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How to Tell a Client No

How to Tell a Client No

As a designer you must posses this skill, and yes, it is a skill. It can be one of the hardest things to do if you are not a very assertive person. Yet it is a vital part of becoming a successful design who does great work.

Everyone deep down, wants to be a designer. Not that they want to have the job per se but that they enjoy creating things. Especially, if they have a boring desk job. As designers it is hard to understand sometimes how and why clients come up with these bizarre requests, “Can you make the logo spin and fly in from the top” but we have to deal with them.

It turns out that most of your clients are in fact, people like us, who enjoy experimenting, having fun, and who have ups and downs in their day jobs. They tend to enjoy the time they spend working with their designer on new projects because they get to be creative for a change.

We are rockstars after all. With the cool jobs, the casual attire, and who get to “play” all day on the computer.

So it isn’t surprising that clients want to feel a little bit of what we feel. They want to have input and make changes. The problem being they simply don’t know and don’t understand enough to make design decisions. Which means we have to tell them, the people who write our paychecks, that their idea is a bad one.

There are two extreme stances you can take. The first being:

The Asshole, The Fun Killer, The Dream Shatterer

If you take this position you care about design over everything else. You are willing to lose clients because you refuse to compromise on anything less than great design. Clients will not enjoy working with you as much but they come back because you produce great work.

That is the hardest part. You will have to lose some, maybe a lot of clients to get to this point. You will also have to hold yourself up to the highest utmost, standards, if you are going to do so with your clients. And of course your work has to be exceptional.

You may even doubt yourself and say you cannot consistently produce work at the highest level. But if you are truly uncompromising, and refuse to use bad logos, poor design elements, and cave to dumb client requests, than you will find the quality of your work will improve dramatically.

The second stance, I like to refer to as:

The Hostage Negotiator

The design is the hostage held up by a terrorist (the client) and your job is to rescue them any way possible. With any hostage negotiation there will be compromises. You the designer will have to spend a good deal of time compromising on your design to make the client happy.

The quality of work is lower but you do your best to save the design. In the end this stance often backfires on you because the final result is a poor design. Not because of your lack of talent or effort but because you allowed in some bad elements and took in some bad client feedback. You will be the person the client blames for it, even when their contribution is what ruined the design in the first place.

Ultimately, your willingness to negotiate can lose you clients in the same way being too inflexible can. So if it comes down to a choice, and if you really care about design, there is only one answer.

How Not to Get Yourself Fired

And finally I get around to the point of this post, how to tell your client no. It is easy to say no, but how to do it in a way that protects the integrity of the design and still keeps the client happy, is the hard part.

Be candid about your intentions to produce an exceptional design and explain to the client that you will listen to their input, but ultimately you will do what is necessary to make the best design possible. You are the expert and need to be the one making design decisions. Setting these ground rules before the project even starts will let the client know their role and why it is necessary to produce good design.

It also helps to go over what information you need from the client when it comes time to approve the final design. Explain that you are not looking for specific design feedback. You want to know if the piece has a strong message, fits in with the branding, appeals to the target market and meets the other specifications laid out in the design proposal. The client came to you with a problem. They simply need to let you know if this design is the solution. If the client does feel something is not going to work, let them know that you will be the one who makes the adjustments in a way that maintains the integrity of the design.

Before starting a relationship, show the potential client your work and show that you are the expert. Sell yourself. They are paying you after all to make design decisions. So tell them flat out that you may make judgement calls that they might not agree with but it is for their own best interest.


When you do have to shoot down an idea make sure you have plenty of ammunition. Give a concrete explanation why the client’s idea isn’t going to work. Make sure it is based on design principals and explain how these changes would effect the timeline and budget. It helps to write your reasons down before you pick up the phone or go into a meeting. Know exactly how you are going to say no before you do it.

Wether you cave to your clients wishes or refuse, you will have a tough decision either way. But the better you prepare yourself, and the more the client can see you as an expert the less you will have to deal with these types of problems.

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Couchable is a web design blog created by Tyler Herman. Not really updated anymore because I'm busy doing freelance design work and busy launching my little WordPress theme shop Real Theme Co. You can read a little more about my at my personal site