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There’s No Such Thing As A Bad Client

Hardly a day goes by without hearing a client horror story from one designer or another. Whether I hear about it in person, by email, over the phone or on Twitter, one thing seems clear: designers seem to like complaining about their clients almost as much as they enjoy taking their money.

Everyone has a client horror story. Plenty of websites and blog articles feature creative professionals venting their spleen. You can find some of these linked at the bottom of this article. I encourage you to read through them; some are really quite outrageous, but I hope your thoughts are tempered by what I’m about to say.

What Makes A “Bad Client”? Link


Each person has their own definition of a bad client, depending on their outlook, personality and tolerance. A few universal traits sum it up for me.

Doesn’t Pay Link

The worst of them all. Any other “bad” characteristic is usually manageable compared to this one. Clients who don’t pay or delay payment never realize the trouble and pressure they heap on you, especially if you are a small company or freelancer, for whom cash flow is king. A world of trouble awaits all parties if you have to get legal about it. In this situation, not only do you lose out on income that you have rightly earned, but you could lose out on jobs because your time is consumed by chasing debtors.

Wants Something for Nothing Link

A lot of designers and developers start out in the industry by offering free work to friends and contacts as a way to get their foot in the door. I know I did. There comes a time in your career when this has to stop, and doing it can be difficult. But there are always a few clients who see this situation as the norm.

I no longer do free work unless it’s for charity or something else I believe in strongly. But this hasn’t stopped a few clients from expecting free samples before commissioning further work. It’s all a bit “carrot and stick,” but in my experience more often that not the carrot never appears, and you end up feeling like you got whacked with the stick.

You have a portfolio for a reason. If a client can’t decide whether to hire you based on that, then forget it.

Moves the Goal Posts Link

This situation can creep up on you, and before you know it, you’ve done a lot more for the client than you were paid for. The client will accept your very reasonable quote, but then begin bolting on extras as the job progresses, sometimes in such small doses that you are unsure whether it falls in the agreed plan. This usually happens when the client is unsure from the outset exactly what they want from you. We’ve all heard the line, “I don’t know what I want until I see it.”

Makes Strange Demands Link

This is probably the most common complaint against clients. The king of all demands is, of course, “Can we make the logo bigger?” The Clients From Hell21 website displays endless examples of strange requests.

Plenty more complaints could be added to this list, but they would be smaller annoyances that everyone gets in their daily job, such as: poor communication, being badgered by clients, clients who know it all, disorganized or emotional clients and, of course, gossips. You may well be scratching your head at this point. I’ve clearly pointed out a few ways in which clients can be bad, after proclaiming that they don’t exist in the title. The trick is deciding whether to let them be your clients at all.

No Such Thing Link


I remember when I was a kid, I used to believe monsters were lurking in every dark corner of my bedroom. Every shadow and silhouette seemed menacing and scary, despite the fact that the rest of my family would tell me that there is no such thing as monsters.

Eventually, you grow up and realize that the shadow cast by your Transformer is completely benign and has no ill will against you. But believing or seeing is not enough; you need experience. You grow up and learn; you grow out of bad habits; sometimes you grow new ones.

Bad clients are the monsters under the bed when your creative career is young. They are very real and can give you plenty of fear and stress. But there are ways to grow up and get rid of them, until they become stories that you tell younger designers to scare them.

It comes down to experience and necessity.

Experience And Necessity Link

Experience can’t be taught. It’s one of those things that is gained only by doing. You have to get burned to learn when something is hot. You should regard every bad client you encounter, whether at the beginning, middle or end of your career, as a learning experience—a stepping stone to help you avoid similar situations.

Experience: Taking the Rough With the Smooth Link

At the time, it sucks. No one likes working for bad clients. But you have to step back and look at the bigger picture. Sure, you may lose out immediately if a client doesn’t pay you, but in the long run this experience will probably save you vastly more money because it will make you change your working practices so that it doesn’t happen again.

Experience counts for nothing if you don’t use it to keep from making mistakes again and again. Some will argue that you can’t guard against bad clients, that you either get them or you don’t, that it’s a lottery. I would say that with enough experience you can spot a bad client from a mile away. Experience won’t solve all of your problems. Sometimes you will need to exercise simple skills such as patience, communication, adaptability and understanding.

A lot of client conflicts arise from a lack of knowledge. Sometimes the client just doesn’t understand what we do as creative professionals, and this accounts for many of their crazy requests. Our job as designers is to help them with their particular goals. They always have a target in sight; they just don’t know how to hit it. Communication is all-important. You have to understand what the client wants, and the client has to know what you need to do to make it happen.

