The client hates your design. Now what?

It can happen to the best of us. You put in countless hours into your work, let out a couple of drops of blood, sweat and tears, rehearse your speech to your dog/cat, present the design to the client, and, after a couple of excruciating seconds of silence, they let out one of the following...

“This is not what we expected.”

“You completely misunderstood our idea.”

“This won’t do.”

Your heart sinks. “That’s it”, you think, “I’m a terrible designer.” You rationalise that you were never good at drawing. You start considering other career options. You remember that delivering pizzas was never this stressful…

Hol’ up.

What you’re experiencing is a natural reaction to criticism. Especially if you’re a junior designer (although the initial sting hurts mid-levels and seniors alike). This is your primal instinct kicking-in. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and go through this mental checklist:

Don’t take it personally.

Although extremely difficult to do in practice, try to disconnect yourself from the designs you create. Your work is NOT you. It’s a combination of your time, effort, skill, experience… but in the end, it’s up for subjective judgement. Just remember — it’s not you on the stage.

Furthermore, you don’t know what’s going on in the back of the client’s head. They might be under pressure from the “higher-ups”. They might be suffering from a lack of aesthetic education and feeling insecure about it. Finally, they might be just having a terrible awful no good day (yes, it’s a movie reference, look it up).

The best you can do is take a step back and look at your work from the sidelines. Don’t take the harsh words as if they’re pointed at you. Instead, focus on how you can find the problems the client sees and make them disappear (in their eyes, at least).

Try to get to the root of the problem.

There’s always something. Maybe it’s the font. Perhaps it’s the colours. Perhaps it’s the placeholder images. It can even be the micro-copy you graciously added while you wait on the actual content. Whatever it is, rarely the client JUST hates your design — they dislike some part of it, and it stops them from seeing the big picture.

Your job as a professional is to distinguish what that part is. Take the client by the hand (not literally, of course) and guide them through the design step-by-step once again, taking the time to stop at critical points and making sure everything’s OK in that department.

You’ll definitely know when you’ve struck a nerve. From there it’s only a matter of fixing the problem, and you can do that in two ways:

  • Step down. Don’t argue, make the change, move on. 
  • Stand your ground. Feel confident in your decision? Prove that it’s critical.

After this, it’s possible the client will be content and you’ll have the green light. If not, proceed to step 3.

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No, pinkies aren’t better.

Return to the brief.

The brief is king. If not, you should rethink your pitching strategy.

It’s the cornerstone document that serves as a beacon of reason and logic in a sea of (highly) subjective opinions.

When the client signs-off on a brief, the matter of “what” and “how” they want something done is set in stone. It’s protection against the constantly lurking threat of “we changed our minds”. It’s your ticket to a good night’s sleep.

Finally, it’s something you come back to in a situation like this. If you’ve done your job right and followed the brief (and you better make sure you did), you can very politely reference it and remind everyone at the table of what was agreed upon.

Regroup and try again.

OK, so you’ve followed along and applied every step mentioned before: disconnected yourself from the design so you can better manage emotions; tried to find the root problem; referenced the brief. The client still won’t budge? Well, first re-evaluate how much you are willing to sacrifice for this project.

At this point, it’s safe to assume you’re facing a problematic client. That means more problems are probably coming your way, and it’s pretty much out of your control. You can walk away (that’s always an option, never feel like you’re a hostage) or try regrouping and taking one last shot.

  • Provide real-world examples. Sometimes the client lacks the imagination needed to visualise your idea fully. A static design has nowhere near the complexity and dynamics of a live website. That means the awesome transitions, reveal animations, and button hover effects are all in your head… but not the clients. All they see is a static picture. Your best move here is to find real working examples from the web and show it to them. “This section would look similar to this thing right here”, “This dropdown would appear like this, I imagine”, etc. That way, you’re not spending crazy amounts of time creating a complex prototype, but at the same time letting the client in on your vision – that can go a long way.
  • Win some, lose some. You can’t win every battle, but you can choose which ones to lose. If the client has a plethora of little knicks and knacks about your work, choose which ones you can sacrifice for the greater good — the parts you deem crucial in your design. In other words, let the client win some debates. Acknowledge their wishes to change colour here and there, agree on their points about the font size for the menu, and before you know it — you’ve convinced them to keep that sophisticated gallery you’ve dreamt of implementing one day.
  • Provide support for your decisions. A fact without solid evidence is just an opinion. Meaning, if you think an accordion is the best solution for a particular section of a page, you better have some compelling reasons as to why that is. Simply saying “this looks best” won’t cut it. The client wants to see and hear professional opinions and reasons for every cent they’re spending. Naturally, this can slow the process down but typically doesn’t happen. Prove your expertise once or twice, and the client will grow to trust you without question.

Be ready to part ways.

With all that said, there will always be clients that are unwilling to meet you in the middle. Their insecurities or a false feeling of expertise will force them to reject any compromise and push for complete control over your work.

If this is the case, be ready to leave. As mentioned before, you are not at the mercy of the client’s whim. Learn to recognise when there’s no hope and stop the process before you waste any more of your time and energy on a project that is doomed to fail.

Of course, you might be tied into a contract. If too much is at stake and you can’t afford to leave, take one for the team (i.e. your sanity) and try to close the project as quickly as possible. After that consider rewriting your contract to better protect you in similar unpleasant situations. But that’s a topic for a whole nother article.

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This article is just overflowing with drama, isn’t it?

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