Heavily Involved or Completely Absent: Who Would You Rather Design For?


One thing you learn fairly quickly as a freelance designer is that no two clients are alike. You have to learn to deal with different personalities and expectations. It’s almost as if you’ve been bestowed with the hidden title of “therapist” to go along with everything else you do.

Perhaps the most difficult and frustrating aspects are managing different levels of client involvement in the design process. Sure, you can carefully explain the process and what’s expected of them until you’re blue in the face. In the end, they’re still going to do it their way.

Some will dictate every last detail and others will provide virtually no guidance at all. Both methods can drive you mad – but you’re still expected to handle it like a pro.

Since it’s a given that people aren’t going to change their personalities just for you, it brings up a question: Who would you rather design for? Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of both styles. I’ll pick my own winner at the end – but your results may vary.

Freedom Is a Relative Term

You may be sitting there and thinking that it’s way better to have a client who gives you complete artistic freedom. They cut you a check and say “Do whatever you think is best.”

“It’s going to be a simple project”, you tell yourself. Imagine having complete control over the design process. That’s every designer’s dream: A playground to experiment on someone else’s dime. Why, it almost sounds just too good to be true.

Quite often it turns out that these can be some of the most difficult projects to get out the door. What tends to happen is that a client really may not know what they want and can’t make up their mind. Or they may have not had the authority to give you a full grip on every aspect of the design in the first place. It’s either a bad decision was made or there’s a lack of any decision-making at all. That can drag the process on to uncomfortable (and unprofitable) lengths.

On the flip side, a client who is heavily involved may want choke the life out of your creative expression. But at least you may have a better idea of their wants, needs and expectations. You may not get the same creative rush, but having a set of parameters to work within should give you a better sense of what needs to be done. If you’re able to provide them with what they’re after, you have a better chance of avoiding a “black hole” of endless revisions.

As they say, freedom isn’t free. The cost of having a brief stint of complete control might be that you’re imprisoned by a client’s inability to make up their mind.

My Winner: The Heavily Involved Client

Undesirable Demands

Undesirable Demands

While knowing a client’s expectations is a good thing, the expectations themselves may not be so great. There are a number of things that can cause a designer major stress and generally muck up the entire process of getting things done.

Tight Deadlines
Have you ever dealt with someone who was so sure of what they wanted that they thought their project should be a piece of cake? They figure that, since they know what they want, you should able to complete everything in a short amount of time. Even if they’re right about the ease of the project (they seldom are), they probably couldn’t care less that you have other responsibilities beyond this one thing.

Delusions of Grandeur
Sometimes, a client may get into the mindset of thinking that they are in fact the design expert. That can lead to some less-than-beautiful ideas that you’re expected to implement. It becomes very frustrating in that your input isn’t being acknowledged (they are, after all, paying you for a reason). But even worse is the feeling that the project may not live up to its true potential.

No Wiggle Room
Issues can arise when someone has such a narrow vision for what they want that any creative license you take is immediately rejected. While it could be that your client simply didn’t like the work you produced, it may also be that they aren’t able to fully articulate what they’re looking for. There are times when you can do exactly what was asked of you (or at least how you understood it) and it’s still not enough.

When a client steers clear of these areas, you get to call the shots. Your true vision for the project can come to fruition because, well, there’s no one there telling you not to do it. It doesn’t mean that things will turn out perfectly or that it’s going to be accepted as-is. But at least you’ve had the opportunity to show what you can do. The hope is that, by showing them your best ideas, they’ll be open to at least some of them.

My Winner: The Completely Absent Client

The Art of Getting Paid

The Art of Getting Paid

Here’s a tough one. Out of our two clients, who is going to be more likely to pay well and on-time? It’s hard to stereotype here because no two people are exactly the same.

More times than not, you figure the more organized of the two clients would be the responsible one. From there, you’d surmise that the client who is more involved would be the one to be who pays bills on time.

There is also a chance, however, that the absentee client will just be blown away by your work and gladly pay promptly for your efforts. Maybe they realize that you know their company better than they do.

In my own experience, I’ve seen it work both ways. It just goes to show that there is some unpredictability here. Sometimes, the absentee client will be that way simply because they understand that there are things they don’t know and want a hired expert to take care of the details. They stay out of the way and let you do your thing.

Still, the involved client is more likely to be on top of these things. The logic goes that, if they’re thinking about the project, they’re keeping their own responsibilities in mind as well.

My Winner: The Heavily Involved Client

It Takes All Kinds

It Takes All Kinds

Work as a freelancer long enough and you’ll run into those who are wonderful, horrible and everything in between. But the kind of personalities and levels of personal involvement you prefer are largely a reflection of your own personal style. Some may really love the client who just lets you work while others want constant guidance.

For me, I tend to prefer The Heavily Involved Client. I just feel that I can do a better job when the person(s) I’m working for provide me with the right details. Otherwise, I feel like I’m driving in the dark without headlights.

Even so, I have had some truly wonderful experiences the other way. As a creative person, it’s nice to have some space to use your talents. And ideally you may want to work for someone who can provide you with some detail as to what they want, but with the sense to step aside and let you show off your skills. Maybe that’s our Holy Grail.

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