Every client is different, and each has to be handled a different way. You’ll have to be attentive to some; others will require a standoff-ish approach. The important thing is finding a way to draw clear lines of communication, so that both parties know exactly what they’re getting out of the business transaction. Hopefully, the client will educate you as much as you do them.

There is no better condition to learn in than extreme pressure—at least for me. Has a client ever made such a strange request that you had to sit down and think, “How would I even achieve that?” But it spurs you on. You’re forced to learn different ways to work because the client doesn’t think like you. They don’t have your knowledge or sense of “how things are done.”

The next time you get a seemingly bizarre request, just go with it. It’s part of the excitement that every designer should seek out. Don’t worry if it isn’t “normal practice,” or even bad practice. Experiment a little, even if only to humor the client and prove that your way is ultimately the right way.

Necessity: A Glutton for Punishment Link

Now we come to necessity. The truth is that any client, no matter how fussy, impolite or demanding, is a good client if they pay a fair wage for the work done. It’s as simple as that. Everyone has bills to pay. We all do jobs that are less than creatively satisfying just to get the cheque at the end. We deal with people who we might not like in exchange for a little extra cash, and we’ll put up with a little more crap than usual because we like to eat.

But everyone makes choices, and our choices define us. Clients have the power to sack us anytime they want; and for freelance designers, that’s a two-way street. It may mean a drop in income; perhaps the bills won’t get paid on time this month. No matter the consequences, the choice is open to every designer out there.

Conclusions Link

The only “bad clients” are the ones you take on in spite of your better judgment. At a certain point in a designer’s career, they are able to tell whether a particular client will be trouble. At that point, clients aren’t so much bad as they are self-inflicted pain for the designer.

We all know that the career of a designer is a steep learning curve. Bad clients have to be a part of that curve. At the time it’s frustrating, maybe even financially dangerous, but each one is a stepping stone to learning how to do things better.

When the day comes that you have earned the luxury of being able to pick and choose who you work for, bad clients won’t really exist. Perhaps that day is a mirage and I’m full of it; but for now, as I work towards that goal, my only “bad clients” are the ones who refuse to pay 50% up front. Everything else they throw at me is a challenge that better equips me for the next one.

I’d like to know your thoughts on this. How do you react to bad clients? Can you look back on bad experiences and learn from them? Can you spot bad clients? Have you reached good-client nirvana?

Bad Client Stories Link

Why Bad Clients Aren’t Always Bad Link

You may be interested in the following related posts:


Footnotes Link

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Ken Reynolds is a graphic designer and illustrator living and working in Suffolk, UK. He runs his own design blog, arrogantly named after himself, where he writes articles on design, blogging and freelancing. You can stalk him via twitter.

  1. 1

    Abdul Akbar

    May 25, 2010 5:39 am

    Another good post,

    Keep it up :)

  2. 2

    Preston D Lee

    May 25, 2010 5:49 am

    A well-written and much needed article. I am starting to get tired of all the complaining going on in the design community about how terrible clients are. I have found that usually, if you have a bad client, it’s your own fault. If you want good clients, be a good communicator, good business owner, etc.

    Thanks for sharing the article from as well.

    Best Regards.

  3. 3

    Unbelievably tenuous title purely for the sake of link bait. Also, just because you gain experience from a bad client – doesn’t mean that they weren’t a god-awful client.

    • 4

      kevin powers

      May 25, 2010 6:06 am

      I second that John. Alarmist title and a perspective put forth cast from a very narrow, subjective lens. If you try hard enough, you can, of course, see the opportunity or brighter side in *anything*. That doesn’t mean some clients, at a very basic level, aren’t “bad” (e.g., unscrupulous, deceptive, exploitative, etc). To ignore that basic idea (about clients & people in general, for that matter) is just naive.

      • 5

        I’m afraid I have to agree with you guys. The article is pretty disingenuous. Just because you gain experience doesn’t mean it was a good experience. Some clients are bad, plain and simple, so yes there IS such a thing.

        • 6

          Mohawk Kellye

          May 25, 2010 7:33 am

          My father grew up in a terribly ghetto and dangerous neighborhood in Memphis, TN with his deadbeat father, with whom all his brothers ran away from and joined the military. My dad was the youngest and last to leave the household, but managed to pay his way through undergrad and law school on his own and is now very successful. That doesn’t mean that his neighborhood was a good place or his father was a great person just because he was able to take the bad experiences and use it to better his future. What the hell? This article is just silly, while I see the relevance in it. There ARE some bad people/clients out there and it’s pretty ignorant to pass all of it off on the designer’s “lack of communication”.

      • 7

        Totally true, and the article didn’t end up making the point I thought it would, namely that you can prevent bad experiences with clients by being more professional yourself and setting expectations early.

