Terrible, well-paying client

I have a repeat client I picked up earlier this summer. They pay well, pay on time and are easy to get along with. The only trouble is that they have horrendous taste, poor judgment, don’t really know what they’re doing and request that I put together work that I’m embarrassed to say I had anything to do with.

I’ve learned what they like, so when they request anything, I’ll mock-up what I know they’ll like, then give them a couple of much better alternatives along with explanations of why the alternatives will work better for them. Without fail, they’ll pick the worst one then change things about it to make it even worse — much worse. They praise the ugly work and complement me on what a good job I’ve done for them and say they’ll get me even more work as soon as possible.

In the end, earning a living is what this is mostly about and their money is just as good as any others. Even so, I’m finding myself dreading having any more to do with them because I just feel terrible about the junk I’m making for them. I’m not quite sure what to do about this problem/non-problem.

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I can empathise. It’s a horrible feeling. For quite a few years one of my mainstays was kids’ non-fiction educational books. Like you, I’d present work, I know would do it’s job and impart the information in fun, exciting ways to helps kids learn, but that wasn’t chock full of drop shadows, 3D effects and pictures at jaunty angles. Not a chance. Every time they’d bling it up even more.

I have never understood why you can’t teach children a little bit of taste whilst teaching them about Solids, Liquids and Gasses. Of course, I get that younger children respond to bright colours and rounded corners. However, once they get over the stages of testing every substance in every orifice, then surely you can start to civilise the little monsters visually as well as intellectually.

From what I could fathom, the reason for this complete taste failure had very little to with actual child development and more to do with an entire system of self-interested and self-aggrandising professional integrity / ego. Decisions were made by librarians and focus groups and people with a vested interest in the status quo. It was a hugely conservative industry that moved in geological time. Over-cautious to the extreme.

The books I designed were almost always for Co-Ed, so if it was for a UK Publisher would already be sold into the US (and visa versa) and other language editions before they started. Because the US market was so lucrative, a lot of compromises were made to placate certain sectors. The end result was that by taking everyone’s sensibilities into account, you ended with a sometimes very odd product. When I say everyone, I mean everyone who makes the choices about what children respond to or what they should or should not see.

It always ended up a train wreck that sold well, as it was the same librarians buying them.

Aside from the visual cacophony that this usually resulted in, more problematic in my eyes, was some of the content. Two of the most ridiculous examples I came across were both to do with reproduction. One was about life cycles in the jungle. Book almost done and a comment came back that we had to remove the testicles from the lion. My humorous (or so I thought) response was something like, ‘I’m not going anywhere near a fully-grown male lion to whip his lads off!’. Went straight over their heads and I received a very factual response about how it could be offensive to a young person and their parents, so please ‘clone’ them out! ‘What? You want four!’ (I wasn’t brave enough to sent that email).

The worst and most serious example of being over ‘correct’ I came across was in a book on human reproduction. We weren’t allowed to have a pregnant woman on the front or use the word sperm anywhere in the book. It had to be ‘male sex cell’. That one was just ridiculous and in the name of placating sensibilities, you end up positively misleading children. I simply cannot see how a picture of a pregnant woman could be offensive to anyone.

Thankfully the books I work on these days are lovely trade titles and I get much more free rein to use typography that isn’t in a rounded box with a drop shadow and bevelled edges!

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@Just-B That sounds like an awkward place to be. Am not sure what I would do in your scenario, I guess it depends on how much you need the money.

One thing I try to do when I make something is to distance myself from it, I try to severe the emotional connection I have with it to gain some objectivity around it. I try to visualize it like a used food wrapper that I’ve crunched up and thrown in the bin. The things you make aren’t you any more a representation of you or a reflection of you than that food wrapper you threw in the bin.

Also I found this, hope it helps:

First of all, if you are giving them what they want then you are doing your job. That goes for any graphic design project.

Second of all, bad design is just another style (is what I tell myself in these situations).

Third of all, your client pays well and they are happy with your work. This is a win-win.


We’ve all done work that we wouldn’t put in our portfolios. It’s part of the job. I’d say keep serving the client, offer alternatives when you can, and offer advice where appropriate. Other than their taste, they sound like a great client.

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You had me at well paying.

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I mean we have all been in situations where the client absolutely has no concept of ugly and gravitates to it because “it’s flashy and big” sometimes it’s okay to just give them what they want. have fun making a bad design and spend the money.

You know what they want and they have consistently ignored your better ideas.
I suppose you already have an answer to what you WANT to do. You have the experience, knowledge, and have offered hindsight to many designers here. Only you know what your needs are and budget are. (unless you’re that transparent).

Maybe you need to force them into a better direction and explain why it’s more financially viable to pick a better design that reads clearly. Only give them good options its possible they need to come to the project with fresh eyes. Or maybe their demographics are so entrenched in, “bad design is good” which I tend to see in lower-income areas around me and it does appeal to their clients.

If they wont budge. Accept the money and make the most of it. Reinvent bad design. Tell yourself whatever you need to to sell the idea that what you’re doing is the new chic thing the new “IT” thing.

Coincidentally (or not), the company I’m working with has decided to experiment with publishing books aimed at children ages 8 to 13. I can’t go into detail about them, but they’re a successful business with no previous publishing or design expertise. They hired me and a writer to bring this missing skill into their group after badly bungling their first few attempts.

Unfortunately, they believe my role is to just tidy up the awful work they were already doing and defer to the writer whose tastes seem to match up with their own. After reading what you’ve written, perhaps this is the norm with children’s books, even though there are some beautiful and wonderfully designed children’s books.

