Ask A Freelancer #1: How to Establish Boundaries with a Design-Minded Client

From time to time I get emails asking for advice about freelance matters. It occurred to me today that by publishing these inquiries and my response I could do a better service to my blog readers than just responding one email at a time. Plus, those of you who may have input on the matter that I didn’t think of can chime in with a comment!

I’d like to make this a regular part of the blog — so if there’s a question you have or a subject you’d like to get an opinion on, please contact me!


Hey Liz,

Wondering if I could get your advice or opinion on something?
There are a couple projects I am working on where the client has felt the need to provide VERY specific sketches/colours… Now I’m all for client feedback, but I basically feel like the client is requesting a very specific design — after I provided a ton of variations (first mistake).

How do you avoid them having THAT much input? There’s no grid, the colours don’t match, everything is in boxes… I’m so non-confrontational and struggle to be really honest with clients sometimes. I figure, you HIRED me to do this, why would you think to do it yourself? Why not buy Photoshop and you’re good to go?

Any advice for a fellow freelancer? Am I just supposed to suck it up, do it as they want, then pretend I had nothing to do with it? The client is really nice and the logo development went so smooth! How did the website slip out from underneath me??? Sigh. Any words of wisdom?
– Not A Pixel Pusher


Hello NAPP,
I’m not sure if I will have a cure all solution for you, but there are steps you can take to avoid finding yourself in this position again and possibly how to flip this current client into being the passenger and not the driver!

Be an Expert, Always

You said it, NAPP — the HIRED YOU. So why are they now treating you more like a computer operator instead of a designer? This seems especially curious since you say that the process of branding with them went so smoothly. I have a feeling that perhaps you are not presenting yourself with the amount of confidence in your web design abilities as you may have with your print design abilities, is this a possibility?

Clients are hiring you because they need an expert and if they get the feeling that you aren’t doing the driving they may feel the need to grab the design wheel!

Research more, design less

You mention showing the client a “ton of variations” which, in my experience, I have seen this can do a couple of things to a client.

1. The client see’s a large group of ideas and is overwhelmed, feels like you are unsure on the direction things should be going and that it is their job to make the call.

2. The client see’s a large group of ideas and then see’s the process as less of a problem solving venture. They become focused more on the button having sharp corners or rounded corners and loose track of the process being about communicating with their customers in the most effective way.

The best way to combat this is to spend more time in the research phase before moving in to the design phase. Talk with your client about their customers, their needs, their goals. Examine their industry and give them guidance on what they should include and what they shouldn’t concern themselves with. Clients WANT your guidance, they want hand holding, they want you to tell them what’s the smartest thing to do (where design is concerned.) This isn’t about a confrontation – it’s just about making your client feel like they’re in good hands. Remember, they HIRED YOU because they need someone who knows web design, so don’t be afraid to show them how much you know!

Design Smart

After spending more time in with your research process, the design process can go a lot smoother and less things are left up to whim or fancy. If you have a valid reason for all your design decisions that can be articulated, this shows your client that you really are doing a job for them!

Choose your Words

Some of the most valuable lessons I learned about interacting with clients, I gained while working in sales. So much has to do with the language we use, the way we talk to our clients and about the project at hand. Unfortunately, this isn’t and exact science, it’s something you just have to get the hang of. Listen to what your client is saying and think about what they are really trying to accomplish.

It’s all about talking from a problem solving mind set and phrasing things so that they are plans of attack! You’re not looking to your client for the solution, you know the solution and you are excited to let your client know that you have things in control.

Client: “Let’s get rid of that contact link and make the background red, the blue is too corporate.”

You: “It’s a must that your customer has quick access though out the site to your contact information, you don’t want to miss an opportunity for a sale… And a I do have an idea for giving the site a little more warmth, this falls in line with our initial meeting where you said that your company is approachable!”

Get Your Client to Say “Yes”

Some of what I have here related really well to this presentation by Paul Boag (of BoagWorld fame!) I watched this a long time ago and after writing this post ended up looking it up again, I totally learned a lesson or two from listening to Paul, I’m sure you will too!

What I Would Do…

So this advice may be better suited for your future client interactions, but what about your problem with the here and now? Well, this is what I would do if I were in your shoes.

1. Take the mess of a design that the client gave you and find the redeeming qualities in it. There has got to be something: one color, the placement of a link, anything that can be salvaged

2. Incorporate that element into a refined and fully thought out design

3. Present this to the client, pointing out what you did and why your did it and how it is going to benefit them! Be excited and highlight the GREAT idea they had about making the search box on the right hand side!

4. Remember the lessons covered here and in Boag’s talk and choose your words accordingly. :)

What’s your advice?

Am I missing something? Do you have experience with a similar situation and would like to share how you handled things? Leave a comment and tell us about it!

Click. Work. Collect


  1. I could be that client, I almost always know what I want before I hire a person. I found a designer who put me in my place, she mocked up what I wanted very roughly, then she did her take. Side by Side hers was better, from that point on she has full control. I will give direction on what is needed and what feeling I would like to achieve, and she runs with it. I know it might be a lot more work for you but it’s how she handled me.

  2. I had a meeting yesterday where a client wanted to change an image in the header that would of off balanced the design and not even suit it at all. I was very stubborn and fixed that changing it was not going to happen. End of the meeting my header remained the same.

    Definitely confidence and a good vocabulary is key.

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