5 Ground Rules For Designers And Clients


5 Ground Rules For Designers And Clients

Many designers and their clients have horror stories of working with each other.

Clients stubbornly insisting on a design that looks like something from the homepage of America Online in 1999. Designers disdainfully and dismissively rejecting client ideas. Meetings with more tension than U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1970s.

For a designer and client to have a productive relationship, certain “ground rules” must be established. These ground rules ensure that the client gets what they want without driving the designer crazy.

These ground rules also allow an effective creative brief to be created. If the brief is not on target, everything else will be off.

As Paul Rand said:

“Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.”

To help you navigate the complexities of the design process and keep you from getting lost or confused, here are five designer/client ground rules to establish.

Generating Great Ideas

It’s absolutely crucial to be sensitive to each other during the initial brainstorming sessions. Presenting embryonic ideas requires sticking your neck out, and if those ideas are quickly dismissed, you run the danger of killing the creative spirit in your team. People will be hesitant to suggest new ideas if they think their ideas will be immediately obliterated.

At the heart of brainstorming is allowing bad, semi-formed ideas to open the door for truly good ideas. Most of the time, fantastic ideas don’t show up at the beginning of a brainstorming session.

Good ideas only come after you’ve waded through a significant number of bad ideas. But if you constantly shoot down the bad ideas, you’ll never get to the good ideas.

As Saul Bass said:

“Interesting things happen when the creative impulse is cultivated with curiosity, freedom and intensity.”

Don’t unnecessarily stifle the creative impulse during the idea generation stage.

During the brainstorming phase, use words like “what if” or “I’m thinking out loud.” For example, saying something like, “What if we tried this color for the logo?” allows you to discuss a new color without implying it is the final solution.

When Preferences Aren’t Relevant

When clients say things like, “I just don’t like it” or, “I don’t know why but this is not working,” you need to remember that your preferences aren’t really relevant.

Whether or not you prefer a particular color or layout or design doesn’t matter.


Because design is not about your own preferences or desires or aesthetic ideals. Design is not about creating art in a vacuum. Rather, design is about meeting the needs of a specific group of a people.

As a designer or client, you’re usually not the user. Design is about creating something that truly meets the needs of the user, not that satisfies a deep artistic itch.

Set Expectations and Roles

If expectations and roles are not clearly specified, frustrations and misunderstandings are bound to to bubble up. As much as possible, roles and expectations must be clearly demarcated and assigned.

Seek to answer these types of questions:

  • Who does what, when, and why?
  • What is the most efficient division of the work?
  • When will particular versions of a design be delivered, and who will approve those designs?

Every client and every designer has a different understanding of what is expected from them during a project. If something doesn’t meet expectations, speak up. Voice your concerns and hesitations.

Most misunderstandings can be sorted out by talking and being honest. Don’t let misunderstandings fester until they eventually blow up.

Be Responsive

Responding in a timely manner is absolutely essential for progress. Remember, both time and money are at stake.

If a designer or developer asks for feedback, respond as quickly as possible in order to maximize your investment.

When a designer or developer doesn’t get feedback, they really only have two options:

  1. Wait for your reply. Nothing happens until you actually reply. Time is wasted and the project stalls. 
  2. Continue working on assumptions that might lead the project down the wrong path. Either way, precious time and resources are wasted, especially if a significant amount of work is done that needs to be scrapped.

Remember, the developer or designer is probably learning on the fly. They don’t know much about your service and your target audience. Their expertise is in designing and coding, which means they’ll rely heavily on you, even for things you may think are obvious.

Always Embrace a Client’s Vision

Don’t be stubborn with your ideas if they’re not crucial to the design.

When wrestling with an idea, ask yourself, “Am I defending good usability, or am I just fighting over my own preference?”

Try to get to the heart of what the client is really asking for. When a client says, “The logo needs to be bigger,” logo size might not really be the heart of the issue.

The client might actually be nervous that their name and brand aren’t really going to make a deep, lasting impression on the user. The client may think that a bigger logo is more impactful, when in reality, a smaller logo with effective whitespace will do the trick.

Being an effective designer involves helping worried clients understand why the obvious is not always the best.

Good designers put worry to rest by patiently explaining to clients the principles and psychology behind good design.


Believe it or not, designers and clients can actually work well together! The best campaigns happen when these ground rules are established.  

By sticking to these five simple ground rules, great creative progress can be made, good feelings can be preserved, and everyone can be satisfied.