        There’s a huge difference between a “bad” client and an “inexperienced” client, although there’s some overlap. An inexperienced client can be taught how to work with a designer and how to better state needs and expectations so the designer can understand how to fulfull them. A bad client is one who not only doesn’t understand the work you’re doing, but also doesn’t trust you to bring new solutions to the table and only wants you to be their sentient pencil. Then they stiff you on the bill because they don’t think what you do is of any value.

        It’s true you can avoid a lot of bad clients by meeting with them and having the experience to sense their attitude about design, but when you’re at an early stage in your career you not only can’t tell in advance, you’re occasionally forced to take on bad clients if you want to pay rent on time.

        Half the articles with sensational titles Smashing publishes could be summed up as “Sometimes bad things happen and it’s actually your fault. Act like a professional.”

        • 8

          @Nicole – A very well written summary, I completely agree with you :)

        • 9

          Completely agree as well. I’ve had over 20 successful years in this biz and YES BAD clients do exist and sometimes it’s not your fault or bad decision making. Sometimes (as in life) there is no real way to determine whether someone is a good or bad egg – you only find out down the line.

          However I do admire the author trying to push the idea that YES you can learn from these experiences.

          So a bit of give and take.

          Nothing and I mean nothing in business (or life for that matter) is black and white.

        • 10

          Greg Johnson

          May 27, 2010 7:30 am

          Well put Nicole.

        • 11

          “There is no such thing as a bad client” – I agree! But the article doesn’t point to that at all…

          I agree with the “no bad client” theory because,the only bad thing in the client-professional relationship (except the cases when the client is actually bad intentioned and unscrupulous) is the professional who doesn’t have the ability to communicate with the client. It’s not the client’s fault for bad communication – a professional should know what to ask from day 1, and, yes, this comes only with experience.

          The “bad client experience” usually happens when:
          1. The professional might be good at what he does, but isn’t a seller – and that is when the professional should consider getting a job instead of freelancing. No matter how good you are, it’s really pointless if you can’t sell your stuff.
          2. The work of the “professional” isn’t professional at all and the client understands that and he wants to correct it to reach his objectives.

  4. 12

    I agree that there is no such thing as a bad client. Clients labeled “bad clients” are often the result of a poorly written contract, or a failure from the designer or developer to set expectations. I had my share of “difficult” clients to work with and realized with time that the problem came from me. I usually ended reworking my contract and rewriting the list of questions I send to potential clients before starting on any work. Once the expectations are set and everything is on paper and signed by the client, any change of scope is as simple as pointing to a specific paragraph in the contract.

  5. 13


    May 25, 2010 6:16 am

    There are some bad clients..
    But good clients are more than bad…
    Cheer up :)
    Keep up the good work SM :)

  6. 14

    The problem is that everyone is a designer…

  7. 15

    Nicole Foster

    May 25, 2010 6:22 am

    I’m somewhat on the fence about this. They are absolutely bad clients who don’t pay and steal your work, those are bad clients, but we often label bad clients as those who don’t understand the design world. It’s not necessarily their fault, so we should take the time to educate them instead of shunning them. However, if they’re not receptive to learning, then you can simply leave the client before starting anything.

  8. 16

    Matt Saunders

    May 25, 2010 6:44 am

    Of course there are bad clients, but nowhere near as many as the design community would have you believe. Bad clients are the ones who have no respect for what you do, lumber you with a tonne of work and a short deadline. A bad client is NOT somebody who asks to have their logo increased in size.

    The experience comes in spotting these types of clients and having the balls to be firm with them when you need to be. I actually think a lot of the moaners in the design community put themselves into this position by being lenient so in a sense I do agree with this article. However, from my personal experience a client can turn bad down line for seemingly unknown reasons.

    I think as *business people* we should simply keep our wits about us when taking on new projects.

    • 17


      May 25, 2010 8:07 am

      lololol bad clients… we are working with all size clients – but the smaller clients can beat you up more than the large clients. They expect all manner of things that ‘cost’ time or money. Which they rarely have either of.

      We recently offered 25 dollar flyers – we customized 3 designs based on 50 background styles. So of course half the clients expected ‘custom’ flyer designs based on custom layouts, concepts etc.

      This resulted in two weeks of ‘moving’ goal posts and ‘we don’t know’ what we want but that isn’t it. We terminated the offer and rewrote it to smooth out this misconception clients were thinking they were going to get.

  9. 18

    What a naive article. There are such things called “integrity” and “self-worth” – some jobs are not worth doing NO MATTER HOW MUCH THE SO CALLED CLIENT PAYS.

