10 Difficult Design Clients, and How To Deal With Them

As the owner of a freelance design business or design agency, you’re always working with a variety of clients. Some clients are amazing – they give you a succinct, accurate brief, they allow plenty of creative freedom, they’re open to new ideas, they are prompt with their feedback and they sing your praises to their colleagues. But what about the other type of client – the difficult client.

Every designer has their share of difficult clients, each with their own unique personality and quirks. Here are five of the most common difficult design clients, and how you can deal with them.

Difficult Client 1: Haggling Harriet

She is brash and opinionated, and she will spend more time arguing over price than over setting out the creative brief. A Haggling Harriet will wring every last ounce of value from her budget and will want to understand exactly where every dollar is being spent.

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How to Deal with Haggling Harriet: A robust project management system that tracks time will stop Harriet from questioning every single hour spent on a project. Having a clear set of pricing structures and options will help Harriet understand what she’s paying for, and negotiating back at her (“If we cut $100 off the price, you’ll need to upload your content to the site yourself) will ensure you’re not out-of-pocket thanks to her scrimping.

Difficult Client 2: Low-Tech Louis

A Low-Tech Louis will call instead of emailing, insist everything be faxed to him, and will want in-person meetings for aspects of a project that are usually resolved via your project management system. If you ask him about the Cloud, he points out the window. All your productive, time-saving systems will grind to a halt as Low-Tech Louis refuses to learn how to send an email or sign off work online.

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How to Deal with Low-Tech Louis: Louis needs his hand held throughout the design process – and you may have to explain concepts a few times to ensure he understands. If you have a team of designers, give Louis’ job to the most patient of them – because they will need every ounce of that patience. It can help to explain technological aspects in writing so Louis can refer to them at his leisure.

The best way to deal with Low-Tech Louis is to give him the best advice about technology, and utilize his knowledge about his business to make the project as big a success as possible. Don’t push a new system on him that you’re not sure he’ll be comfortable with (such as a website that requires a lot of updating). Allow him to dictate his comfort level.

Difficult Client 3: Second-Opinion Sam

Second-Opinion Sam might be a single cog in the machine of a giant corporation, or a small businessman sharing responsibilities with a spouse, business partner or particularly astute cat. Either way, he has to get a second, or third, or tenth opinion from his office on absolutely every decision. This makes Sam painfully slow to work with and often returning with conflicting ideas he expects you to resolve.

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How to Deal with Second-Opinion Sam: Unfortunately, there is really not that much you can do about Sam – his existence is a fact of life when working with companies. It can help to present Sam with a couple of alternative options at each stage of the project upfront – this way he can present all options to his team at once. Charge accordingly.

Difficult Client 4: Need-it-Now Nancy

Nancy is a repeat client, which is wonderful, but every job Nancy brings to you needed to be done last week. Nancy believes all her jobs are “high priority” and doesn’t know or care that you have other clients.

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How to Deal with Need-it-Now Nancy: You need to carefully manage how much of Need-it-Now Nancy’s work you take on at any one time, and you should only have one Nancy on the books at any one time – any more is a recipe for high stress.

You need to get Nancy to understand that repeated urgent requests are unacceptable – do this in a gentle, joking tone, but be firm when you say that you are making an exception for her, and that you won’t be able to again. Often, Need-it-Now Nancy’s have so much urgent work because they are disorganized and they don’t realize how their habits affect your business – so it’s up to you to make her understand!

Difficult Client 5: Indecisive Ian

Indecisive Ian doesn’t know what he wants. But what he wants isn’t what you’ve created. He can’t tell you what it is, but he’ll know it when he sees it. A simple job can be stalled by several rounds of intensive edits while you and your team take wild stabs in the dark at trying to perfect Ian’s impossible vision.

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How to Deal with Indecisive Ian: You cannot design what the client wants if the client doesn’t know what he wants. Indecisive Ian will be one of your most difficult and frustrating clients – and he may become frustrated himself if he doesn’t see the “perfect design” he imagines.

