Design is a Service – Doing Business with Designers

Graphic Design Services

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Someone recently asked me, “Why are designers such push overs?” This led to a discussion that attempted to answer that but in the end, left me pondering the very same question.

The service industry.

Many different types of businesses can actually be lumped into the service industry. Any business that runs on providing a specific service to a customer or client can be included. A hair salon is a service business. An auto mechanic is a service business. A fast food restaurant is a service business. A design studio is a service business.

Each type of service business can then be divided into different categories. For instance, creative/marketing, food, technical, industrial, health/fitness, entertainment, etc. They can also be defined by whether the service offers a tangible, intangible or experiential “product”.

All of these things factor into customer/client perception of a business. However, the more I think about it, the more I come to realize that somewhere along the line, people have gotten the wrong idea about design.

Are there misconceptions?

Most people would not take their car into a mechanic for new brakes, then once the mechanic starts on the job, tell them, “Can you also work on the transmission and put in a new battery? But I don’t want to pay for all that, I just want to still pay the $300 that you quoted me for the brake job.” The reason I believe most people would not do this is that it is well established how an auto mechanic works and that they expected to be paid for all parts and labor that they do.

I could discuss a similar scenario for almost any service industry. You don’t go into a restaurant, order one thing on the menu, then order two additional entrees and tell the waiter and chef that you’re only going to pay for the first thing you ordered. Yet a client that hires a designer to create a website can often ask for additional work to be done than what is being paid for. This is what all of us designers call, “scope creep” – where the original scope of what you have been hired to do (create a website with certain functionality, for example) changes and a client asks you to do additional work that you did not originally agree on.

The importance of education.

Building websites has not been around as long as building cars, but I think there is still a percentage of people hiring designers that truly believe what we do is not really work that takes skill. This is a sad situation where not only does the client tend to not respect that you have talent and expertise (and that is why they are hiring you) they sometimes think that all you do is press some buttons on a program, or worse yet, that they could easily “do it themselves” but they just don’t have the time.

Personally, I believe that designers do have a responsibility to clients to explain what they do, to involve the client in the process and educate them along the way that it does indeed take skill and expertise.

“The Customer is King!” 

This old phrase has been used in the retail and service industry for years, especially for businesses to drive it home to their employees that the customer is always right and you should do whatever it takes to please them. In an industry such as design, a client is paying to produce something to their liking, so it would make sense then that you should give them exactly what they want, no? Well, yes and no. If a client paid an interior designer to redo their kitchen, they would rely on the experience of the designer to help them choose appropriate wall color, flooring, tile, light fixtures, etc. There are a few clients who would put all of their trust in the designer after the designer got to know them a little bit and just let them handle the whole job. But the majority of people are going to want a say in what the finished kitchen will look like.

Some are not going to like what I’m about to say next, but a whole lot of graphic and web designers have an attitude that prevents actually working with a client. They expect to be hired because they are experts and professionals, but in reality they reject client input.

A lack of understanding and the reputation of designer-as-fickle-artist could most definitely be one reason why some clients have trouble working with designers in the first place. This can also reinforce a negative view that when you hire a designer, expect to be told what to do – expect not to be “the king”.

Designer as door mat. 

The opposite of the designer-with-attitude is of course the one that does allow clients to walk all over them. This one I feel is more responsible for the phenomenon of clients asking for more work than what they’re actually paying for. Especially when you’re a new freelancer or even a new design firm, you’re going to want to go out of your way to make your clients happy. In so doing, you often completely lose sight of what they originally asked for. A client might want a simple, informational website, then get the great idea to add another feature, like a blog. You may already be creating their site in such a way that a blog would be something easy to add, so you say, “Sure, no problem!” Then they get another great idea, and another one. By the end, you’ve created an interactive, content managed, ecommerce enabled site and the client, while completely happy with your work is going to walk away thinking that is exactly how design works – pay a set amount and get whatever you want.

A balancing act. 

Between clients not understanding exactly what we do and a tendency for designers to either be too condescending or too much of a push over, what is really going to make for a great experience on both sides is balance.

A designer should have confidence in what they are doing without having an attitude. They should be experienced enough to handle each project and have the creativity and skills to accomplish it. Part of the job of the designer is to educate a client on the process, to listen closely to their needs, and to make professional recommendations and suggestions in such a way that the client does not feel like they do not have any input or are being told they don’t know what they’re doing. Finally, a designer should develop the skill of spotting requests outside of the scope of a project and handling them in such a way as to not sell themselves short, but not let the client add on a bunch of additional work without paying for it.

Though this balancing act, I believe that designers have the ability to change client perception of the industry, to gain respect, and to do their best work possible.

Go forth and share ....
Sherry Holub


Sherry Holub

I'm a creative problem-solver driven by the desire to see small businesses improve their image and succeed. I've got over 20 years experience and have worked with clients as large as Nike and as small as a local sole-proprietor. I've been an advocate for education, a member of prestigious design organizations, won awards, and been invited to judge design competitions. Over the years, I have also written blogs and articles for a number of online sites and print publications. I have a heavy background in art, photography, graphic design and thinking outside the box. When not working, you'll find me getting outdoors, practicing Qi Gong, snowboarding, camping, collecting rocks, and driving around in a sweet 1970 Camaro.

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