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Taboo Questions And Statements

Below are a few examples of taboo questions and statements. While you may not be trying to offend your designer, there are several questions and statements that can instantly add drama to a pleasant relationship.

Remember: you and the designer are working as part of the same team, and as part of the same team, neither of you should irrationally consider the other an enemy. While there should perhaps be a list of taboo statements a designer can accidentally make to a client, this is a list of things clients shouldn’t say to designers.

Asking the designer to come up with ideas, concepts, or finished work with only a potential for payment.

This is often worded like this: “Well, that all sounds good. Come up with a few concepts and if I like any of them, we can do business.”

Asking a designer to provide part of his service for free in exchange for only potential compensation is perhaps the most offensive request a designer encounters. It’s unfortunately very common, but is not how the design process works. A designer’s ideas, sketches, concepts, and finished work are his service, and even ideas have a price. If you say this to a designer, you may never hear from him ever again, because he’ll classify you as a problem client not worth messing with.

If you have not begun paying the designer for his service, do not expect anything beyond a written proposal of what he intends to do. No designer appreciates giving his ideas away for free or wasting his time for nothing.

Never, ever request the designer start working if you have not already gotten to the point where money has exchanged hands.

Expecting a designer to do any work without some sort of payment in advance.

Related to the above question, don’t request this. No designer likes to feel as if he’s being taken advantage of and giving away his services for free.

Asking for an estimate/quote before fully informing the designer about what you are wanting created.

This isn’t a major offense, it’s just an issue of getting the cart before the horse. A designer cannot quote you an estimate without being able to fairly estimate the amount of work involved. Depending on the amount of work, a direct mail postcard could take anywhere between 3 hours and 30 hours. The designer won’t know what you want until you tell him about your project. Without informing the designer completely, he cannot provide you a price.

Questioning charges on an invoice or questioning a designer’s hours.

Many designers work on projects at fixed prices rather than hourly charges. If you agree to a price, be prepared to pay that price whether the job took the designer half the time he expected or two times as long as he expected. The amount of time he spent on your project is unfortunately not any of your business.

If a designer is working for you at an hourly rate, the work done during each charge should be accounted for in detail on the invoices. If it is not, you have a right to request a detailed account of what was done during the hours you were charged. If the designer cannot provide you a detailed account, he is not running his business professionally and you may want to discontinue use of his service.

If there is an unexpected charge on your invoice or bill, first refer to the proposal and/or contract, and if still not explained, contact your designer with your concern. Accidental mistakes happen, especially when a single designer is also acting as his bookkeeper.

Resisting or refusing payment for work completed.

There may come a time when you don’t feel like paying a designer because you either don’t like what he made or the designer wasn’t able to get what you wanted designed by the time you wanted it. When a situation like this occurs, you need to refer to the contract with the designer. With most designers you are always liable for paying for the designer’s hours spent working on the project up to that point. Work cannot be unworked and the designer can never have that time back. Whether you have received a finished design or not, there are generally no refunds in the design service business, and you will have to compensate the designer according to his rules on the contract.


Do understand that constructive criticism that leads to a design you are happier with is completely welcomed and desired by a designer! However, sending an email back that simply says “I don’t like it” without anything constructive about what you don’t like and what you’d like better can ruin a client-designer relationship and develop instant animosity. Remember: your designer has toiled over your project for hours and even if you think his design stinks, he’s put his heart and soul into the work. Find something constructive to say that will lead to something you will like better.

Dread Requests (Vague Demands).

Similar to criticism, when you make a request, please make a constructive, detailed request. As a favor to your relationship with the designer, do not send one line emails that cause the designer to dread dealing with you. Dread requests are demands that are almost always very vague, and usually imply the client considers itself superior to the designer. The worst email of all is one that simply says “Call me.” If you want to be proper, be specific and don’t make a demand. “Can you call me sometime today before 1pm? I’d like to discuss some changes to the layout.” Remember: the designer isn’t an employee or child of yours; making demands isn’t going to do anything beneficial.

Asking for references or examples of their work.

Unless a designer is a complete fool, he will have an ample supply of examples of his work on his website. Self-employed designers usually create their websites to answer questions and address concerns that they do not want to address on an individual basis. When contacting a designer, you should have already qualified him as someone you’re interested in working with before making contact. You should already have the thought in your head that “this person’s work looks good to me and they seem reputable and smart, so I think I’ll contact them.”

Wanting to interview the designer at the first meeting.

This is inappropriate for the most part.

When you contact a self-employed designer, you are implying your intention to do business with him, and by showing up to the meeting, he has implied his interest in doing this business with you. The two of you are equals and potential business associates. You are not an employer interviewing a potential employee. You’ve already had the opportunity to qualify the designer as being up to your specifications. This meeting, while primarily a way for you to explain your project in person and meet who you’ll be doing business with, is secondarily an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you are someone the designer wants to do business with. You should be interested in doing business with the designer before requesting a meeting.