Be very clear from the beginning exactly what revisions cost, and make sure this is outlined in the contract. Taking the time to produce a detailed creative brief will also help you narrow down the parameters of the project, and it will be less likely to spiral out of control.

Difficult Client 6: Copycat Candice

Candice has come to you with a problem: She’s seen one of her competitors websites in your portfolio, and it look so awesome she’s decided she needs a her website done, too. The problem is, she wants you to basically copy what you’ve done for that previous client!

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How to Deal with Copycat Candice: You need to clear up any issues of copying – whether from one of your previous clients or another business, right up front. Say something like, “we try to look at each clients needs on an individual basis. What worked for that company won’t necessarily work for you. And if we just copy what we did for them, not only is it not fair to them, but it also has legal implications and it paints you as a copycat – your customers will notice, and it will reflect poorly on your company.”

Explain to Candice that you can incorporate some of the ideas and concepts into her project, but out-and-out copying isn’t going to work. Focus on getting her excited about her distinct brand and what her company can offer.

Difficult Client 7: Lets-try-it-my-way Larry

Larry can be a difficult client to spot. Upon first encounter, he appears to be the perfect client – enthusiastic, interested in learning about the process and willing to try your more creative ideas. But the first clue comes when he starts telling you about his skill as a designer/photographer/artist, and before you know it he’s pushing copies of his own concept sketches into your arms.

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How to Deal with Lets-Try-It-My-Way-Larry: I get it – you don’t want to be the one to burst his bubble. Larry is a good client, but he’s not a creative professional, and his ideas wouldn’t be the way you’d approach the project. So what to do?

The best way to approach Larry is to use his ideas as a jumping-off point for the creative team. Take concepts – rather than actual designs – and use them as the framework for the project. Explain to Larry that he has specific ideas in mind, so you’re going to follow that direction, however he’s welcome to sit back and let you do your job.

Difficult Client 8: Paranoid Phillip

Paranoid Philip is dangling an exciting, top-secret project for a major brand right in front of your nose, but his non-disclosure agreement is the length of a historical novel and he is demonstrating a distinctly antagonistic attitude toward your staff. He seems convinced you’re going to rip him off, and nothing you say will convince him to otherwise.

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How to Deal with Paranoid Philip: A paranoid client will present you with a significant amount of legal documentation drawn up to protect their interests. This usually means 101 ways to get out of paying you for your work. You must hire your own lawyer to go through the documents to make sure you’re covering your own back.

Don’t take on a paranoid client for a small job, as the legal fees and hassles involved will eat away what little profit you’d have made. For a large job or a high profile client, make sure your contract is explicit, with lawyers fees added to your total.

Difficult Client 9: The Too-Cool-For-You Yolanda

Yolanda works in an industry everyone dreams of getting into – music, or film, or space-exploration. She has a job for you, but she knows that if you don’t take it, she’ll easily find another designer or agency who will. Too-Cool-for-You Yolanda acts like she’s doing you a favor by giving you a job, and she usually expects special treatment for her trouble, such as a discounted rate.

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How to Deal with Too-Cool-for-You Yolanda: Remember that the reason you take on Yolanda is to get that sweet job for your portfolio. The best thing you can do is be honest with yourself about how much you want that job, and whether it’s worth the extra work/lost income. If you’re just starting out, Yolanda can give you a real door into the industry, but if you’re a seasoned designer, Too-Cool-for-You Yolanda could be more trouble than she’s worth.

Difficult Client 10: Disappearing David

David was super-enthusiastic about your design project in the beginning, and he approved initial roughs very quickly. But now, you need his approval on the first proofs, as well as a deposit, and he’s not following up with you and not answering his emails.

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How to Deal with Disappearing David: It could be that David has a lot on his plate right now. It could be that he has family issues keeping him away from work. It could be that he’s having email issues. It could be that he’s simply disorganized. Or it could be that he’s deliberately trying to stiff you for your fee.

The only way to find out is to contact David. If you can’t get hold of him via email after a week of trying, then give him or his business a call. Let him know that you’re halting work on the project until you hear back from him. And don’t give it another thought till you do!