    In 22 years of freelancing I have met some great and some really evil clients – who simply are not worth the money and the hassle to work for (no matter how broke you are).

    I find it pretty naive to think that it’s all just a matter of “communication” to tame bad clients. Some clients simply want to to fuck you or try to get a free ride no matter how “good you communicate” or how well written your “contract” is.

    SM should rather post some articles on how to deal with such troublesome situations and evil clients. Business sometimes is war and naive happy-talk can only get you so far in same battles …

    • 19

      I guess you didn’t read to the end. The last paragraph before conclusions makes your point, though not so aggressively. We can choose not to work with a client.

    • 20

      I totally agree on this. Some jobs are really not worth to be taken, and all the happy-talk helps just to “cope with it”. I believe it would be the designer`s community duty to teach those “bad clients” that they can`t get their job done via slavery. But this doesn`t happen, somebody always takes on the job, and then complain…

      the bad-client-o-meter is closely related to the diference between the value the client grants you and the value you put on yourself & your work.

      The articles doesn`t makes much sense to me. What exactly is it? A manifest pro working for anyone, anyhow, anytime, anyway, no matter what? I`m especially bugged by this sentence: “We deal with people who we might not like in exchange for a little extra cash, and we’ll put up with a little more crap than usual because we like to eat.”

      Are designers so low on the food (err… work)-chain? I`d rather go and gather some garbage in exchange for a day`s meal than do that, it is way much rewarding and way less demanding.

      So, anyway, i believe bad clients do exist, it`s just a matter of common sense not to make them your own, and it might take some downfalls to be able to spot them properly. But that doesn`t mean you should cope with them, it`s the “FREE” in freelancing that should give you the power to choose. And good clients exists, are quite many, quite awesome & worth going the extra mile for them & you`ll get to eat too…

  10. 21

    philip hastings

    May 25, 2010 6:46 am

    My first thought after reading this article – there must not be any Wal-Marts in the UK.

  11. 22

    Just because you learn something or make money doesn’t mean the client was a good one. It just means you did something for a jerk and got paid to do it.

  12. 23

    An article on educating the so called “bad clients,” would’ve been a lot more helpful. To say that bad clients don’t exist is denial at it’s finest..

  13. 24

    Heinrich Muller

    May 25, 2010 7:09 am

    Wrong, there is such a thing as a bad client.

  14. 25

    Stephen Hill

    May 25, 2010 7:09 am

    I think a good topic for a blog post would be why friends and family make good / bad clients.

  15. 26

    great post!

    i left a great job once because of the ‘pissing and moaning’ of clients directly from the partners of the firm. one partner actually got caught complaining about a client as she walked through the door. i was so embarrassed to be part of the team i had to leave. it makes you wonder what they say when you’re not around also.

  16. 27

    Mohawk Kellye

    May 25, 2010 7:22 am

    I don’t believe that there’s no such thing… I understand many may not realize the burden they may cause or they aren’t sure what they’re supposed expect while working with freelancers, but there really are some people out there who try to pull one over on you. There are some people I’ve explained very clearly how matters should/need to be handled and what to expect but continue delaying payment, asking for more work that they have not paid for (on top of the previous work they have not paid for), changed their mind incessantly, and asks for unreasonable crap.

    I’m not going to give every person the benefit of the doubt, assuming that “they didn’t know”. Some people are well aware, and as a “young” freelancer, you let these people do everything they ask of you. As a seasoned freelancer, you learn to give them the business (tell them their place, essentially), handle their crap to get it out of your hair, and never do work for them again.

  17. 28

    Good post. There are bad clients, but once you get good at spotting and avoiding them, they don’t have to be your clients.

  18. 29

    For the first time I completely disagree with a post of this great site.

    To say that there are no “bad clients” is like saying there are no “bad people” …and I’m “THE BAD” for believe in people.

    There are good people and people with bad intentions. I can say I had bad clients … BAD PEOPLE, you understand?

    …who’s bad?

  19. 30

    Carl Rosekilly

    May 25, 2010 7:36 am

    Nonsense article!

    For me intuition is a great thing and fortunately I don’t deal with many of them but some are ridiculous, the first stumbling block for me, is if the client can’t provide a comprehensive brief… if they can’t do this right at the beginning they won’t be receiving my skills!

  20. 31

    Paul Galbraith

    May 25, 2010 7:39 am

    Enjoyed the article Ken, especially some of the comments posted in response to it. I do believe many of the problems that can arise, may have been avoided with better communication. That being said, of course there are difficult people, but the trick is identifying them before they become clients. I don’t think we should pretend there are never any issues with clients, but I don’t think it looks very professional to be moaning about “bad clients” publicly.


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