Wanting to have a meeting with the designer before briefly explaining the project.

While not offensive, it’s another cart before the horse issue. Always explain what the project is before trying to schedule a meeting with the designer. If the project doesn’t interest the designer or isn’t something he does, the two of you have both wasted your time.

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How Do I Make Sure My Designer Is A Real Graphic Designer?

In this profession, there are many, many fakes. Similar to how anybody who buys an SLR camera thinks they can claim to be a professional photographer, just about anybody who buys Photoshop thinks they can claim to be a professional graphic designer. There’s no such thing as a graphic design license, so how are you going to make sure you find the right person?

There are a number of ways to determine whether a designer is legitimate.

Look At The Designer’s Website

The designer’s website is going to speak volumes about who they are as a person and who they are as a worker. A self-employed designer is going to have a website in this day and age, no matter what. A print designer may have a mediocre website, but a web designer should have one that is pretty amazing to look at. The designer’s work should demonstrate a mastery of his skills. If he’s a web designer and his website isn’t any good… guess what?

No matter what, the designer’s website is going to show samples of his work, list services he provides, and usually has information about what makes that designer qualified.

If the designer’s website is simply a portfolio with nothing else of any real substance, chances are this designer is not operating in a self-employed manner. This person might be interviewing for jobs at design agencies, be currently employed full-time and doing work on the side, or might only be a student or amateur showing off some talent. Whatever the case may be, they are likely only looking for some work to do on the side, or are using the site to show their work to creative directors at large agencies and small boutiques. If you are looking for someone who will be able to work on your projects during your business hours, move on to another choice. If you’re looking for someone who can only work perhaps an hour every few days on your project(s), you can continue considering one of these people.

Designers who work full-time as designers and do work on the side can be an amazing resource, particularly if they are specialists. There’s nothing better than having a Flash video game designer who does nothing but Flash games all day long at his full-time job design the game you need. The biggest issue with full-time designers doing work on the side is they may be so specialized that they can’t take a design all the way to production by themselves, because they are used to a team of other people. Another problem is their full-time job takes precedence over your work, and if you have a deadline, you may miss it.

If the designer is obviously a student, unless you are familiar with working with designers and can coach this person into producing your project, you need to move on to another choice. You might think that you can take advantage of a student’s inexperience, but it’s more likely that your time and effort is what is going to be taken advantage of. Students and inexperienced designers require a lot of babysitting and don’t necessarily know how to make your finished product no matter how creative they may be.

If the website is focused on something other than design, such as printing, but they offer design, then design is a side-business. Unless you are looking for low quality, cheap looking design, avoid using companies that are offering design as a secondary service. Never have a company that offers free design or extremely cheap design perform your design work. Student-run newspapers and print shops are bad about this – supply your own professionally designed materials to these companies and let them focus on their real jobs. When something is free or cheap, be on high alert.

Make Sure The Designer Is Grounded

Do not trust your business to someone who might be able to come up with neat looking designs, but never be located ever again. You need to choose a designer who uses contracts and is happy to provide you his phone number, email address, and mailing address. This person isn’t trimming your tree branches in your front yard for two hours. You want someone who has a reputation to uphold who can be found in more than one way. If you aren’t hiring them to work on-location at your business, they better have some foundation of a business themselves. Use your brain and only trust designers who can obviously be trusted. The most legitimate designers use contracts and do not expect payment in full before services are rendered. Jobs less than $500 are occasionally paid up-front, but you can usually request to withhold a certain amount so long as your deadline is not extremely soon.

See How The Designer Prices His Services

Professional designers typically use fixed rates for their services with one-project-only clients. These rates are not usually public; if they are, they are starting prices only for budgeting purposes. Professionals never offer 100% flat fees. For example, you will never see a professional that says he will design any logo for $200, any brochure for $300, etc. Professionals always quote based on their expected amount of work on a project. Professionals who use hourly rates only use them on large projects, projects that are outside the scope of what they normally design, or projects for clients that have a lot of work to be done over a period of time. Professional web designers, typically charge hourly rates and not flat fees because websites are huge jobs.

Amateur designers work for obscenely low amounts and almost always price their services hourly. Amateur designers are not always bad, but you have to make sure they know what they are doing. Amateur designers are better suited for getting jobs at small boutiques and large agencies than trying to do work on their own. They simply don’t have enough experience.

