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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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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.”