Explaining Creativity To Clients

Is it that clients don’t understand business or is it they don’t understand creatives? Why is it creatives around the globe all have exactly the same complaints and horror stories about clients from hell?

It’s not just ridiculously silly comments and requests, which make for the amusing stories we share over drinks at the pub or posts on the internet – it’s the actions that block creativity or the ability to make a living.

Every single creative has heard the same excuses from clients who feel we are not worthy of pay:

  • “If you do this free for me, there will be plenty of paying work later!”
  • “This is a unique opportunity for you!”
  • “It’ll give you something for your portfolio!”
  • “It’ll be great exposure for your work!”

As laughable as this following video may be, who would send it to a client and expect an epiphany on their part?

(WARNING – not office safe)

While this next video is so frighteningly true, who would send it to a client and expect them to realize that some of the actors are being ridiculous and others are being difficult?

Chances are the client would see those who refuse to make deals… or “concessions for the sake of doing business,” as the villains in this scenario. It’s an old psychological test where some people identify with the hero or the anti-hero and which they see as which. Did Nero see himself as a monster while he killed the rich of Rome and took their fortunes to balance the budget of the government?

The following video uses the same comical exchange between a “client” and “designer.” It’s the usual $50 for a logo with the ubiquitous arguments but it ends with a bit of a twist.

Is saying “NO!” the solution? Sure, you’ll feel better but we all have to pay bills and there are ways of “educating” clients… not easy ways but ways of doing it.

Answering The Unanswerable

A “client” comes to you with the request that you brand their company, design the logo, build the web site, etc., etc. They explain the arrangement:

The request:

“We don’t have a budget right now but this will be a great job for your portfolio!”

The answer:

“Thanks but my portfolio has very impressive pieces that I can show clients. I understand a limited budget but as with paying rent for your office, a contract for phone service or office machines, I’m a businessperson and need to charge a fee. I can arrange a payment schedule for you over your first six months in business so you can build some equity and generate income. There’ll be interest on the unpaid balance and transfer of the copyright for all design work is contingent on full payment.”

If they balk at that… walk away. Obviously they don’t want to spend any money, so why bother with them, as they don’t respect you or your profession abilities. Let them use their six year-old daughter and her crayon collection.


The request:

“We don’t have a budget right now but if you do this for us, we’ll consider you our ‘in-house’ designer for paying projects down the road!”

The answer (again):

“I understand a tight budget but I need concrete assurances of future work and rates that will be in keeping with my profession. No one can tell the future so I can arrange a payment schedule for you over your first six months in business so you can build some equity and generate income. There’ll be interest on the unpaid balance and transfer of the copyright for all design work is contingent on full payment.”

There is NO way to contract for future work. Even a contract for consulting will be next to impossible to enforce.


The request:

“We need you to do all of our branding, graphics, web site and marketing materials. If you do this for free, we’ll reward you once we get the business going!”

The answer:

“I understand the investments a start-up needs to make and you’re asking me to make a huge investment in your firm, too. The time spent on your work will take me away from other clients and the income those jobs generate. As I will also be making an investment in your company are you willing to give me a percentage of your firm as a silent partner?”


Of course they won’t! You are, however, giving them a choice before you say, “NO!” That’s the realistic part of the ridiculous. Saying no is the dead end. Suggesting alternatives gives you a slight chance for success.

There’s also the always-popular, “if you do this for free, lot’s of people will see it and you’ll get more work/I have rich friends who’ll hire you for their companies!”

There’s no answer to this one because there’s no way to guarantee a positive outcome. Reiterate that you can’t work for free and try to negotiate a payment plan as with the other examples. Sure, the client may just stop paying you after a month or two or just never pay at all but YOU own the copyright and that’s a legal stance the client can’t fight, especially once they’ve printed lots of stationery, cards, ads and have a live web site.

Creating The Designs Of Tomorrow… Yesterday!

It’s funny how we all leave things until the last minute. Personally, I’ve done my best work under pressure but that same pressure is felt by the client who nervously awaits the final deliverables. I say, take advantage of the pressure!

I friend of mine complained he was always getting calls on Friday for Monday delivery by people who didn’t accept his bid on assignments but they inevitably came back to him when another designer failed (usually the cheap one). He always accepted and did a beautiful job. The clients knew it and he became the “last-minute go-to-guy.”

“Charge for a rush job!” I suggested. “They don’t really have a choice.”

He was afraid that he would lose the work (for a second time) but the client’s back was against a wall and they had to meet his demands. He started charging a bit more with a couple of clients and they paid the fee. He raised that fee with a couple more and they paid it. While he was afraid they wouldn’t come back because he had dared to charge more, it was his exceptional quality of work and ability to work under an impossible deadline that kept them coming back… at the last minute. He hoped they would trust him from the first bid but sometimes people think they can keep trying the cheap route no matter how often they end up paying more in the end. To quote, Albert Einstein, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Insanity certainly runs in our profession… in fact, it practically gallops uncontrollably!

In one of my overnight rush job requests, I simply explained that by missing a night of sleep, I would have to make it up by sleeping the next day and then putting off a client’s job, which would then become a rush job without my being able to charge that client a rush fee. To my surprise, it worked! It won’t always work but you have to ask yourself what you are worth and what you can accomplish. If you take on a rush job for a lower fee, you’ll end up resenting the work, which will then become a chore; rather then a labor of love and the work will suffer. You stand to lose a client from doing a bad job, rather then charging more for a rush fee.