And then there are the underpricers… a difficult to name group. These are the individuals you see offering design for disgustingly cheap, enticing rates. As a rule of thumb, if there is a price advertised, they aren’t a professional. As enticing as their prices may be, you are better off avoiding these underpricers like the plague. They typically price their services 2 or 3 times cheaper than professionals and provide 4 or 5 times less service than the professionals. Many of these underpricers offer huge lists of services including things like banner printing or sign production that you wouldn’t expect a single designer to offer. Several of these underpricers are actually outsourcing the work to people in countries like India and acting as pimps in a manner of speaking. Beware of these underpricers just like you would anything else that was as much as 90% off standard price.

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Pricing: Why Does It Vary So Much?

Pricing is something that varies to a very high degree in the graphic design profession. In this service-based business, the phrase “You get what you pay for.” couldn’t apply more.

Cheap providers commonly offer low quality work. Those using a cheap fixed price structure spend very little time doing your project and those using cheap hourly rates are often amateurs with little skill or experience. If your business is important to you, you don’t want your business’ life depending on someone who charges one-tenth the price of what the professionals charge.

See the next tip for more information…

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Who To Choose?

You’ve just read through the different options, now who are you going to choose?

If you decide a single designer would work, you’re going to have three important questions to ask yourself about who you choose:

  • Does the designer provide the services I need?
  • Does the designer demonstrate he knows what he’s doing?
  • Does the designer operate in a business-like manner and use contracts?

If you can say yes to all three of these questions, you may have found yourself a great designer. Read on for tips to finding these great designers. The rest of this article will only concern single designers for the most part as they are the greatest resource.

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Types of Graphic Designers

There are three main providers of design. Single designers, small boutiques, and large agencies. They all have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Single Designers

There are two main categories of single designers: general designers and specialists. The line between the two is normally fairly thick, and should be evident with a little inspection. These terms are not something you should do an internet search for; searching for a general designer or specialist designer isn’t going to give you the results you want. Many designers will not outright classify what they are.

If you own a small or medium size business, or work for a smaller to mid-size business, you’re probably going to want to use the services of a single designer instead of the more expensive alternatives.

General Designers

Many graphic designers like to think of themselves as one-stop-shops for their clients and offer the design of many different items. They like to handle all of their clients’ design needs if at all possible.

Tip: A general designer can be a really good choice for you, particularly if the designer knows a thing of two about branding and marketing. General designers with backgrounds in advertising or marketing offer additional insight that designers who only learned design cannot provide. Specifically, they tend to produce designs that are more than just pretty. If you have a goal you want a designed item to help reach, you need a designer who understands the way consumers think and react, and that is best fulfilled by a designer with a background in advertising or marketing. Also, be careful to not mistake a broad list of services as a lack of focus with these individuals. The reason these designers like to tackle many different jobs is because they are focused on the bigger picture: your branding and marketing.

Designers with more than one specialty can save you money. If you need a brochure and website designed, you will be better off using one designer who can accomplish both tasks rather than one designer for the brochure and another designer for the website. Why? Two reasons. One, you will only have to teach one person about your business and/or brand. Two, part of successful branding and marketing is having an integrated look and feel to your entire brand. A single designer working on your brand’s look and feel is likely to do a much better job of communicating the same message over and over again in different forms of media than a second person trying to be a copycat.

Something negative about many general designers is that they can try to be everything to everyone. A hungry general designer may not turn down a job to do something they are not familiar with. Make sure that your designer is specialized enough that you are not asking him to do something he does not normally do. Check the services they list on their website and make sure what you are requesting isn’t too far from what they say they do.

Be wary of designers who offer many different services without demonstrating a mastery of them all. Despite the classification, the best general designers are specialized in some manner. They specialize in a limited number of jobs that they enjoy and do well, and these jobs will be represented in their portfolios and services. Single designers with massively unrelated services should be avoided unless you only have them do what they obviously specialize in.

Tip: Many designers who used to focus primarily on print have had to change the way they do business. Print has been a dying industry ever since the internet came about. Many print designers now offer web design. Don’t be afraid of them, but do take note: many of these designers cannot make a website work as a website without outsourcing work to a programmer. Make sure to find out if the designer is able to make his design into a finished website, uses a programmer he knows, or if you need to locate a programmer yourself. Programmers typically charge more than designers, so you need to consider that in your budget.


There are many single designers who like to specialize in only a certain area of design; perhaps they only do web design, logo design, or even print design. Sometimes they try to be a little more full-service than general designers and actually get your items printed or host your website, but not always.

For certain jobs, it can be best to hire a specialist. The type of jobs that are best for specialists are the ones that are really complicated, uncommon, or require a mastery of a certain skill. If you need an outstanding Flash animation for your website, don’t ask your print designer who just dabbles in Flash to do it, find a specialist. Asking a print designer to do this can be as inappropriate as asking a dentist to handle a nose-job.