Difficult design clients come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. But it is how you deal with them that define you as a business owner. Have you had a difficult design client recently? How did you deal with their situation?

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  1. Thanks for the information provided in this post.
    I have a client, he is into fashion store and design brochures, flyers and banners for him.
    He is giving me work since some time. But pays a small amount. I was planning to get rid of him so how can i tell him? and as a designer what amount we can charge for the graphic works such as flyers, banners or may be logo etc.

    • Hi Amith. You don’t necessarily have to get rid of him. What kind of contractual agreement do you have with him? Are you signed on for a certain number of months at a specific rate? If not, here’s what I’d do: send him an email, or give him a call and explain that due to increases in overheads and your own experience you’ll be raising your rates. Explain what the new cost of his work will be. He may be happy to continue to pay. If not, he’ll simply tell you he can’t hire you anymore. Problem solved :)

      • Thx for the solution :) Will try That

  2. Thanks for sharing such a best guidelines to handle difficult design clients.

    • You’re welcome, Kevin!

  3. Very good site about typical kind of clients.

  4. Great article Steff! Although I don’t design, I can still use your advice when my law office faces similar difficult clients. I do have a design/website company that handles my law firms website and now have a totally new perspective on website design professionals and a new found appreciation for designers that have to interact with clients described in your article. Thanks for sharing!

  5. You forgot “Unique Johnny”, who wants something “totally different”, and repeats that the more often the more design ideas you’ve shown him.

  6. Awesome article! Sometimes you even get a client that is a lot of these in one!

    • Very true. Currently dealing with a terrible crossbreed of Larry and Ian. Blehhhh

  7. Then, there’s the client who constantly asks “how come we are not number one in google?”

  8. I need this right now! The client does not know what she wanted, and she gets opinion from families/friends everything. Had to do re-design the website again due to her advisers. Still unsure what she wants. Told her few days ago that some pple that are advising her are not professional designers who don’t know what’s involved. Thanks once again.

  9. Fantastic article! We all have difficult clients and sometimes the solution is surprisingly simple.

  10. 2 more:

    “Argumentative Andy” He vents his frustration by trying to pick fights(!). Tries to trip you up so he can have a go at you. Solution: DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. After meetings send follow up emails recapping points and next course of action. Make it CLEAR what everyone is responsible for. Stay calm and say, “well actually you agreed to blah blah” or “the deadline was not met because you didn’t supply blah blah even after I reminded you.” Eventually the jerk will shut up.

    I suspect he’s the brother of “Power-hungry Pat”. Smug and arrogant, she’s the first person in her family to get a decent management job and she wants YOU to know it – every time she communicates with you… SOLUTION: same as her bro Andy.

    Actually your best defense with ANY client is DOCUMENTATION. Keep a diary like a Moleskein – yes, something with pen and paper, remember that? And daily jot down quick notes regarding when input was submitted, designs sent, etc so you can look back. Just a word or two.

    Also: don’t give a difficult person what they want. If they are pushing every button to drag you into a confrontation DO NOT fall for it. I agree with the article. STAY CALM. In the end you’ll be remembered as the mature, dignified one while the other person…well, remembered for the jacka** he/she is!!!!

  11. Hey. Awesome article and in the last one year of my new business as a design consultant, i have met all of them. The advice is great. I however have one question I haven’t found an answer to.
    ” Imagine the project has a good brief, Timeline, Cost. All set! now its been a few weeks beyond the timeline proposed, which also means extra effort from our side for the client. The client has the trump card which when played says ” i’m still not happy with the results, its not about the time spent. You could not deliver a satisfying design output so how can we close the project or how can i pay you more” It is a viscous circle: Submit designs( to the best of our ability) on time. Payment balance pending, Client not happy. Can a client wind the argument saying design is not done so project is not over n u don’t get paid? Is it bad to ask to a new start new timeline new added fee for new effort. please help. Thanks in advance!