I have little problem distancing myself from my work. I’ve been doing this for too long to get personally attached to it. The problem I have is that intentionally doing substandard work is so dull and boring that I have no motivation to proceed. It’s as though my mind recoils from the thought of having no challenge in front of me other than to slog on through the monotony.

I find myself writing long messages here, daydreaming about doing the laundry, and searching for just about anything else I can think of to distract me from it. Teachers used to punish unruly kids with the boredom of making them sit in the corner facing the walls, which is precisely how I feel when having to work on unimaginative projects.

Oh, I’ve already tried that. No luck.

Yes, I think that’s it in this particular case. :wink:


I think the method of presentation makes a difference.

I’ll usually give the client 3 choices. The first is the one that hits all their checkboxes. The second concept I try to bring some of my insights to it, integrating my choices into theirs. Third concept is all mine, and is usually the “and now for something completely different” concept. If I send the 3 concepts by email, without any explanation,… which I shouldn’t do, but sometimes I’m really busy, so I do… they almost always choose the first concept. They conceived their baby, I have delivered their baby, there isn’t anything going to get in the way of their love for their baby. And it may be an ugly baby, but that doesn’t matter to them, because it’s their baby.

It makes a big difference if I can present to them and explain the choices I made and why I think they will work best on the project. And to remind them to look at the concepts in terms of the marketplace and what their peers are doing.

If I show up in person with artboards and an easel, I can almost always get them to choose 2 or 3. Not as effective, but still pretty good, I will set a phone appointment with them, and once that starts, move the concepts into dropbox and have them open the files as we speak… so the first time they see it is while I’m talking about it. If they see the concepts before I can elaborate, then they are always drawn back to the design that was their concept, and there’s no way to talk them out of it.

My background is in education, so I tend to see that as part of my role as designer. No one giving me assignments has a background in design, so they’re doing the best they can with what they know. If I want them to make good choices, I have to teach them what those choices are. But it’s rough because there is constant turnover in personnel. It seems like once I get one person tuned in they are gone and I’m starting all over again with a newbie who is intent on making the same bad choices.


That’s good advice Mojo.

Dealing with remote clients via email and zoom really puts a damper on establishing a trusted personal relationship where that education can take place.

I suppose I’ve been lucky having spent most of my career in jobs where, as the creative or design director, I’ve essentially been my own client and have had, more or less, the final word on design-related things.

As an after-hours side thing, I’ve always worked with a handful of freelance clients. Now that I’m doing it full-time, I’m finding it much more frustrating.

Piggybacking off of @Mojo’s comments, I always try to present logos in person. With the 'rona and distance, I have not been able to do that for the last couple of logos I’ve worked on. What I do instead is set up a Zoom meeting and walk the clients though the presentation as I would if we were physically together. It’s usually a PDF and I’ll go into full screen mode (or presentation mode, whatever it’s called). After the presentation, I’ll email the PDF to them. This has worked pretty well, but I’d still rather make presentations in person.

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It sounds to me that this work is weighing heavy on you. If you don’t really need the money, how would you feel about just telling them it’s not a good fit and pointing them to another vendor?

I’m not sure how much time and energy you’d want to invest in “educating” your customers, @Just-B, but maybe you could put together a series of short to-the-point whitepapers about the DOs and DON’Ts of layouting, design trends based on the best selling competitor benchmarks, etc. That in itself might be a rewarding project for yourself, and even if they don’t take your hints, you could also send the whitepapers to other clients and prospects to advertise your expertise.

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I’ve learned over the years that if someone wants something and they’re willing to pay, no problem. My advice: don’t waste your time with better design work that’s not appreciated. Not everything merits space in your portfolio, and there’s always going to be work that you’re not proud to hang your name on. You said you know what they want, and you’re pretty good at giving them that. Aspiring to greater moral conviction in this case is pride driven - that won’t pay bills. Unless you really can’t stomach the work and have other stuff to take its place, keep doing what you’re doing until something better shows up. When that happens, develop an exit strategy and move on, but in a nice way.

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Just-B … Man!—Can I ever relate to this! It has happened to me over and over again, mostly with “Big Ego” clients like attorneys, doctors, and dentists, as Sprout said . . .

I learned that it all comes down to whether I can afford to just let these guys “float out to sea” or whether I really need the money. And like Steve–O said:

For me, I realized it was mostly a pride thing. I could almost guarantee that if I pitched a client three options, they would consistently pick the worst of the bunch. The work I did for them never went into my portfolio, but if I really needed the money, I would simply bite the bullet, get it done, and pound my forehead at their lack of taste all the way to the bank. It sure beats flipping hamburgers!

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Reading through my first post, I made it sound like this was a new problem I’ve run into since I focused on one recent client. Really, though, it’s always been an ongoing problem that defies a good solution. The creative professions are probably the worst as far as counterproductive client interference is concerned — most everyone things they’re designers or can adequately judge the work that designers do.

Yes, I think a lot has to do with a designer’s pride, but I don’t think it’s a bad kind of pride where obstinance and arrogance overrules an open mind. Instead, the kind of pride I’m referring to is pride in one’s work, which is a good thing.

As important as it might be, money isn’t something that makes deferring to bad ideas easier for me. If I had simply wanted to make money, I would have become an attorney where I could make really good money doing monotonous and mind-numbingly dull things. Instead, the money has never been a sufficient motivator for me to become invested in a job. Instead, when the fun and satisfaction of creating something new and better is taken away, the job becomes drudgery to me, no matter how much it pays.

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