clear about what they want?) etc. If all else fails, yes – we may then gracefully bow out.

  • jim

    the title is contradictory. “sometimes we have to do this” “but we don’t have to do this”

  • MaggieBeCreative

    Working both as a company employee and a freelance consultant, I have learned that even with my 20+ years as a creative designer, that I will always be a student, and thoseyou work with (for) should always be open to learn something about the work you can do for them. In other words being a true professional is knowing how to be open to the possibility that each job or project brings with it the opportunity
    to learn something new about the business you’re creating for and the possibility to pick up a skill you never knew you may have lacked.

    In both the corporate and freelance worlds, you’re always in a collaboration with a Team – whether you’re the new kid on the block or the one who’s been around it once or twice. Always be confident that your past experience (knowledge) can be a
    positive contribution to the relationship. Strive to learn how to contribute
    your ideas in a positive direction without coming off as being arrogant or to
    sound like you know what’s best. Remember you may know how to create the idea,
    but it’s your client who knows his business – work collaboratively with each of
    your strengths and together you will create success.

  • BLUE731

    This is great advice! I have another question in the same area though. How does one let a client go (in a professional manner) that has become difficult to work with?

  • Matthew Rogers ☠

    Expanding on interrogation, the first question I always ask is whether they have worked with professional designers before and how the relationship went. If it went well, I ask how. If it didn’t go well, I ask why. Before that, I stalk the hell out of them on LinkedIn & Twitter :)

  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    This is very helpful post especially when it comes to people working with different kinds of people. Look at the situation in the most positive way while controlling your emotions, every client has a purpose, you will learn from them so make sure that you can educate them also all throughout the process.

  • Craig Fairbanks

    Good advice! We set expectations upfront but sometimes that is not enough with difficult customers. the good news many of those customers are high maintenance and pay top dollar and the margin at the end of the project is much higher than our normal customer. I best learn to deal with those who frustrate as not everyone can deal with the pressure that come with it. Up front prep is what helps the most.

  • Linda Makins

    Excellent advice. For years I did not listen to that inner voice that told me that this client/project would not be a good match for me. In the end the experience always left me somewhat disappointed and not terribly happy with the outcome. Now I am very careful as to which projects I take on. Truly, screening clients and being totally honest about the importance of a mutually satisfying connection really does work. Lasting positive relationships and wonderful design solutions are the reward.

  • Joe Gunawan

    Great article Paul! I would love feature it on our photography blog, Please contact me at

    Thanks and keep up the good work!

    – Joe

  • Cardiel

    There are some great points in this article, which I came across because of a situation we are dealing with right now. What happens when you research like crazy, explain exactly where the problem lies and outline why a number of decisions were made, citing blogs and industry leading websites…and the client doesn’t listen, won’t listen, doesn’t care…1 month into a 4 month consultancy contract. Realise that you’ll never be on the same page, cut your losses and walk away, potentially affecting the name and standing of the agency, or keep trying? We’ve tried writing everything down in emails and face to face. My experience is that this particular type of client is the hardest to deal with and only makes the brand they are working for suffer but if someone else out there has any tips, please share!

    • Duke

      Some options :
      1) he needs something else (a bribe)
      2) he’s already tied with someone else (who’s already giving some bribes)
      3) you solution goes against his personal interest
      Clients are humans and they have also (personal) needs.

    • adamtaha

      So you did all that work and they themselves haven’t made a commitment? That shows to the client ‘neediness’ and “lack of value.’ You need to lead with values and demonstrate these value i.e. put a system in place, educate the prospective client on your system. If the prospect doesn’t follow your system, that’s already telling you they don’t qualify for your skills and time.

      In other words, believe in yourself and attract clients who see where you’re coming from by getting your own site to raise awareness, educate, and have a system in place in which the customer must first qualify before you do work with so much time.

      Put a system in place, and start marketing and attract tons of potential customers who will be in the loop. Have a strategy so you have the financial power, lots of work to say no to clients who don’t get it in the first step.

      It’s not about bribe, or lowering your price, or discount. This is a qualifying process matter and a system matter, a process you need to fix way before communicating happens with.

      Ask a lot of questions in beginning and if the prospect doesn’t still see, then politely let go of this type of client. It won’t be easy at first because emotions are involved as well.

      However, I found leading with my values and having a system, a process in place has helped big time. Now, I’m loving it and work with clients I want to work with and it’s amazing life. It prevents frustrations with potential clients and I respectfully decline and we’re still happy, ok with each other.

  • AliTalahi

    “No” sometimes can be difficult to be said for a client who trust your work. However It’s an excellent advice for beginners who wants to make their way up in business.

    Great Article!

  • Awesome-Raghib

    never get angry at your clients

    UNSW petroleum engineering 2015

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