Tip: Here is a list of just a few jobs that are best completed by a specialist: Flash animation, Flash websites, databases (things you can log into with a password or send data to) on websites, online stores on websites, vehicle wrap design (where the entire vehicle is covered), 3D animation, 3D modeling, extreme photo retouching, animation in general, graphics for display on television, and graphic user interface design (such as the way a program looks on an iphone or computer). This isn’t a complete listing of all jobs, but will give you an idea of the types of tasks that are a bit less common in the design world, and unlikely to be fulfilled by a general designer of print or web.

What is the easiest way to identify whether a designer is a general designer or a specialist?

Easy. A specialist will have a very narrow list of services.

Specialists can be extremely important, especially in assisting a general designer. These are the specialists who do things that general designers can’t do. For example, there are specialists who only set up online stores. Would you want them to design your site? Probably not, unless you’re wanting an Amazon or Ebay look to it. Would you want them to set up and provide the programming service for your website that has an online store on it? Sure! However, keep in mind that your general designer can provide the look of the store while the specialist does the work the general designer doesn’t know how to do. Teamwork between a general designer and a specialist can work out best for everyone involved.

Small Boutiques

Small boutiques are small businesses that may be composed of only two or three people. Some are much larger with perhaps 20 people. They can be composed of general designers, specialists, and people who provide services other than design, such as copywriters.

What’s important to know about these small design firms is that they typically offer a faster turnaround on projects than single designers can provide. In exchange for that quicker turnaround, you pay higher fees that are split up amongst the employees working on your project.

If you need a small boutique to do your design work, you would likely know it already. Clients of small boutiques typically have several design jobs a week that require more than one specialist within the boutique. Complicated web design jobs, TV commercials, and magazine design and layout are common small boutique jobs because they really require more than just one person.

Small boutiques are like a substitute for an in-house art department when you have a lot of design needs consistently throughout the year.

Something very positive about small boutiques is that they are normally well-established businesses with actual reputations. Single designers who have an established presence are out there, but they can be hard to find.

The downside to small boutiques is of course their higher fees to compensate multiple employees, but also that your input may be going through another person and not communicated correctly. When you work with a small boutique, you may not necessarily be speaking or writing to who is working on your project. In some cases, what you are saying may be getting relayed to an outsourced designer living in a different country.

Large Agencies

Large design or advertising agencies have dozens or even hundreds of people working on dozens of accounts for the very large businesses with names we ALL recognize. If you own a small business, or even a medium-sized business, a large agency is likely out of the question for your needs and financial ability. Bills of thousands of dollars a day are not uncommon.

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Letting The Designer Know How Involved You Want To Be

It’s helpful to tell the designer how involved with the project you want to be. Clients are all different. Designers are all different. Some clients want to have a lot of input into every step of the design, while others want to just trust the designer’s judgment and have them finish the project using what they determine is best. You, as the client, need to tell the designer how involved you want to be.

Find out how the designer works best (with or without micromanaging) and figure out how much input you want to have in the design. Do you want to direct the design, or do you want to stand back and let the designer figure out what to do? A mix? Figure it out and let the designer know.

If you pretty much know what you want and need, you need a designer who isn’t going to get in the way and butt heads with you. If you don’t know what you want, you need a designer who can take the bull by the horns and do the job without a lot of input. Sometimes a designer is a mix of both, but designers tend to lean one way or the other and have a preference.

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Discovering What You Need

The first step to selecting a graphic designer is discovering your needs. What do you need created? What will you possibly need created in the future? Depending on your needs, you may only need one multi-specialized general designer or you may need several specialized designers. If your project is massive, you may even need a small boutique or large agency to handle your project.

Concerning what you need designed, if you don’t know exactly what you need, ask the designer you choose to work with what he recommends.

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Understanding How A Graphic Designer Works

Working with a graphic designer is nothing like hiring someone to mow your lawn, build you a fence, or fix your leaky faucet. Working with a graphic designer requires direction, content, and input from you, the client. Directions are usually in the form of telling the designer what you need designed, such as an 8.5×11 tri-fold brochure. Content you need to supply may be text, images, logos, etc. And input is the act of approving the design process at every step the designer requires.

Unlike a landscaper, fence builder, or plumber, you cannot simply tell a designer “I need a brochure designed, how much do you charge?” and be done with the process. You have to be detailed – you have to say exactly what type of brochure, tell the designer what content you’ll be supplying, and let the designer calculate how much work may be involved in the project before he can come up with a price. Once you put money down, you will need to be a part of the approval process to get to the final result you want.

For more tips on the process of working with a graphic designer, read my other guide “How To Work With A Graphic Designer.”