Naturally, you can’t always get an extra fee for a rush job and there is a chance that a happy client will use the rush job as a test for other work. If you work well under pressure, you will at least have a great portfolio piece as a rush job means little or no changes!

Having time is, however, very important to the design process. This video is a great explanation of the process and a great thing to post to your site sidebar for clients to see.

Unlike the other videos in this article, there is a truthful sweetness that will win over most clients. The one thing that’s lacking is the committee standing behind the kids, yelling eighty different directions to them. That’s another chapter in this article!

The video does exemplify the ideal that gentle and simple messages are the most persuasive for clients. Something to keep in mind when negotiating a fee, rights, delivery or just running through the stages of a project.


This is a very touchy subject for all involved. It’s power and control and all humans have some issue with it. Either you crave it and it drives you to unspeakable acts or you smile and give in and secretly plot revenge and self-hatred. I always get into trouble when I say that. People think I’m a self-hating control freak. The truth is that I know when to pick my battles. Years in design and being married to a control freak have taught me the difference between ashamedly giving in and being flexible on things that won’t stop the world from spinning. Despite the name-calling in the comment sections of articles I’ve written on how to fight design-by-committee, the simple truth is that good design decisions need to be defended at times.

A client who asks for a Christmas project but not using red and green is odd but it is also a challenge. I’ve had that type of challenge and enjoy it. One’s first reaction would be to ask what kind of insanity those choices are but they may have validity. Part of creativity is taking certain directions and creating the best solution… which explains a lot about Spam packaging.

Committees can be a pain, as seen in this video.

People come with preconceived notions about creatives, marketing and client input.

As a creative your job is to provide solutions AND the reasoning behind those solutions. It is also a responsibility to understand the client’s concerns. In other words… you’re screwed when it comes to approvals!

At one of my delightful employers, there was several “taste” committees one had to navigate for approval on each and every design. The first committee made changes so the design could leave the department. The second committee, in the assigned department, made changes before the design was put into their line. The third committee was back in the department that first made changes and they would change everything back because of wondrous power plays between the two committees that were structured to be three.

This all either drove people to stark raving insanity or taught one how to handle design-by-committee. There are several truths one must face in a committee:

  • There are people included that shouldn’t be there but they feel they must make a comment to justify being there.
  • People on the committee are entwined in a power play that usually stems from the line in the company cafeteria and who gets the last piece of cherry pie.
  • You will hear twelve differing directions and then be told to, “make those little changes.”

At any meeting, it’s important to identify the alpha dog/point person. Look and speak to them and them only.

After the dozen directions are put forth, ask the point person to sum up what they’d like to see. Thinks along the lines of these questions:

  • There are some great points but some overlapping. (Point person’s name), could you synthesize what’s needed for me to do?
  • I have some concerns that we’re getting a bit away from the message the visuals put forth. May I address some of my observations?
  • Design can be subjective but I’ve synthesized the elements into a cohesive message. Some of these suggestions will change the dynamics. Perhaps we can break them down to see how they affect the message?

I’ve had some nasty comments from readers about “trying to control clients” and “using BS to get (my) way” when I write such advice but it’s not control for ego. As designers, we take the blame and usually not the credit for failed or successful projects. As professionals we are responsible for our own work and part of that must be helping the client stay on point rather then allowing egos to steer our work into the dark abyss. Part of explaining creativity is the ability to explain the process and the decisions. Why was a certain color palette chosen? Why was the type used the best choice? Why is the element placement important?

For anyone who has gone through the committee process, you know these are the key picking points. Be prepared to explain them gently and without making the person who put it forth feel like they were wrong. It’s always better to involve the committee and all players on the project in the process so they feel they have made a sizable contribution. Always elevate those around you and they will be open to listening to what YOU suggest if they feel they are part of that decision.

In Conclusion

At one end, we will have to deal with those like the humorous look at clients in the first animated video. At the other end, we have clients who think us geniuses and hang on our every design decision. Somewhere in the middle, with those who want special prices and favors, we must hold ourselves to a professional level and learn, aside from design principles and endless software upgrades, the psychology of dealing with people. We must let go of ego and let the work become the most important thing in our service industry. Striving for the best solution while making a living means knowing business and that is something rarely taught in art school. It’s lessons learned from life and experience and those can be costly.

There are times you need to walk away from a client who expects too much and times you need to bend to their desires for their needs but with a smart balance and an eye for the red flags that pop up, you can use your gift of creativity with a good business sense. We create because we love to do it and are driven by a need to be creative. We want to be true to that creativity that defines us and that’s important in life but business is business and we need to make a living. With a little smarts, we can do both!

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  1. Speider, another entertaining, informative and unfortunately, relatable article! Thanks.

  2. What works best for me is simple asking them to do their service for free. It’s not always possible depending on the business, but last time I was asked by a medium size plumbing company to do some work for them for free, I asked if they’d do 6 hours worth of work for free (roughly what it would have taken me to do their job) for me, but that “I’ll have more work for them later.”

    It worked like a charm haha! The person I dealt with immediately changed his tone and we were able to talk business.

  3. This is such an impressive article and i liked the video resource which easily clears concept and understand the creative ideas easily. It really need an appreciation.

  4. I got to say the combination of these comical videos with your written word really help prove the point. Designers tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to being seen as professionals.

    The ‘Vendor Client Relationship’ video in particular had the whole team at Huemor Designs LLC rolling!

  5. wow, great videos…The first one i must say, funny and dead on. Great article…

  6. The ‘Vendor Client Relationship’ video in particular had the whole team at Huemor Designs LLC rolling!

  7. This post is SO useful for what we do. thanks!

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