    • One very simple sentence made very clear in the initial meeting. “Your request for my creative services constitutes an order.” If you dont have a set fee, Give an estimate based on the brief they have provided allowing time for perhaps 2 or 3 changes and make that clear also. Every time you submit a proof include “work to date: $x” this shows them they are encroaching on estimated limit. They then choose if the wish to continue with countless revisions once the agreed limit has been reached. Even if they do not end up using your design, make it clear your time is not for free. I can almost guarantee they would not do something for nothing. If you have met their brief as stated and followed instruction and they are still not happy, then they just have an indecisive nature. Their problem. Also, if you have it all in writing and they still won’t pay, then that’s more of a legal issue.

  12. What about a client who is just old? He doesn’t know anything about design, and certainly not MODERN design, but seems to think he does. The magnitude of the project would be great for my portfolio, but…I don’t want my name on a great big pile of work that looks dated. What should I do?

    • Do we have the same client? Ha! Going through this right now. Every time I send him work, he has to draw all over it or demand I change this or that – as if I’m an incompetent designer. Today I “tested” him by running off of his idea but using my style, which is incredibly more modern and most importantly functional. This didn’t even work. So, I guess I’m going to end up giving him what he wants but make myself a version for my portfolio. You really can’t change their minds, sometimes.

    • I’d do the work, just don’t put a link to you/your website, so nothing connects you.

      I had a web design client who wanted a holiday cottage letting site in blue and orange – a very particular shade of blue and orange too. I knew it would look awful and tried to dissuade him, but to not avail. Anyway, the site looked awful in those colours but he was delighted, it was just as he imagined it. Happy client.

  13. Great article. I needed to read this today. Thank you!

  14. I’ve had “Client #7” more times than I could count. But, the ones that really get to me, are the ones as mentioned above, that give you the creative space, are open to new ideas, and when you finally get the work done…..Uhm, could you change the color to a more dark red? And can you make the logo a little but larger/smaller? …or how about this? And that? I hate people like that. Why? Because they forget that creating something out of the blue is not easy, you have to plan out, make tons of mistakes, and not to mention PUT A LOT OF HOURS INTO IT. For them to come by, and say hey, can you change this and that? Is really annoying. So that’s why most of the time now I’ll do my own stuff my way and won’t do things for people anymore, even if they want to pay me, because picky people are a nuisance :)

  15. This was great and reading all of the comments made me feel like I’m not alone. Sometimes, as an entrepreneur, you can feel like you’re on an island all along dealing with crazy clients who are indecisive literally on all of the levels you discussed. One client is driving me crazy, I actually think my hair is falling out. Completely indecisive, wants unique, but has no idea what, snobby, haggling and just an overall train wreck. I don’t even know what to do anymore… I feel incredibly lost. I’m looking forward to the day when she makes her final payment and I never have to see her again.

    • Agreed. I often feel like that. I’m currently working with an HOA “Design Committee” aka “we all wish we did what you do committee”. I’m only 20% through but not sure what to do as we’ve already had revision after revision after revision. I normally don’t mind this but it’s hard when they say they want go in the direction you’ve proposed just to find out after I present that they want to go a different direction…

  16. There is nothing worse than Low-Tech clients… Unfortunately I had to deal with too many for too long developing websites and running their businesses at the same time as they don’t understand how selling online works. If you ever end up with one, be prepared for constant phone calls and million emails which doesn’t make sense and not getting paid for months. They are abusers, they shouldn’t be using web design/development services, they don’t get the difference between laptop screen and mobile phone screen, they think all work they ask for takes 2 clicks and isn’t complicated at all. Scumbags.

  17. Anyone deal with the client yet-another-revision Ronda? Advice?

  18. I have a few web design clients who make lots of revisions. Usually, however, they get sidetracked with something else and the constant emailing/phoning stops.

    Having something about excessive revisions in your Ts & Cs is essential, just in case you need to tackle the problem. I also think you have to weigh up how valuable they will be to you in the future and then decide on your response.

  19. What do you do when a difficult client rejects your fashion design for the third time ? How do you resolve this conflict? taking into consideration orientation to details and passion for your work.

  20. Great article and true on so many levels. It think I will illustrate this and pin it on the wall!

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